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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's longest work.


  • Movements and poems 1
  • Conception and composition 2
  • The music 3
  • Reception 4
  • Recordings 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8

Movements and poems

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

  1. "Don" - based on "Don du poème"
  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

The title is taken from another Mallarmé poem, "Remémoration d'amis belges", that is not used in the piece, in which the poet describes how a mist that covers the city of Bruges gradually disappears:[1]

Comme furtive d'elle et visible je sens
Que se dévêt pli selon pli la pierre veuve
("As if by stealth and visible I sense
That fold by fold the widowed stone unrobes itself")

"So, fold by fold, as the five movements develop, a portrait of Mallarmé is revealed," Boulez said.[2]

Conception and composition

The piece was begun in 1957 with the composition of the first two "Improvisations on Mallarmé" for soprano and percussion ensemble.[3] In 1959 a third "Improvisation" was written, for soprano, instrumental ensemble and a large group of percussion, together with "Tombeau", for soprano and large orchestra.[3] In 1960, what is now the opening movement of the piece, "Don", was completed in a version for soprano and piano.[3] 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 the 1980s "Don" was rewritten and "Improvisation III" was revised. In both cases, Boulez removed some flexibility which had previously been allowed in the order in which sections of these movements might be played.

Improvisation II contrasts "three different kinds of sounds—fixed pitch, partially pitched, and unpitched ('noise')".[4]

The music

Each of the five movements is based on a Mallarmé poem, moving from the early "Don du poème" of 1865 in the first movement to the late "Tombeau" of 1897 in the last. Boulez does not 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 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 intelligible word of the last movement) is "mort" (death).

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.


In his final interview, Igor Stravinsky described Pli selon pli as "pretty monotonous and monotonously pretty".[5]


The piece has been recorded three times: in 1969 with Halina Łukomska 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 Schäfer accompanied by the Ensemble InterContemporain. On each occasion, Boulez himself conducted.


  1. ^ Breatnach 1996, pp. 82–83
  2. ^ Breatnach 1996, p. 82
  3. ^ a b c Jameux 1991, p. 108
  4. ^ Boulez (1986), p.157. Cited in Campbell, Edward (2010). Boulez, Music and Philosophy, p.225. ISBN 978-0-521-86242-4.
  5. ^ Stravinsky, Igor (1 July 1971), "Stravinsky: The Last Interview", The New York Review of Books 16 (12),  
  • Breatnach, Mary (1996), Boulez and Mallarmé: A Study in Poetic Influence,  
  • Jameux, Dominique (1991), Pierre Boulez,  

Further reading

  • Albèra, Philippe (ed.) (2003). Pli selon pli de Pierre Boulez: Entretiens et études. Geneva: Contrechamps Editions.
  • Gable, David (2008). "Words for the Surface: Boulez, Stockhausen, & 'Allover' Painting". In Variations on the Canon: Essays on Music from Bach to Boulez, edited by Robert Curry, David Gable, and Robert Marshall, 247–79. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press.
  • Harrison, Max (1969). "Demanding Boulez". The Times, issue 57658 (6 September): Saturday Review III, col. D.
  • Piencikowski, Robert (ed.) (2010). Pierre Boulez: Tombeau, Facsimiles of the Draft Score and the First Fair Copy of the Full Score. Publication of the Paul Sacher Foundation. Vienna: Universal Edition.
  • Sadie, Stanley (1969). "Boulez: The Berlioz of Our Times?". The Times, issue 57554 (8 May): 12, col. A.

External links

  • Pli selon PliPierre Boulez in conversation with Wolfgang Fink about
  • Pli selon PliPierre Boulez's by Paul Griffiths
  • scorePli selon pliA page from the , nr.2 improvisation I sur Mallarmé "le vierge, le vivace et le bel aujourd´hui", on Universal Edition's website
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