In 1916 the sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger spent several months together in the Villa Medici in Rome. Residence in the villa was usually awarded to the winner of the Prix de Rome, a major competition for French composers; Lili had won in 1913, but an earlier visit to Italy had been interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
When the sisters arrived the mansion was mostly empty because of the war, and they quickly got to work. Each tried to finish an opera and they found solace and inspiration in each other’s creativity. It was perhaps an unprecedented moment in the patriarchal history of classical music: two women compose operas side by side.
“They really leaned on each other,” said musicologist Kimberly Francis, who wrote an upcoming magazine article about the sibling, in a recent interview. “It was this unique partnership.”
The partnership did not last. During her trip, Lili, then 22, fell ill with pneumonia, and Nadia, who was six years older than her, took care of her as always. Within two years, Lili was dead, her opera never finished, and the life of Nadia, her own opera that was not fully orchestrated, changed forever.
After the death of her younger sister, Nadia turned from composing to pedagogy and became the most renowned composition teacher of the 20th century – if not in music history. Her students, the so-called “Boulangerie”, included future luminaries such as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. Composer Virgil Thomson once described Boulanger as “a one-woman graduate school so powerful and so pervasive that legend attributes two things to every American city: a five-and-dime and a Boulanger student”.
And so Boulanger, who died in 1979 at the age of 92, is remembered to this day as a great teacher who taught great composers. Women have often played this subordinate role in music history: mothers, muses and teachers through to the men of the canon. A two-week festival, Nadia Boulanger and Her World, starting August 6th at Bard College, invites you to rethink her life and legacy.
After three decades with 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?” said musicologist Jeanice Brooks, who received the festival’s scholarship, in a recent interview. “What happens is you put a question mark after the title: Boulanger and Her World? Is it really? Is it yours? “
In the 12 concerts of the festival, compositions by the two sisters as well as music by forerunners, contemporaries and students of Nadia Boulanger, who show 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 in the Parisian scene – Boulanger studied music intensively from the age of 5 under the supervision of her domineering mother. Before she was a teenager, she became a star student at the Paris Conservatory surrounded by students a decade older. As a budding composer, Boulanger has set her sights on the Prix de Rome. Many expected that she would be the first woman to win the award.
In the first round of the Prix, participants were asked to compose a vocal fugue based on a melody written by one of the judges. But the headstrong Boulanger decided that the melody was better suited for a string quartet. The incident became known as the “Affaire Fugue,” and Boulanger received international attention for defying the jury. Some wanted her to be excluded from the competition; Women were not expected to disregard the French music establishment. Instead, she won second place, potentially winning the grand prize the following year. But she didn’t, probably because of persistent sexist resentment.
Undeterred, Boulanger continued composing just as her sister’s career began to roll. Nadia’s music conjures up the ethereal sound of the late Belle Époque, in songs like “Cantique”, a brilliant setting of a Maeterlinck poem. Lili showed an extraordinary promise from an early age; Her oeuvre includes a handful of powerful sacred works, including a magnificent, plaintive setting of Psalm 130, a memorial to her father who died as a child. When Lili was about to compete for the Prix de Rome, she scrupulously followed the rules and was the first woman to win.
During this time Nadia developed an artistic and romantic partnership with the virtuoso pianist Raoul Pugno, a family friend 35 years her senior. Though the unconventional relationship sparked gossip, it allowed her to flourish professionally; she performed as a piano duo with Pugno and even conducted at a time when only a few women conducted orchestras. With Pugno she began to work on the opera “La Ville Morte”; the two wrote it together, in a Paris magazine that called the first collaboration between a “composer” and a “composer”.
Her close connections to Lili and Pugno established a complex dynamic that would last for Boulanger’s life: she was nourished by dialogue with other powerful musical personalities. When Pugno went on tour without her, she fell into fits of intense self-doubt.
“I tell myself it’s stupid to expect anything from life; it brings you nothing but disillusion, ”she wrote in her diary. “I’m not good for whatever atrophy I create.”
Although her relationships inspired her, they also put her in a subordinate role. “I’m trying to balance what I can do for Lili and Pugno,” she wrote. “It’s complicated because she’s too young to fully understand and he’s not young enough to give up on me.”
And then she lost her two co-workers. During a joint tour in Moscow in 1914, Pugno fell ill and died; Alone in a foreign country, Boulanger had to ask for money to be transferred from home in order to return with his body. Without his encouragement, her acting career stalled. Then Lili died. In order to support herself and her mother, Boulanger turned to teaching, especially at the newly founded Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau.
It is widely believed that after her sister’s death, Boulanger deliberately refrained from composing in order to advocate Lili’s music and focus on teaching. But the biographical reality is more complicated.
“She couldn’t struggle to perform her works alone when she lost Pugno. “And I think she needed someone who thinks she’s great.”
Her students thought she was great. By the mid-1920s, she had taught more than 100 Americans and earned a reputation for her keen intellect and total devotion to her students. Her classroom became a musical salon, and she led a choir of students in revelatory performances of Bach cantatas. Her recordings of Monteverdi’s madrigals were a milestone in the early music movement.
Boulanger’s work as a performer picked up again, and she began touring internationally, giving innovative concerts that spanned historical eras; she once described the ideal program as one that “allows the most daring juxtapositions without destroying unity”. A Bard concert on August 14th will reconstruct these epic programs and bring together composers from Palestrina and Monteverdi to Stravinsky and Hindemith.
Guided by her deeply rooted Catholic faith, Boulanger saw her interpretations as a service to the musical masters. The “greatest achievement” of the performers, she once wrote, was “to disappear in favor of music”. This modernist approach, shared by her guiding star and friend Stravinsky, was also a smart strategy for a woman in a man’s world. The “Affaire Fugue” had taught her that she could be successful if she did not attract too much attention, so she acted more as a transparent agent of the canon than an ambitious personality in her own right. In the late 1930s she was the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“She knew how to get into those spheres where she was an outlier, in a way that people would be comfortable with,” said Francis, the musicologist. “She was incredibly aware of what to do.”
And so, while she was still breaking through musical glass ceilings, Boulanger gave interviews in which she described the “true role” of women as mother and wife. She once told a reviewer: “When I think of the lives of mothers of great men, I think this is perhaps the greatest career of all.” When her time as a composer was a thing of the past, she described her old music as “useless”.
Her students also saw her in a gender-specific, supportive role; Thomson once called her a “musical midwife”. In a 1960 homage, Copland fondly remembered “the most famous living composition teacher.” He also noted, however, that he was unsure if Boulanger ever had “serious ambitions as a composer,” noting that she once told him that she was part of the orchestration of a Pugno opera – not that she was a co-creator of the work “La Ville Morte.”
“Is it possible that there is some mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that runs counter to the nature of the female mind?” Copland wondered.
Over the centuries, many composers have made it very clear that this question can be answered in the negative. But the notion of Boulanger as a musical midwife still holds up in popular imagination and has helped ease such false and harmful speculations. When scholars rediscover another boulanger – a great musical personality whose creative impact and influence extended far beyond their teaching activities – institutions and performers should follow suit.
When Lili was dying in 1918, Nadia wrote her one last letter – from one composer to another.
“We know such hours in ourselves and in our art that so many others do not know,” she wrote. “These feelings open so many doors – give our life such meaning, even if we are not aware of it.”