Le marteau sans maître (The hammer without a master) – Pierre Boulez (1953-1955)

Duration: 42’

A setting of the surrealist poetry of René Char for contralto and six instrumentalists (3 percussionists)

Premiere in Baden-Baden (Germany) 1955.


The work has nine movements, four of which set the text of three poems of René Char. The remaining movements are instrumental extrapolations of the other four:

Avant “l’artisanat furieux” (before “the furious craftsmanship”)

1. Commentaire I de “bourreaux de solitude” (first commentary on “hangmen of solitude”)

2. “L’artisanat furieux” (“the furious craftsmanship”)

3. Commentaire II de “bourreaux de solitude” (second commentary on “hangmen of solitude”)

4. “Bel édifice et les pressentiments”, version première (“stately building and presentiments”, first version)

5. “Bourreaux de solitude” (“hangmen of solitude”)

6. Après “l’artisanat furieux” (after “the furious craftsmanship”)

7. Commentaire III de “bourreaux de solitude” (third commentary on “hangmen of solitude”)

8. “Bel édifice et les pressentiments”, double (“stately building and presentiments”, again)

Instrumentation per movement:

1. Alto flute, Vibraphone, Guitar, Viola

2. Alto flute, Xylorimba, Tambourine, 2 bongos, Viola

3. Voice, Alto flute

4. Xylorimba, Vibraphone, Finger cymbals, Agogô, Triangle, Guitar, Viola

5. Voice, Alto flute, Guitar, Viola

6. Voice, Alto flute, Xylorimba, Vibraphone, maracas, Guitar, Viola

7. Alto flute, Vibraphone, Guitar

8. Alto flute, Xylorimba, Vibraphone, Claves, Agogô, 2 bongos, Maracas

9. Voice, Alto flute, Xylorimba, Vibraphone, Maracas, Small tam-tam, Low gong, Very deep tam-tam, Large suspended cymbal, Guitar, Viola


The instrumentation was quite novel for Western music at the time, lacking any kind of bass instrument, and it drew some influence from the sound of “non-European” instruments. The xylorimba recalls the African balafon; the vibraphone, the Balinese gamelan; and the guitar, the Japanese koto, though “neither the style nor the actual use of these instruments has any connection with these different musical civilizations”. Boulez chose the collection with a continuum of sonorities in mind: “a number of features shared by these instruments (forms) a continuous passage from voice to vibraphone”. The purpose is to allow a graduated deconstruction of the voice into percussive noises. The voice and five pitched instruments can be arranged in a line, each pair connected by a similarity.

The vocal writing is challenging for the singer, containing wide leaps, glissandi, humming (notated bouche fermée in the score), and even Sprechstimme, a device found in the work of the Second Viennese School before Boulez. There are also deliberate similarities to Arnold Schoenberg’s song cycle, Pierrot Lunaire, one of which is that each movement chooses a different subset of the available instruments:

The writing is often hermetic: the three cycles each use different serial techniques. The “L’Artisanat furieux” movements, for example, use a technique Boulez called “pitch multiplication” in Boulez on Music Today (Boulez 1971



Annotated by Laurent Warnier