Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Pierre Boulez

Mr. Boulez in 1971.
Photo by Larry Morris

When the great French composer, conductor and pianist Pierre Boulez (1925-2016) died at the age of 90 at his home in Baden Baden last month, there was much Internet chatter about his sexual orientation. Obituaries in major newspapers and journals mentioned that Boulez was “tightly guarded” about his personal life, but music critic Norman Lebrecht, who knew him for decades, stated that Mr. Boulez was gay. Boulez was extremely closeted, often introducing Hans Messner, his German lover of more than fifty years, as his “valet.” That Boulez (the “z” is not silent) was homosexual was one of the music world’s worst kept secrets.

Mr. Boulez enjoyed a first tier international career, holding conducting positions in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, England and the United States, and his numerous recordings earned him twenty-six Grammy Awards. Boulez did not use a baton, using only his hands to conduct, in the fashion of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Leopold Stokowski and fellow Frenchman  Georges Prêtre.

As an opera conductor, Pierre Boulez was most famously associated with Bayreuth, conducting Parsifal and the Ring Cycle. In Paris he founded the Institut de Recherche et Coordination Acoustique/Musique (IRCAM) at the Centre Pompidou and the Ensemble Intercontemporain (EIC). In the United States he was conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony and the New York Philharmonic and was composer-in-residence at Carnegie Hall (1999-2003).

As a composer, he was a champion of the avant-garde, writing atonal, electronic and serial music, although in later years composition took a back seat to conducting. He championed twentieth century composers, programming major works by Berg, Mahler, Debussy, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Bartok, Webern and Varèse.

After a 2012 eye operation left him with impaired vision, he cancelled conducting engagements, and a shoulder injury from a fall kept him from attending the many 90th birthday celebrations held throughout the world in 2015. Both Columbia Records and Deutsche Grammophon issued limited edition box sets (67 CDs and 44 CDs, respectively) of his recordings in honor of his 90th birthday. Last month BBC Four broadcast an hour-long documentary, “Pierre Boulez at the BBC: Master and Maverick.”


  1. I have a number of Pierre Boulez' recordings, enjoy them all, but never knew that he was a gay man. I will revere the recordings all the more now that I know his orientation... RobtheElder

  2. Hans Messmer was not Boulez's lover: he was his valet.

    1. "Valet" was the euphemism sometimes used when Messmer was introduced, but those within their inner circle knew that Messmer was his partner, as well.

    2. Messmer was NOT his partner. Joan Peyser mentions when Messmer was engaged as Boulez's valet (at which point the composer had never even met him), and intimate friends of Bz's have confirmed that Messmer was in fact nothing more than Bz's valet.

    3. Tell us how you know that Messner was NOT his partner. Joan is not the only source. Try Google and you'll see what I mean.

  3. From your blogger:
    The Guardian (Wikipedia):
    "He moved to Baden-Baden in the 1960s with his lifelong partner, Hans Messmer, whom he sometimes referred to as his valet".

  4. By David Osmond-Smith (a significant scholar on post WW II Avant Garde music):
    From Contemporary Music Review –
    “It is the purpose of this article to suggest the withholding and trace the subsequent assertion of a particularly telling set of interpretive associations within the music of the post-war European generation through examining the interactions between two gay (or, to more accurately reflect the language of the era, homosexual) composers who first came to public attention a decade apart: Pierre Boulez and Sylvano Bussotti. (continued in next comment)

  5. (Continuation)
    Both came to prominence at a time remarkable for its extreme homophobia. The stylistic vocabulary pioneered by the first strongly influenced the second; but their decisions as to how best to direct the listening mind in its responses differed profoundly. Although Boulez has always maintained a determined defense of his own privacy, he has acknowledged that his first, vivid outburst of works which, even today, maintain their stylistic authority over the fifties avant-garde were produced immediately subsequent to an intense, violently sexual relationship. He has also acknowledged, en passant, his own homosexuality...”

  6. Who cares? I think of him (I knew him) as a brillant conductor, charismatic and a bully. His music is already mostly forgotten.

  7. This is the most astonishing thing I've yet found on your marvelous blog, which I will want to spend much time with. I remember in the Peyser Boulez talking about how 'this kind of relationship, where one person is always the more dominant', something like that, so that I thought he was not very interested in sex, if at all. He also was quoted as saying "If you're a sensual person, then I suppose Paris is the place to be."

    I don't doubt you at all, though. I know most of his music, and played the thorny and fabulous 2nd Sonata in the Juilliard Contemporary Festival in 1981. The American debut of 'Repons' was made at Columbia in a rather unfortunate hall in 1986, so that you could not hear the effect of the electronic echo of what the orchestra had just played unless you were in the right place for it. There was a marvelous party afterward at the Maison Francaise, and I met a Swiss boy there who became me best friend for a long time, we travelled together in England and Switzerland, and published 3 art-books together. I had a girlfriend at the time who'd found out about the event, and she wondered why I didn't speak to Boulez, but he was talking to some of his players like a drill on the street, very furiously even if not angry. He didn't attract me so much personally, but I've loved the music for a long time.

    I heard the piece more properly in 2003 when he conducted it at Carnegie Hall, which was totally rearranged for best possible aural effect, and I finally, after 17 years, got to hear this magical piece properly. I recall Kyle Gann (think that's his name) talking about the 'uselessness' of such pieces as 'Le Marteau Sans Maitre' in The Village Voice, couldn't believe it, that is an extraordinary piece. Gann seemed to me an unfortunate critic.

    Oh, do I ever like to think of Boulez and his 'valet' together. So secretive it's hard to quite imagine what it was like. He died around the same time as David Bowie (maybe the same week.) The world seems different without both of them,