An Analytical Study on Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître

Since its 1955 premiere, Le Marteau sans maitre, by Pierre Boulez, has consistently been regarded as one of the more important modernist compositions of the post-war era. Certainly, it ranks among the best-known works of Pierre Boulez and our purpose is to see if we can uncover some of its structures. This composition, based on a text by René Char, was written for alto voice, flute, viola, guitar, vibraphone, and percussion. Before Le Marteau, Boulez had created some other serial works: Structures I for two pianos, Polyphonie X for eighteen instruments, and another tour-de-force, known as the Second Piano Sonata which gained him an international reputation back in 1950. Although many have attempted to analyze Le Marteau’s serial organization, Lev Koblyakov has been considered successful in analyzing it. Boulez’s multiple serial compositional techniques have been greatly illuminated through Koblyakov’s work; taking this as my touchstone, I will herein discuss a few of the compositional strategies utilized by Boulez.

Le Marteau was originally written in six movements between 1953 and 1954. The first performance was originally scheduled for the 1954 Donaueschingen Festival, however, it was postponed when one of the performers became ill. Boulez used this time to add three new movements in the interim. He also added flute and viola figures to the first movement, as well. This initial movement, originally scored as a duo for vibraphone and guitar, became something rather different at the premiere, postponed due to circumstances a year later. Le Marteau was first premiered on June 18, 1955, at the 29th Annual Festival for the International Society of Contemporary Music in Baden-Baden. This work was chosen to represent France at the festival. All the French members of the committee were against this, but the intrepid Heinrich Strobel (the director of the Baden-Baden Sudwestfunk Orchestra), threatened to leave the festival altogether, should Boulez’s piece be omitted.

Boulez often returned to his previous compositions, continuing to work on them, never resting on any laurels. Famous for considering his works to be always “in progress”, Boulez revised Le Marteau again in 1957, publishing the final version of the score with Universal Edition that same year.

Analysis of the first cycle: L’artisanat furieux

Koblyakov found Boulez’s “pitch multiplication” technique which generated the pitch class sets of the first, third, and seventh movements. This cycle is based on multiplying various sets that were derived from this tone row:

3 5 2 1 10 11 9 0 8 4 7 6 (C = 0)

Boulez uses five possible rotations of the pattern 2-4-2-1-3 to group the notes in the above row into five sets.

In his analysis, Koblyakov assigns a letter to each group of subsets, such that any two sets multiplied together can be notated as “bc,” “da,” “ee,” etc. (Koblyakov 1990, 5). Boulez’s form of pitch multiplication can also be thought of as a kind of ‘pitch addition.’ With this technique, Boulez takes two of the possible 25 subsets, as well as the sum of every possible pairing between them. In the example below, groups b and c within the set “I” were multiplied to form a new group of notes.

(2 1 10 11) + (9 0) = ((2+9) (1+9) (10+9) (11+9) (2+0) (1+0) (10+0) (11+0)) = (11 10 7 8 2 1 10 11)

Boulez then removes all the duplicate pitches. In this case, we are left with the set 11 10 7 8 2 1. In fact, this is the set of notes we find in measure three of the third movement.

11=B 10=Bb 7=G 8=Ab 2=D 1=Db

Analysis of the second cycle: Bourreaux de solitude

Boulez uses a different form of serial compositional technique in the second cycle, this consists of the 2nd, 4th, 6th, and 8th movements. Steven Winick, an author and theorist, called this technique “pitch duration association”. This technique associates individual pitches with individual durations. For example:

The pitch increases by a semitone — while the associated duration increases by an added sixteenth note. Based on Winick’s analysis, we call the above example a pitch-duration association or a “PDA” based on D. In movement VI, these PDAs are easy to recognize, with the first twelve notes of the piece forming a PDA on D. The next twelve notes also fall neatly into a PDA on G♯, though Boulez sometimes swaps the durations of a few pitches throughout this system, reflecting his interest in what he humorously calls, “local indiscipline.” You can see more examples of the PDA’s below. “Dynamic/Attack Association” (“DAA”) is also serially coordinated with PDA in this cycle. In movement VI, in measures 1 through 14, sixteenth note is a unit of PDA. Therefore, the row of pitch-duration is as follows:

It should be noted that the instrumentation is strongly related to the PDA. For example, the durations of tones are naturally shorter when played on the Xylorimba. Therefore, Boulez only used sixteenth, eighth, and dotted eighth notes (1, 2 and 3) for this instrument. Also, the Vibraphone has no limit on note-value duration since it has a pedal. In the table below you can see that longer durations were used for it.

