updated 12 April 2022
© Herman Ricour

Philippe Boesmans

Belgian composer born 17 May 1936 in Tongres, died 10 April 2022.

Philippe Boesmans was born in Belgium in 1936. He studied piano at the Royal Conservatoire of Liège, graduating with highest honors (premier prix) but ultimately abandoned his career as a professional pianist – with the exception of a few performances in concert with the Musique Nouvelle Ensemble – preferring to focus on composition, which he studied on his own. His encounters with Pierre Froidebise, Henri Pousseur, Célestin Deliège, and André Souris, as well as courses at Darmstadt, set him on his path and honed his desire to compose.

His first pieces, which date from the 1960s, show the strong influence - filtered through works by Berio, Boulez, Pousseur, and Stockhausen – of a kind of fissured serialism, one that was open to consonance and rythmic cycles.

In 1971, Boesmans joined the Centre de recherches musicales de Wallonie, directed at that time by Henri Pousseur, as well as the Studio électronique de Liège. He worked as a radio producer for RTBF, and from 1985 to 2007 was composer-in-residence of the Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, whose directors during that period, Gérard Mortier and then Bernard Foccroulle, commissioned numerous works, including Trakl-Lieder (1987), a transcription of the Monteverdi opera The Coronation of Poppea (1989), as well as several scores for stage pieces: La passion de Gilles (1983) and Reigen (1993), directed by Luc Bondy based on Schnitzler’s eponymous play, which was performed many times and earned the composer a global reputation. Wintermärchen, based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, another collaboration with Luc Bondy, premiered in 1999 at the Théâtre Royal de La Monnaie in Brussels and was staged again in 2000 at the Opéra de Lyon and the Thêatre du Châtelet in Paris, and then again at the Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona in 2004. Other operas followed: Julie, which premiered at the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels in 2005, and was staged again in Vienna and at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence; and Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne, a tragicomedy that premiered at the Opéra de Paris in 2009. Philippe Boesmans collaborated twice with Joël Pommerat, who wrote the libretti and directed two of his operas, Au Monde, which premiered at the Théâtre de La Monnaie in Brussels in 2014, and Pinocchio, which premiered at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence in 2017.

Performances of his compositions feature at major music festivals around the world – Darmstadt, Warsaw, Zagreb, Festival Ars Musica Bruxelles, Royan, Metz, Avignon, Strasbourg, Montreal – and they have received numerous prizes, including the Prix Italia for Upon La-Mi (1969), the Prix de l’Union de la Presse Musicale Belge, the Académie Charles-Cros Prize, the Serge and Olga Koussevitzky International Recording Award for a recording of Concerto pour violon and Conversions, and the Charles-Cros Prize for the DVD of Julie in 2007. In 2000, Boesmans was awarded the Prix Arthur Honegger and the SACD Prix Musique in 2004.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2017


  • Opéra de Paris, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, éditions Jobert, éditions Ricordi ;
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Entretiens et témoignages, éditions Mardaga, Christian Renard et Robert Wangermée éditeurs, Sprimont, Belgique, 2005.

« Comme une rose sauvage… »

By Valérie Dufour

A defining trait of Philippe Boesmans is his detachment from convention. Boesmans became a composer at a time when most of his contemporaries were embracing serialism as the only possible path in music – but he preferred to follow his own instinct, avoiding anything clannish or doctrinaire. He steered clear of schools and wandered only paths he chose for himself, shrugging off any absolute desire to contribute to the rewriting of musical language. This meant that his entire career took place beyond the confines of the modernity that so strongly defined musical composition in the second half of the 20th century. This is one reason Philippe Boesmans never felt the need to formulate any kind of discourse in order to explain or describe his work or his approach. Up to now, in his own observations and in the interviews he has given, Boesmans has avoided theoretical, conceptual, and even explanatory ambitions. His audacity is not speculative. To the contrary, it is located at a kind of comfortable distance from the musical intelligentsia. He has remained unhesitating in his willingness to reconnect with the vocabulary of “beauty,” “grace,” “desire,” or to experience writing as a “gift” close to the “search for love” – to embrace words that have been so often repressed in the world of contemporary music. It is perhaps most accurate to identify his aesthetic project with care and concern, with the project of rekindling connections with listeners and their needs. None of this is to say, however, that Boesmans’ music lacks rigor: it features meticulous writing, complex thought, and great care for perception in its execution.


