Although largely instrumental, the final movement of Boulez’s Pli selon pli sets only the final line of Mallarmé’s poem, Tombeau, and emerges in the final measures of the movement.
The poem was written by Mallarmé in 1897 to mark the first anniversary of the death of his friend, the poet, Paul Verlaine. It evokes his tomb as ‘le noir roc’, the black rock standing against the raging winter wind. The line Boulez sets is ‘un peu profond ruisseau calomnié la mort / a shallow stream calumniated death.’
The marrying of text to music is a difficult one for composers. Is comprehensibility of text paramount or is it just raw material to be used phonetically? On the one hand, the composer and critic, Virgil Thomson argued for the clarity of musical prosody. However, Boulez remarked that his ‘idea is not to be restricted to immediate understanding.’ This would not be a problem for French audiences who grew up learning and reciting Mallarmé at les écoles!
Certainly the setting of the final line of the poem with its wide tessitura is difficult to understand except for the final words, ‘la mort / death’. In the score, Boulez indicates that the text ‘mort’ should be ‘parlé sans timbre uniquement sur le souffle’ / spoken without tone only on the breath. This final text setting nods not only to the Sprechstimme of Schoenberg and the Second Viennese School but also gestures to the French school of timbre, the colour of sound and phonemes.