Andrew M Brown: Boulez’s last-minute change of key

Pierre Boulez (PA)

Lifelong atheists who change their minds at the last minute are always intriguing. Was the titan of modern music Pierre Boulez in that category? A story I’ve heard suggests that perhaps he was, but I’ll get to it in a moment.

What we already know is that Boulez did not care for religion much, detested organ music, and had an uneasy relationship with his former teacher Olivier Messiaen, whose Turangalîla Symphonie Boulez dismissed as musique de bordel (brothel music). And then there’s the following anecdote, told by the composer Gerard McBurney as evidence of Boulez’s impish nature. For the full comic effect, imagine Boulez’s Inspector Clouseau accent turned up to maximum.

“Ah, Messiaen, he is for me a big problem … [dramatic pause] The religion … [another pause, shrugged shoulders, and louder] The birds … [louder still, hands raised and in tones of pantomimic horror] Aaand … my God … the ORGAN!” A music critic friend of mine thinks that latterly Boulez softened his God-denying, organ-music-hating attitude and became quieter and more thoughtful, possibly regretting some of his more obnoxious pronouncements.

As evidence of this, during the last year of his life he was apparently having regular conversations with a monsignor. And his funeral took place in Baden Baden’s grandest Catholic church, the Stiftskirche, burial place of the Margraves of Baden. The liturgy, I’m told, was in English and German – but not in French, the language of Boulez’s family. And there was lots and lots of organ music.

There’s been much discussion recently about private school “superheads” – slick performers who know how to attract publicity for their schools with trendy gimmicks such as mindfulness classes and compulsory Mandarin for four-year-olds.

Certainly the way we talk about education reveals our priorities. The story goes about Abbot Patrick Barry of Ampleforth, one-time chairman of the headmasters’ conference, that during a meeting of heads conversation turned to the subject of what each of them was preparing their students for in life. To succeed in public life, some said, or to be fulfilled, or to develop a well-rounded character. When it came to Fr Barry (“Mole” was his nickname) he supposedly stunned the assembly by saying that he prepared his boys – for death.

He was a Benedictine for whom the tenets of the Rule remained central. Nowadays I’m afraid the phrase “Benedictine ethos” in the context of Catholic schools is likely to be seen as a cover for slack teaching and bad exam results. Anyway, no senior master would dare say something so airy-fairy now. (Except possibly Ferdi McDermott of Chavagnes, that Catholic boarding school in France.)

Equally you wouldn’t hear a head saying, like JF Roxburgh, Stowe’s visionary founding headmaster, that he wanted his pupils to “know beauty” when they saw it. Roxburgh’s was a civilising vision for a different world from the one our children face today, a world with fewer pressures perhaps. Today, dreary qualities like employability and emotional intelligence are seen as the priorities.

What has happened is that schools have become more consumer-focused. The demand in London for places is greater now than it has ever been, creating intense competition – and with it anxiety. So it is not surprising that “happiness” (or sometimes “wellbeing”) should be talked about by heads more than in the past. This is what parents – and mothers, who often choose the school – like to hear. But if it sounds as if the private schools have adopted some of the cosy language of the state sector, they are only using it to sugar the pill; they know parents still want good results.

It is a pity, though, if, in this utilitarian atmosphere, liberal ideas about nurturing the spirit and the aesthetic senses are squeezed out. These aspects of life are important but hard to measure, and modern education is obsessed with measuring everything. Too much measuring is not good if it works against individuality and spontaneity, and sends pupils into the world all boring conformists.

There is an opportunity for a forward-thinking Catholic school here: provide that famous Christian ethos as well as the high academic standards, and parents will beat a path to your door.

Andrew M Brown is the obituaries editor of The Daily Telegraph