*Parenthesis indicate simultaneous use of pitches

Another way in which Boulez confuses the analysis of this cycle is by placing some rhythms under triplet markings. After the voice enters in measure 13 of the movement, matters become even more complicated, as Boulez employs all 12 possible PDAs simultaneously throughout the rest of the movement. (Winick 1986)

In addition to coordinating durations with certain pitches, Boulez assigns dynamics and attacks to pitches in a similar manner. Using the opening PDA on D as an example, Boulez arranges the pitches chromatically and then groups them into 6 pairs (D and D♯, E and F, F♯ and G, etc.), assigning a dynamic from pianissimo to fortissimo to each pair.

Also, the first note within each pair receives an attack of some sort — legato for piano and pianissimo, accent for mezzo-forte and mezzo-piano, and sforzando for forte and fortissimo. However, while these dynamic and attack associations are consistent enough to be unmistakably deliberate, Boulez here returns again to his idea of "local indiscipline”. (Savage 2003) Wentzel found that Boulez’s association of pitches, dynamics, durations, and attacks agrees with his own structural analysis 80% of the time. A number of the divergences can be accounted for by differences among the printed and manuscript sources, but it is impossible to say whether any are deliberate compositional decisions (Wentzel 1991, 148–50).

Analysis of the third cycle: Bel édifice et les pressentiments

The third cycle consists of movements V and IX. The fifth movement is comprised of six sections. There are three odd-numbered instrumental sections with a tempo marking “assez vif”. The remaining even-numbered sections are scored for voice and instruments with a slower tempo marking termed, “plus large”. These sections of voice and instruments seem to be in opposition. Rhythmic figures and dynamics seem more similar between the instruments than between the instruments and voice. Boulez wrote more contrapuntally in sections where the voice was not present. Movement V also uses “Sprechgesang,” while the vocal parts in other cycles do not.

Movement IX is comprised of three large sections. The first section includes material from the third, fifth, and sixth movements as well as the text from movement V. Also, it should be noted that the movements are quoted in reverse order (VI, V, III). Each time, the text from the quoted movements V and VI is somehow combined with the text of movement III. The second section is built on a similar set of PDAs as the second cycle of Le Marteau and is sung without text. Boulez avoids minor seconds as well as minor thirds, although the inverses of these intervals are used instead. The entire third section is a coda scored for flute and percussion. The tempi in the ninth movement are drawn from previous movements. Boulez uses an interesting combination of serial strategies and aesthetic choices to highlight his skillful ear’s disposition towards extending harmony into a new dynamic territory. Hopefully, this brief consideration of Le Marteau sans maître, has shed some minor light on some of the dilemmas Boulez was faced with — and perhaps, less directly — speak to his artistic integrity and intellectual honesty.


Boulez, Pierre. Le Marteau sans maître. London: Universal Edition, 1957.

Boulez, Pierre; Ensemble Intercontemporain; Hilary Summers. Le Marteau sans maître, Dérive 1 & Dérive 2. Berlin: Deutsche Grammophon, 2005.

Koblyakov, Lev. P. Boulez Le Marteau sans maître: Analysis of Pitch Structure. Germany: Zeitschrift für Musiktheorie, 1977.

Koblyakov, Lev. Pierre Boulez: A World of Harmony. Chur: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1990.

Winick, Steven D. Symmetry and Pitch-Duration Associations in Boulez’ Le Marteau sans maître. USA: Perspectives of New Music, 1986.

Heinemann, Stephen. Pitch-Class Set Multiplication in Theory and Practice. UK: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Hoffman, Michael. Pierre Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître: An Overview Analysis. In: 20th-Century music, 1997.

Wentzel, Wayne C. Dynamic and Attack Associations in Boulez’s Le Marteau sans maître. USA: Perspectives of New Music, 1991.

Savage, Roger. Le Marteau sans maître and the Logic of Late Capitalism. USA: Ex Tempore, 2003.

UE-interview. Pierre Boulez on his works. Universal Edition, 2012.