Philippe Boesmans evokes two aesthetic jolts in his teenage years that may have awakened him to his vocation as a composer: first, the discovery of Chopin, and then, that of Wagner. He did not follow any academic composition courses, but his piano studies at the Conservatoire de Liège led him to spend time with Pierre Froidebise (1914-1962), who took great interest in the musical innovations of the era. With Froidebise, Boesmans progressively encountered the most curious musical minds of Belgian musiques nouvelles, such as André Souris, Célestin Deliège, and Henri Pousseur. Boesmans journeyed to Darmstadt in 1961 and 1962, and would later say that he joined the musical avant-garde in much the same way that he joined the Communist Party, taking extreme, but parallel positions in his composing and in his political life, both of which he would later soften. Already, he was making singular aesthetic choices. At a time when serialism was the dominant approach to composition, he felt ill-at-ease with the constraints that logic imposed on musical sensibility, preferring Alban Berg to Anton Webern. Souris said of Boesmans at that time: “he’s growing like a wild rose…” Sonance (1964) is the work Boesmans considers to be his first “real” composition, in part because it does not rely on combinatory logic alone. The piece is a voyage between diatonicism and chromaticism, and, as its title seems to indicate, an invitation to listen. While he did not venture down the paths of post-serialism, Boesmans remained profoundly attentive to the possibilities opened up by the movement’s key players, in particular Boulez, Stockhausen, and Berio, composers to whom he remained sincerely attached.

Boesmans was hired by Radio-télévision belge de la Communauté française
(RTBF) in 1961, and held various positions there, writing a great deal of functional music at that time, which he acknowledged as a rich learning experience, not only for the knowledge of pastiche it gave him, but also for the fertile interactions he had with musicians, from whom he learned the subtleties of orchestration. In his early years with the radio, he hosted several shows featuring French popular songs, which led him to develop an interest in so-called popular music, from the simplest variety singers to jazz and rock. Every so often, he would write echoes of these musical forms into his own work. He was also part of a teeming intellectual scene at that time, taking particular interest in structuralism, psychoanalysis, and theatre – Brecht, most notably. In 1971, he became a producer at RTBF. In 1983, at the age of nearly fifty, he began sketching out the first contours of his career as an opera composer: that year, Gérard Mortier invited him to be a composer-in-residence at the Théâtre de la Monnaie. This was the beginning of a long relationship with this Brussels institution, which would premiere all of his operas except one, from La passion de Gilles (1983) to Au Monde (2014).

Craft and poetry

From his place at the margins of the post-serialist composition going on all around him, Boesmans returned early on in his writing to reflections on consonance. This implied no kind of rejection of dissonance, which he used to evoke through metaphor; for example, of light revealed more intensely in chaos, or, inversely, of continuity as a means of throwing instability into relief. In this sense, he can be said to rely on tradition, but his approach has never shown any tendency to indulge in nostalgia or reminiscence with regard to the neoclassical aesthetic.

Boesmans’ critical stance toward the avant-garde of the 1960s is explicit in his Upon La-Mi for voice, horn, and instrumental ensemble, written in 1970. The piece was composed for a “pop” singer, Claude Lombard, and explores the vocal approaches found in so-called “light” music. As its title indicates, the piece is grounded in the A-E interval, which provides vertical stability in the piece and serves as a foundation for harmonic developments built on the fifth. The piece also functions as a catalogue of sorts, deploying a kind of critical irony that appraises and engages all of the effects in fashion at the time while holding them at arm’s length. Upon La-Mi won the Prix Italia that year, and marked the beginning of an international career.

