She Was Music’s Greatest Teacher. And Much More.
For several months in 1916, the sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger stayed together at the Villa Medici in Rome. A residence at the villa was generally awarded to the winner of the Prix de Rome, a major competition for French composers; Lili had won in 1913, but a previous visit to Italy was interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
When the sisters arrived the villa was almost empty due to the war and they quickly got to work. Each was trying to complete an opera, and they found solace and inspiration in the creativity of the other. It was perhaps an unprecedented moment in the patriarchal history of classical music: two women, side by side, composed operas.
“They really leaned on each other,” said musicologist Kimberly Francis, who has written an upcoming journal article on the collaborator sisters, in a recent interview. “It was this unique partnership.
The partnership did not last. During their trip, Lili, then 22, developed a lung infection, and Nadia, six years her senior, looked after her, as she always has. In less than two years, Lili was dead, her opera was never completed, and Nadia’s life, her own not fully orchestrated opera, changed forever.
After the death of her younger sister, Nadia moved away from composition and into pedagogy, becoming the most renowned composition teacher of the 20th century – if not in all of music history. Its students, the so-called “Bakery”, included aspiring luminaries like Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. Composer Virgil Thomson once described Boulanger as “a school of graduate study for a woman so powerful and penetrating that legend attributes to every American city two things: a five-and-a-dime and a Boulanger pupil.”
And this is largely how Boulanger, who died in 1979 at the age of 92, is still remembered today as a great teacher who taught great composers. This subordinate role is one that women have often played in the history of music: mothers, muses and schoolmistresses for the canon’s men. A two-week festival, Nadia Boulanger and Her World, which kicks off August 6 at Bard College, invites you to reconsider her life and legacy.
After three decades featuring male composers – Dvorak and His World, Mendelssohn and His World, Schumann and His World – the annual Bard Festival finally puts a woman in the spotlight.
“What if you change it to her? ”musicologist Jeanice Brooks, researcher-in-residence for the festival, said in a recent interview.“ What’s going on is you put a question mark after the title: Boulanger et son monde? Is it really, is it his?
The 12 concerts of the festival will feature compositions by the two sisters as well as music from the precursors, contemporaries and students of Nadia Boulanger, revealing her not only as a teacher but also as a composer, conductor and visionary musical thinker.
Born in 1887 into a well-connected family – her father was a composer on the Parisian scene – Boulanger studied music intensely from the age of 5, under the supervision of her domineering mother. Before reaching adolescence, she became a star student of the Paris Conservatory, surrounded by students from a decade older. A budding composer, Boulanger sets his sights on the Prix de Rome. Many expected her to be the first woman to win the award.
In the first round of the Prize, competitors were invited to compose a vocal fugue based on a melody written by one of the jurors. But the stubborn Boulanger decided that the tune was better suited for a string quartet. The incident became known as the “runaway affair,” and Boulanger gained international attention for defying jurors. Some wanted her to be excluded from the competition; women weren’t supposed to flout the French musical establishment. Instead, she took second place, which puts her in the running for potentially the grand prize the following year. But she didn’t, likely because of lingering sexist resentments.
Without being discouraged, Boulanger continued to compose, just as his sister’s career began to take off. Nadia’s music evokes the ethereal sound of the end of the Belle Époque, in songs like “Cantique”, a shining frame of a poem by Maeterlinck. Lili showed extraordinary promise from an early age; his work includes a handful of powerful sacred works, including a grand and plaintive setting of Psalm 130, a memorial to their father, who died as children. When it came time for Lili to compete for the Prix de Rome, she strictly abided by the rules and became the first woman to win.
During this period, Nadia developed an artistic and romantic collaboration with virtuoso pianist Raoul Pugno, a family friend 35 years her senior. Although the unconventional relationship sparked some gossip, it allowed her to flourish professionally; she played with Pugno in a piano duo and even conducted, at a time when few women conducted orchestras. It is with Pugno that she begins to work on an opera, “The Dead City”; the two wrote it together, in what a Parisian magazine called the first collaboration between a “composer” and a “composer”.
