Great Composers: Nadia Boulanger

Great Composers: Nadia Boulanger



she taught pretty much every notable composer of the 20th century I'm the classical nerd and today we're talking about Nadia Boulanger Nadia Boulanger was born in 1887 on her father's 72nd birthday and from then on seemed deathly afraid of any and all things music until her mother became pregnant with her younger sister Lily after which Nadia was very interested in the family business the sisters were very close and Lily would often tag along with Nadia to her classes at the pari Conservatoire which she had entered at age nine she had the entirety of Bach's well-tempered clavier memorized when she was 10 when her father passed away money became tight when Nadia became the primary breadwinner by teaching at the Conservatoire she's implemented this income through keyboard performances and private lessons which she became widely known for very quickly Nadia did not believe that she was as cut out for the compositional world as Lily was Nadia had gone for the coveted Prix de Rome several times but never got any farther than second place on one of her three tries composer Kamiya Sol songs who has long at odds with the Boulanger family who is tis displeasure at Nadia's fugue and attempted to have her disqualified from that year's competition due to a technicality and although she did not get disqualified she still didn't win combined with her need to keep her family afloat financially and her compositional output is much less than one might expect from a musician with such a long career nevertheless both Boulanger sisters were able to combine the best aspects of French music at the turn of the 20th century Nadia was also a noted conductor making her professional debut in that post in 1912 what makes the elder Boulanger sisters career so enormous ly interesting is the sheer number of musicians that she was able to teach or to befriend beginning rather auspiciously with igor stravinsky at the premiere of his ballet the Firebird in 1910 when World War one broke out the sisters worked together on helping the homefront but this point Lily was very sick and she died in March of 1918 after this Nadia took it upon herself to promote her late sister's work as much as she could it's a myth that Lily's death was what sparked the end of Nadia's compositional career rather it was Lily's winning of the Prix de Rome that did so if you can point to anything Nadia still continued to compose on occasion but it wasn't with nearly the same vigor or with nearly the same quality as lily they might have worked that Nadia put herself through took its toll and although she had considerably more physical fortitude than her sister she still suffered from chronic migraines and tooth aches which prevented the number of concerts she could go to and instead made her focus ever more on teaching she had grown so self-critical of her own compositions that she described them all as useless to her earliest teacher Gabrielle for a possibly spurred on by the fact that she believed that six was much too late to start a career in music on the teaching side she was fast becoming one of the most sought-after pedagogues the world over with aaron copland now amongst her students George Gershwin even paid her a visit and like to brag to his friends that she had told him that she had nothing to teach him her teaching style was quite strict rooted in the past traditions of Bach and Monteverdi and she expected much of her students including demanding that they cross over the riot filled streets of Paris just to attend lessons one of her life's Creed's was that she demanded 100% of her attention from her students at all times she never wanted to teach to students the same way and tailored her approach to meet individual needs she said that she did not know what made a true masterpiece and enjoyed an eclectic variety of genres anything for her that fit under the very wide umbrella of good music in addition to Monteverdi which she brought back and committed to recordings she was also influential in the revival of the baroque choral master heinrich schütz and the chromatic Madrigal as carlos's waldo the early music revival owes her a great debt even if they were upset at her tendency to use modern rather than period instruments in these recordings she loved the music of her fringe Stravinsky but was sharply critical of twelve-tone and see realist methods methods that Stravinsky ironically ended up incorporating into his later music she hated Wagner to the point that she insisted that her students never mentioned his name in her presence nedarim thought that she was the most influential teacher since Socrates and for good reason in addition to those already mentioned she taught Roy Harris Virgil Thompson Philip Glass Elliott Carter Walter piston Quincy Jones John Eliot Gardiner Jean Francois David diamond Marc Blitzstein Thea Musgrave easily Blackwood basically every one those names count alongside many minor musicians who sought out her advice mainly because of her remarkable affinity for giving lessons to literally anyone who asked she sought to instill a sense of both the horizontal and vertical aspects of music in all of her students she pointed out harmonic similarities with the great masterpieces while encouraging her students to develop a sense of long and interrupted line nadia became one of the first known female conductors as well leading the london philharmonic to critical acclaim in the 1930s she toured the United States extensively as a conductor performer and guest lecturer at one point going on a grueling 118 day tour in which she gave a hundred and two lectures in 1938 she became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra and when the press wanted a statement she said I have been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment she toured the u.s. because most of her students were American expatriates who had moved to Paris specifically to take lessons with her a high honor indeed and because she desperately wished to escape the rising tide of Nazism she moved to the United States in 1948 pretty much the last possible moment and she ended up teaching at the Peabody Conservatory she returned to France at the end of the war and became a professor of collaborative piano at the Petit Conservatoire she taught and worked ceaselessly despite encroaching deafness and blindness right up until the end of her life in 1979 throughout she was a lady of extreme energy and work ethic yet not without a fair amount of contradiction at one point she performed her sister's pieces at a concert benefiting women's rights only later to say that she thought that women shouldn't ever haven't been given the vote she never married and yet thought the highest honor for a woman was as a wife and a mother her music which has been significantly less explored than that of her sisters is much more worthy of inclusion in the repertoire than she believed it was more forward-thinking and then she gave it credit for either including massive piano tone clusters in her opera much of it is stylistically similar to her sisters which includes a focus on music for the voice Virgil Thomson once said that she was a one-woman graduate school and that tells you all you really need to know about her prowess at the highest levels of musical knowledge

5 Comments

  • Laura MC says:

    I hope that you will redo this for great reason. Speech on such classic beauty, should be slow and appreciated and Heard.

  • Frida Zebadua says:

    "She hated Wagner to the point that she insisted that her students never mentioned his name in her presence" MY QUEEN

  • Green Mouziqe says:

    What about Piazzolla?!?! :(…

  • Steve Hinnenkamp says:

    You did a quick appreciation of Mademoiselle. Yet it substance.
    I studied 3 times per week in 1973. An American, at 19. It nearly killed me trying to prepare for exercise of 4 or 6 clefs. Yet., my compositions were always received with warmth and enthusiasm one did not expect.
    Mem was 87 at the time– vibrant like few can imagine.
    Thank you for youthful charismatic introduction!

  • Suzan Smyth says:

    Nadia Boulanger is mentioned many times on WMNR and WSHU radio stations in Connecticut, and it is good to see photos and film clips of her teaching piano and harmony. Her response to being "asked in 1938 how it felt to be the first female conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra," i.e., "I've been a woman for a little more than 50 years, and I've gotten over my original astonishment," was encouraging.

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