The use of simple foundational material is another feature of Boesmans’ writing. Not that it venerates the aesthetic of simplicity as any kind of Platonic ideal: instead, simplicity is what allows the composer to engage in complex development processes, notably, with virtuosity, the exploration of instrumental timbre, and a proliferation of voices. These elements structure his craft, as can be heard, for example, in the series Fanfares I for two pianos (but a single pianist) from 1971, Fanfares II for organ from 1973, and Fanfare III for orchestra and aulochrome (a polyphonic woodwind instrument modelled on the saxophone, invented by François Louis), which premiered in 2002. The need for a simple and recognizable foundation; for example, simple harmonies or clear rhythmic periodicity, allows Boesmans to play with the effects of destructuring this material, to push far into disjointedness, and, through virtuosity, to transform instruments’ natural sound.

In his first major orchestral works – for example, Intervalles I (1972), Intervalles II (1973), and, later, Conversions (1981) – Boesmans persisted in this attachment to material with a recognizable melody. In this period, it served to explore continuity in time, another major facet of his craft: Boesmans is strongly concerned with the transfer processes of music’s constituent elements. In Conversions, the material is progressively “converted” harmonically, contrapuntally, orchestrally, and melodically. This is also a way for the composer to reaffirm the role of consonance, rhythmic periodicity, and diatonic scales in his language. Conversions was in this way a kind of milestone for Boesmans in terms of his mastery of the large-orchestra format as well as in its affirmation of lyricism – all the more significant because he was invited to compose his first opera shortly thereafter.

From the time Boesmans began to compose operas on a regular basis, the threads binding one work of his to another began to appear more clearly. Operas, he has explained, require a great deal of energy over a long period of time: the composer must create “knots” that generate masses of musical material. These, in turn, can be woven into smaller works, which he has sometimes called “resting” works. During this time, and in parallel, Boesmans’ instrumental compositions began to show an ever more marked distance from pre-established compositional plans or projects. This can be seen clearly in the evolution of the titles of his pieces: in the sixties and seventies, his titles were direct references to the compositional processes he had used; for example, Élément/Extensions, Doublures, or Multiples. More recent titles are often in English and tend to convey poetic evocations or emotional states, such as Extases, Dreamtime, or Smiles.

Within this, Boesmans has maintained his interest in continuity with regard to music history. He has reflected at length on the musical gestures of traditional genres, as can be seen in his Concerto pour piano (1978) and his concerto for violin (1979) (cadences, instrumental call and response, etc.), or in his tributes to certain composers, such as Trakl-Lieder (1986-89), in which he tries his hand at symphonic treatments of lieder, honoring the legacy of Mahler and Strauss.

The theme of dreaming is a constant in Boesmans’ instrumental compositions from the 1990s. Dreaming, in all its purity and naïveté, offers him a key to exploring the movements of the heart and soul – and of memory – through music. The quartets Fly and driving (1988) and Summer Dreams (1994) are both examples of how he draws the beauty from experiences of everyday life into musical settings. In Fly, Boesmans makes an intentional return to lightness, in stark contrast with the motor-like energy of Driving, where rhythmic work takes center stage. He widens the scope of musical reminiscence in his second quartet from baroque to soul music, concealing it all in an array of ornamental gestures (glissandi, repeating figures, interruptions, ostinatos, etc.). Each of these bears witness to the originality of Boesmans’ highly personal language – as he himself has said, “complexity is a tool, not a virtue.”

