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Pli selon pli

Pli selon pli (Fold by fold) is a piece of classical music by the French composer Pierre Boulez. It is for solo soprano and orchestra, and is based on the poems of Stéphane Mallarmé. At over an hour, it is Boulez' longest work.

The piece is in five movements, each based on a poem by Mallarmé:

  1. "Don" - based on "Don du poéme"
  2. "Improvisation I on Mallarmé" - based on the sonnet "Le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd'hui"
  3. "Improvisation II on Mallarmé" - based on the sonnet "Une dentelle s'abolit"
  4. "Improvisation III on Mallarmé" - based on the sonnet "A la nue accablante tu"
  5. "Tombeau" - based on the poem of the same name

Table of contents

Conception and composition

The piece was begun in 1957 with the composition of the first two "Improvisations on Mallarmé". In 1959 a third "Improvisation" was written together with "Tombeau". In 1960, what is now the opening movement of the piece, "Don", was completed in a version for soprano and piano. In 1962, this movement was rescored for soprano and orchestra, and "Improvisation I" was also rescored, completing the work in its initial form.

As with many of his other pieces, Boulez later returned to the work and revised it. In 1982 "Don" was rewritten and in 1989 "Improvisation III" was revised. In both cases, Boulez removed some flexibility which had previously been allowed in the order that sections of these movements could be played in.

The music

Each of the five movements is based on a Mallarmé poem, moving from the early "Don du poéme" of 1865 in the first movement to the late "Tombeau" of 1897 in the last. Boulez does use Mallarmé's poems in full, instead taking occasional lines from them (the first movement, for instance, uses just the first line of Mallarmé's poem, and the last movement just the last line). The soprano does not sing very often, and is treated more like another instrument than a soloist.

It has been pointed out that the fact that the piece moves from an early text to a late one means the work constitutes a sort of biography of Mallarmé, something emphasised by the fact that the last word of the piece (and the only clearly intelligable word of the last movement) is "mort" (death).

The musical language of Pli selon pli is atonal, and there are usually just a few instruments playing at once with little doubling of parts (different instruments playing the same notes). This is typical of Boulez' style, and appears to demonstrate the acknowledged influence that Anton Webern has had on his work.

The piece has a relatively simple large-scale dynamic shape: the outer movements are written for large ensembles, the second and fourth movements for smaller groups, and the third movement is for a group of just ten instrumentalists and the soprano, meaning the overall tendency is that the piece starts and ends loudly, becoming quieter in the middle. This tendency is emphasised by the opening of the first movement - a loud sound which immediately becomes quiet; and the closing of the last - a rapid crescendo.

Recordings

The piece has been recorded three times: in 1969 with Halina Lukomska[?] singing the solo part and the BBC Symphony Orchestra accompanying; in 1981 with the same orchestra but Phyllis Bryn-Julson[?] taking the solo part; and in 2000 with Christine Schafer[?] accompanied by the Ensemble InterContemporain[?]. On each occasion, Boulez himself conducted.

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