Pierre Boulez

léonie sonning music prize 1985

The French composer and conductor Pierre Boulez received the Léonie Sonning Music Prize of 100,000 Danish kroner at a concert on 31 May 1985 at the Odd Fellow Palace in Copenhagen. The concert was broadcast live on the Danish Broadcast Corporation’s P2 radio channel, and the first part was broadcast live on television. The concert was attended by Queen Margrethe II and Prince Henrik.

The prize speech was made by Professor Poul Birkelund, the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation’s chairman, and included the following comments:

‘As a world-famous musician, composer and conductor, you stand as the foremost exponent of France’s contemporary music culture, with deep roots in the French spirit and intellect. In France, the act of composing and performing have always been governed by spiritual idealism and personal intellect. Your music is wrought from an immersion in detail and empathy with the traditions of France’s intellectual life. At the same time, your performances and interpretation of a wide stylistic repertoire have been received worldwide with deep gratitude and utmost admiration.’



The Léonie Sonning Music Prize is awarded to the composer Pierre Boulez in recognition of his efforts to innovate in music, resulting in works that have had a landmark impact on the development of music since the middle of the century and which, by dint of their distinctiveness and impressiveness, have found a lasting place in musical literature.’

In his speech of thanks, Boulez included the following comments:

‘A composer’s biggest wish is to meet with recognition, and even more if people like his music. There is nothing more discouraging than the feeling of having failed to speak to an audience. Therefore it is much more than an honour to receive the Sonning Music Prize tonight. It is a declaration of confidence in what I have achieved as a composer, and in a broader sense, as a human being who has worked hard to get contemporary music recognized as an indispensible part of our musical life. The best way I can thank you is to programme some of my works side-by-side with works by composers who have helped me find my own abilities and my own expression.’

You can listen to the speech here:

The programme

Igor Stravinsky Symphony for wind instruments
Alban Berg Five orchestral songs on postcard texts of Peter Altenberg:
Pierre Boulez Notations
Le Soleil des Eaux


Phyllis Bryn-Julson, soprano

Royal Danish Orchestra

Royal Danish Opera Chorus

Pierre Boulez, conductor

Pierre Boulez and Denmark

In 1960, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra played a piece by Boulez for the first time, Le Soleil des eaux, and in 1964 Boulez himself came to Copenhagen to conduct two concerts with the Danish National Symphony Orchestra. In fact, he had already been to Copenhagen in 1959, when he visited to meet Igor Stravinsky on the occasion of Stravinsky’s receipt of the Sonning Prize that year.

As a pre-cursor to the prize concert, the Danish Broadcasting Corporation’s P2 radio channel broadcast a series of eight radio programmes on the subject of Boulez, and in March, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra performed his work Livres, conducted by Frank Shipway. Boulez’s visit began with a reception and press conference at Copenhagen City Hall on 20 May, where a new book, Pierre Boulez: Composer, Conductor, Utopian by Ivar Frounberg, Hansgeorg Lenz and Jesper Tang was launched, having been supported by the Léonie Sonning Music Foundation. That same evening, the Danish National Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Peter Eötvös, played Boulez’s Rituel in memoriam Maderna as well as Bruno Maderna’s Aura and Messiaen’s Poèmes pour Mi.

The Royal Danish Orchestra set aside almost two weeks to rehearse for the prize concert. During his time in Copenhagen, Boulez also held a seminar with composition students at the Royal Danish Academy of Music while assorted works by him were performed at various concerts during his stay. Pianist Per Salo played Boulez’s Piano Sonata on 24 May and Ensemble Intercontemporain played Boulez’s Domaines. Boulez was also interviewed for a television portrait show that aired the same evening as the prize concert.

The daily press wrote, among other things:

If it had been anticipated for several weeks, across television and radio and the press, it finally happened on Friday night in an Odd Fellow Palace adorned with flowers: the great French composer and master conductor Pierre Boulez gave his well-prepared concert with the Royal Danish Orchestra. It felt like a moment of release after a spring had been coiled tightly, and in which the Sonning Music Prize concert it sprang open. In many ways, it was a historical musical event. The Royal Danish Orchestra showed what it can do and how it can play when visited by a magician who is given the gift of time – a full 14 days! In other words, it turned out an immense and immeasurable evening.

(Børge Friis, Frederiksborg Amts Avis 2 June 1985)

Mind-expanding and boundary pushing at full consciousness – we were plunged straight into that from the start but it was a landmark nonetheless. It was an encounter with a master clairvoyant, as strict and shiny as marble, paired with a boundless sophistication of the senses. His way of making music is that of the restrained romantics, and therefore goes right into the bones.

(Michael Bonnesen, Politiken, 2 June 1985)

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