Boesmans’ small-scale human comedy, or the reconquering of opera

Philippe Boesmans’ instrumental pieces show a clear sense of theatricality, a taste for effect, a sense of timing, a respect for listening and for perception, as well as a stronger and stronger attention to the rambling maze of the human psyche. Beginning in the early 1980s, Gérard Mortier offered Boesmans decisive impetus in this direction, commissioning La passion de Gilles in 1983 and an arrangement of Claudio Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea in 1988. Subsequently, he invited Boesmans to work “in residence” at the Royal Theater of La Monnaie, an exceptional collaboration that continued with Bernard Foccroulle, Mortier’s successor as the institution’s director, producing Reigen in 1993, Wintermärchen in 1999, and Julie in 2004. In 2009, Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne premiered at the Opéra de Paris, and in 2014 Au Monde premiered at La Monnaie, which is now directed by Peter de Caluwe.

As this rich output indicates, opera is a creative space that comes naturally to Boesmans. Although it is true that certain of his contemporaries have evinced a certain disdain for the genre, or merely neglected it, Boesmans’ interest in it does not spring from any form of defiance, as one might be tempted to think. To the contrary, his first experiments with the form dovetailed with the prevailing attitudes of his time; in particular, the desire to write “anti-operas” that would put an end to opera as a category or discipline. This can be seen in Attitudes, a very scattered and non-narrative “musical performance” that premiered in 1979. La passion de Gilles (1983), with a libretto by the Belgian author Pierre Mertens, which tells the story of Joan of Arc and Gilles de Rais, was also, at least initially, an example of Boesmans’ critical stance with regard to opera. Written in the expressionist vein in vogue at the time, it also sought to combine all of the quirks of the genre with a certain measure of irony. It was the specific experience of orchestrating Monteverdi’s L’Incoronazione di Poppea in 1988 that led Boesmans to develop his taste for musical dramaturgy, and to take pleasure in uncovering all of the secrets of how an opera is put together. It was in this work that he perfected his talent as an orchestrator as well as a vocal aesthetic that was at once respectful and natural.

Boesmans has said that his experimental work with Monteverdi marked a decisive turning point in his own composing. After this came his operas Reigen,Wintermärchen, and Julie, all in German, and all written in close collaboration with the librettist and director Luc Bondy. Reigen (1993), based on Arthur Schnitzler’s play, was a revelation for the public, and marked a kind of renewal in the field of opera. The work plays with lightness, even comedy, in the vein of Cosi fan tutte. In it, Boesmans prioritized dramatic impact over creating the kind of effects typical of new musical languages. Boesmans took much the same approach in Wintermärchen (1999), based on Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, while also weaving in a vast array of musical references from the past (from Monterverdi to Benjamin Britten), and from the present, as he also did in his instrumental compositions of the time. The opera’s third act is built around a long jazz-rock improvisation performed in the premiere by the Aka Moon jazz trio and singer Kris Dane. **Wintermärchen (“The Winter’s Tale”) was another success with audiences; indeed, Boesmans’ operas have been received with enduring enthusiasm on stages across Europe as well as in recordings. His adventures in opera continued in 2005 with Julie, based on August Strindberg’s play Miss Julie. After the wide-open landscapes of The Winter’s Tale, Julie was a far more intimate drama performed on a smaller scale (three soloists and a chamber orchestra), based on the story of a rebellious young woman held prisoner by her repressive family. Without reaching for leitmotif, the writing works with a profusion of motivic elements that create allusions to the characters’ personalities and to different situations, giving unity and thrust to the musical discourse.

In 2009, Boesmans and Bondy continued their exploration of the theatrical repertoire with Polish surrealism. Yvonne, princesse de Bourgogne is based on the eponymous play by Witold Gombrowicz; as an opera, it builds a universe in which everything wavers at the boundaries between subversion and perversion. Boesmans’ characteristic emphasis on clear enunciation is evident throughout; the composer also continued to play with the gestures of contemporary music in the very words of the libretto (For example, in Act I, Scene 5, one of Yvonne’s aunts asks, “Why aren’t you more modern?”). His most recent work, at the time of this writing, is Au Monde, a collaboration with Joël Pommerat based on Pommerat’s eponymous play, which premiered in March 2014. The opera opens with a lyric, almost veristic trumpet call, a reference point for all of the musical material that follows. The vocal work further accentuates Boesmans’ quest for lightness and his thrust toward clarification, which he achieves via a rarefaction of effects whose end result is greater density. Often venturing unexpected associations among instrumental timbres, or highlighting instrumental color with meticulous attention to the work’s formal aspects, Boesmans’ Au Monde is another example of his stunning mastery of orchestration: as always, highly refined. The composer’s cheekiness shines through in his use of the celebrated song My Way to crystalize the tension between the sublime and the trivial.