Her close ties with Lili and Pugno established a complex dynamic that will last throughout Boulanger’s life: she is nourished by dialogue with other powerful musical personalities. When Pugno shot without her, she fell into periods of intense doubt.
“I tell myself that it is stupid to expect something from life; it only brings you disillusionment, ”she wrote in her diary. “I’m no good, what atrophy I’m creating.”
While her connections inspired her, they also placed her in a subordinate role. “I’m trying to balance what I can do for Lili and for Pugno,” she writes. “It’s complicated because she’s too young to fully understand and he’s not young enough to abandon me.”
And then she lost her two collaborators. While on tour together in Moscow in 1914, Pugno fell ill and died; alone in a foreign country, Boulanger had to ask that the money be transferred from his home to return with his body. Without his encouragement, his career as an interpreter failed. Then Lili died. To meet his needs and those of his mother, Boulanger turned to teaching, notably at the newly created American Conservatory in Fontainebleau.
It is widely believed that Boulanger consciously gave up composing after his sister’s death in order to defend Lili’s music and focus on teaching. But the biographical reality is more complicated.
“She couldn’t fight to get her works performed on her own when she lost Pugno, who absolutely provided material and also a huge amount of emotional support, and who really thought she was amazing,” said Brooks, the Bard scholar in residence. “And I think she needed someone to think she was amazing.”
Her students thought she was amazing. By the mid-1920s, she had taught over 100 Americans and had built a reputation for fierce intellect and utter dedication to her students. Her teaching space became a music salon and she led a student choir in revealing interpretations of Bach’s cantatas. His recordings of Monteverdi’s madrigals were a landmark in the early music movement.
Boulanger’s work as a performer resumed and she began to tour internationally, organizing innovative concerts that spanned historical eras; she once described the ideal program as one which “allows the most daring juxtapositions without destroying unity”. A Bard concert on August 14 will reenact these epic programs, bringing together composers from Palestrina and Monteverdi to Stravinsky and Hindemith.
Guided by her deep Catholic faith, Boulanger viewed her performances as a service to the masters of music. The “greatest achievement” of performers, she once wrote, was “to disappear in favor of music.” This modernist approach, shared by her star and friend Stravinsky, was also a clever strategy for a woman in a man’s world. The “runaway affair” had taught her that she could be successful if she didn’t attract too much attention, so she acted as the canon’s transparent mediator rather than a full-fledged ambitious person. In the late 1930s, she became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“She knew how to step into those realms where she was an aberration, and do it in a way that people were comfortable with,” said Francis, the musicologist. “She was incredibly aware of what exactly needed to be done.”
And so, even as she smashed the musical glass ceilings, Boulanger gave interviews in which she described the “real role” of women as mothers and wives. She once said to a reviewer that “when I think of the lives of mothers of great men, it feels like maybe the greatest career of them all.” As her time as a songwriter faded into the past, she called her early music “useless.”
Her students also saw her in a gender supportive role; Thomson once called her a “musical midwife”. In a tribute in 1960, Copland fondly referred to “the most famous of living composition teachers.” But he also noted that he wasn’t sure Boulanger ever had “serious ambitions as a composer,” remarking that she had once told him that she had helped orchestrate a Pugno opera – no. that she was the co-creator of the work, “The Dead City.
“Is it possible that there is a mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that goes against the nature of the female mind?” Copland wondered.
Many composers, over many centuries, have made it clear that this question can be answered in the negative. But Boulanger’s conception of a musical midwife still endures in the popular imagination, and has helped to facilitate such false and damaging speculations. As academics rediscover a different Boulanger – a capable musical personality, whose creative agency and influence extended far beyond his teaching – institutions and performers should follow suit.
When Lili died in 1918, Nadia wrote her one last letter – from one composer to another.
“We know in ourselves and in our art such hours that so many others do not know,” she writes. “These feelings open so many doors – give, even when we don’t know, such meaning to our lives.”
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