Boesmans’ music dissects passion: more than illustrating a drama, he creates something complementary to it, illuminating it in its contrasts and its paradoxes. Similarly, Boesmans uses song to reveal a concrete manifestation of his characters’ psychological realities. With seven operas to date, he truly has built a rich human comedy in music. Citations, which are often given prominence in his operas, serve as instinctive reminiscences, faraway evocations. Without theorizing about the way Boesmans locates himself historically, it may be said that is work is an ongoing journey off the beaten path, a journey undertaken in order to find a new vantage point from which familiar things can become newly strange. Frequently, his operas seem to tap into in the great German Romantic tradition, recalling Wagner, Richard Strauss, and Alban Berg. It is difficult to say whether he is operating subtly in order to activate the listener’s memory, or whether listeners simply have an innate desire to systematically insert any sound experience into their own established categories. Either way, the result is a certain temptation to very loosely locate the operatic works of Boesmans at the crossroads of Debussy, Leoš Janáček, and Alban Berg. This is true only to the extent that Boesmans is rekindling a flame that lights our way back to a tradition that was itself seeking to foster convergences between musical language and dramatic words. At the same time, however, the craft of Boesmans is very clearly grounded in contemporary rhetoric. As an artist, he is fascinated by everything that brings to life the reality of of our world alongside and within the world of sound – and, in all his wanderings, is always careful to come and meet the listener exactly where they are.

© Ircam-Centre Pompidou, 2014

Catalog sources and details

  • Éditions Jobert, éditions Ricordi ;
  • Robert Wangermée et Valérie Dufour, catalogue raisonné dans Philippe Boesmans, Entretiens et témoignages, éditions Mardaga, Christian Renard et Robert Wangermée éditeurs, Sprimont, Belgique, 2005.

Catalog source(s)

  • Éditions Jobert, éditions Ricordi ;
  • Robert Wangermée et Valérie Dufour, catalogue raisonné dans Philippe Boesmans, Entretiens et témoignages, éditions Mardaga, Christian Renard et Robert Wangermée éditeurs, Sprimont, Belgique, 2005.


  • Cécile AUZOLLE, « Jazz et improvisation sur la scène lyrique : “Wintermärchen” de Philippe Boesmans », dans Rencontres du jazz et de la musique contemporaine (Jean-Michel Court, Ludovoc Florin, dir.), Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Midi, coll. « Jazz-U », 2015
  • Cécile AUZOLLE, Vers l’étrangeté, ou l’opéra selon Philippe Boesmans, Arles, Actes Sud, 2014.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Entretiens et témoignages, éditions Mardaga, Christian Renard et Robert Wangermée éditeurs, Sprimont, Belgique, 2005.
  • Célestin DELIÈGE, Bernard FOCCROULLE, Claude LEDOUX, Philippe Boesmans, Edition BEBA - Opéra National de Belgique, Bruxelles, 1983.
  • « La Ronde de Philippe Boesmans », L’avant-scène opéra, n°160, 1994.
  • « Le Conte d’hiverde Philippe Boesmans », L’avant-scène opéra, n°198, 2000.

Discographie sélective

  • Philippe BOESMANS, Concerto pour violon et orchestre ; Capriccio pour deux pianos et orchestre ; Fin de Nuit, David Kadouch, Julien Libeer : piano ; George Tudorache, violon ; Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège ; Gergely Madaras : direction, dans « Fin de Nuit », 1 Cd Cypres, 2019, CYP4656.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Pinocchio, Chloé Briot, Julie Boulianne Marie-Eve Munger, Stéphane Degout, Vincent Le Texier, Yann Beuron : voix ; Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie ; Patrick Davin : direction, 2 x Cd + DVD Cypres, 2018, CYP4647.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Au Monde, Patricia Petibon, soprano ; Charlotte Hellekant, mezzo-soprano ; Yann Beuron, ténor ; Stéphane Degout, baryton ; Werner Van Mechelen, baryton basse ; Frode Olsen, basse ; Orchestre Symphonique de la Monnaie ; Patrick Davin, direction, 1 Cyprés, 2015.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Day dreams, Jessica Ryckewaert : percussion, Gérald Bernard : percussion, Jean-Marc Sullon : Live electronics, 1 cd Fuga Libera, 2009 [enregistrement : 2008], avec des pièces de Pierre Bartholomée et Gilles Gobert.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Tunes ; Tunes V ; Cadenza ; Fanfare I ; Surfing, David Lively : piano, Christophe Desjardins : alto, ensemble Musique Nouvelle, Georges-Elie Octors : direction, 1 cd Cyprès, 2008 [enregistrement 2007].
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Julie, opéra en un acte, CYPRES OPEN, 2005. Kazushi Ono : direction, piano, Malena Erman : contralto, Garry Magee : baryton, Kerstin Avemo : soprano, orchestre de chambre de la Monnaie, Luc Bondy : mise en scène, DVD BEL AIR, 2007 [enregistrement : 2005].
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Fanfare II, pour orgue, Bernard Foccroulle, 1 cd Ars Musici, 2000, avec des œuvres de Pieter [Peeter] Cornet, Franz Tunder, Nicolas de Grigny, Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy, César Franck.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Summer dreams ; Love and Dance Tunes ; Ornamented Zone, quatuor Arditti (1), Dale Duesing : baryton (2), Jean-Luc Plouvier : piano, clavecin, mixage (2), ensemble Musique Nouvelle, Patrick Davin : direction (3), 1 cd Ricercar, 1998.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Reigen, opéra en 10 dialogues, Sylvain Cambreling : direction, Deborah Raymon : soprano, Mark Curti : ténor, Elzbieta Ardam : mezzo-soprano, Roberto Sacca : ténor, Solveig Kringelborn : soprano, Franz Ferdinand Nentwig : baryton, Randi Stene : mezzo-soprano, contralto, Ronald Hamilton : ténor, Françoise Pollet : soprano, Dale Duesing : baryton, orchestre du théâtre royal de la Monnaie, ), 1 cd Ricercar, 1994 [enregistrement 1993].
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Fanfare I ; Cadenza ; Day dreams, Chantal Bohets : piano (1, 2), Win Konink : percussion (3), Jean-Marc Sullon et  Vincent Glasmacher : Live electronics (3), 1 cd Ricercar 1991.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Trakl Lieder ; Fly et Driving ; Surfing, Françoise Pollet : soprano (1), Sylvain Cambreling : direction, orchestre du théâtre royal de la Monnaie, Quatuor Arditti (2), Christophe Desjardins : alto (3), Georges-Elie Octors : direction, Percussion (3), ensemble Musique Nouvelle (3), 1 cd Ricercar, 1990.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Attitudes ; Extases, Elise Ross, vocaliste, ensemble Musique Nouvelle : Chantal Bohets et Pierre Thomas : piano, Bernard Foccroule : synthetiseur, Daniel Delmotte :  percussion, direction : Georges Octors jr, ensemble Synonymes (2), Patrick Davin Direction (2), 1 cd Ricercar 1988.
  • Philippe BOESMANS, Conversions pour orchestre ; Concerto pour violon et orchestre ; Concerto pour piano et orchestre, Richard Pieta : violon, Marcelle Mercenier : piano, orchestre philharmonique de Liège, direction : Pierre Bartholomée, 1 cd Cypres, 1982.

Liens Internet

(liens vérifiés en avril 2022).