Nadia Boulanger

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Nadia Boulanger French musician of immense international prestige, stood out as a conductor, composer, pianist and organist. She was the teacher who trained and taught many of the great composers of the 20th century.

Nadia Boulanger was admired and respected by all the great musicians and conductors.

Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim, Aaron Copland, Igor Markévich, Yehudi Menuhin, Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones at some point in their lives received classes or teachings from Nadia Boulanger.

Childhood and family of Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger was born on September 16, 1887 in Paris, into a family that had a tradition of two musical generations.

Her father, Ernest Boulanger, was a composer of comic operas, and a singing teacher at the “National Conservatory of Paris“.

Her mother was named Raissa Myschetsky and she was of Slavic origin.

Ernest and Raissa had two daughters, Nadia and Lili, both of whom grew up under the stern maternal gaze. Her father was a mentor and inspiration for both.

Nadia was the older sister, lanky and intelligent. Lili the younger sister, (born in 1893), was less attractive and always suffered from diseases. They both received an excellent musical education.

Her maternal grandmother, Marie Hallinger, studied cello at the “National Conservatory of Paris“, where she met her brother-in-law Ernest Boulanger, when she was studying piano and composition.

Another grandmother of Nadia was the singer Julie Boulanger.

Musical training of Nadia Boulanger

Musical sessions were frequent at the Boulanger’s house. Among the regular visitors were Gounod, Saint-Saëns and Fauré, friends of the father.

She soon entered the National Conservatory of Paris, the French musical institution par excellence, and showed talent as a pianist and organist.

Due to her health problems, Lili Boulanger was unable to attend the center regularly. But, she received classes from her sister, from Georges Caussade and from Paul Vidal.

Current Conservatory of Music, Paris. Credit: Wikipedia. Author: Beckton Beach

At the National Conservatory in Paris, Nadia obtained a very brilliant record, and she counted Gabriel Fauré and Charles-Marie Widor among her teachers.

At first, she received elementary piano lessons and piano accompaniment. Then, harmony, counterpoint, fugue and organ.

However, she never took composition classes at the Conservatory.

She won several competitions in music theory, organ, piano accompaniment and fugue.

Nadia Boulanger as a performer

Nadia Boulanger’s career as a pianist and organist began in 1904. That is, since she was 17 years old.

She played the piano as a soloist and was lavish in duet with her former piano teacher, Raoul Pugno.

When Raoul Pugno died in 1914, Nadia did not feel in the mood to continue playing the piano as a soloist or to progress as a composer.

She did not stop playing the piano in concerts, but she devoted herself more to teaching and conducting.

Nadia and Lili Boulanger won the Prix de Rome

The “Prix de Rome” was created by the “French Academy” in 1803, in order to reward young artists, granting them scholarships to study in Italy.

Art students could participate in this award: painting, sculpture, engraving, architecture and musical composition. Women were excluded from these contests. Only men could present their candidacies.

One hundred years later, in 1903, the French Minister of Education made the surprise announcement that, from that year on, the “Prix de Rome” would be open to women.

In addition, the minister announced that the competition tests would take place at the Château de Fontainebleau.

Chateaux Fontainebleau
The Château de Fontainebleau, is one of the largest French royal palaces. Credit: Wikipedia

In musical composition, candidates had to be under thirty years old, and take the following tests:

  • Pretest: write a leak.
  • Essay contest: write a choir work on a given text.
  • Main test: write a cantata about a given text.

Nadia Boulanger was presented for the Prize in 1906 and 1907, but did not get any honors.

She returned to participate in the 1908 Prize. In the choral fugue, she was rejected by the teacher Camille Saint-Saëns, who had provided the theme for the fugue.

However, in her cantata she obtained the most votes. Finally, Nadia Boulanger won the Second Grand Prix of Rome 1908, in musical composition.

In 1912, her sister Lili Boulanger signed up for the first time. Unfortunately, she had to withdraw due to her chronic illnesses that made it impossible for her to stay in the competition.

Undaunted, Lili Boulanger competed again in 1913 and, without a hitch, was admitted to the final round.

With the composition of her cantata “Faust and Helena“, she easily won the First Grand Prix of Rome 1913.

The judges unanimously rated “the emotional anguish of the tense drama, the astonishing security of touch in the overall structure, and the technical brilliance and scoring.

Nadia Boulanger was also a composer

In 1904, Nadia Boulanger was also encouraged to compose, as her piano teacher, Raoul Pugno, encouraged her to try out as a composer.

Together with Raoul Pugno, Nadia composed the opera “La ville morte”, with a libretto by Gabriele D’Annunzio; and a cycle of songs written by her for Raoul Pugno: “Les heures claires”, an “Allegro” for orchestra, the cantata “Sirène” and a “Faintaisie variée” for piano and orchestra.

But, the sense of self-demand that Nadia Boulanger had, forced her to leave this facet of her musical activity.

She thought she would never be a great songwriter. She didn’t burn the scores, but she kept them. Much later, she admitted that she never looked at them again.

Nadia Boulanger did not publish anything about her teaching method. But, the “Treaty of harmony” by her student Walter Piston, it gives some clues about what happened in Nadia Boulanger’s classes.

She adopted the procedure of selecting examples of her own compositions or those of others. It is a successful formula, since it is easier to associate a harmonic chain with an already known passage.

Harmony and counterpoint were taught from masterpieces. What Nadia Boulanger valued most in a composition was its unity of style.

Not considering herself a genius, she got Igor Stravinsky, the composer who has mastered the most styles without abandoning the logic of the work, to sponsor her classes.

In addition to mutual admiration, many things united Nadia Boulanger and Stravinsky: Russian ancestry, aristocratic pretenses, politically conservative ideology, obsession with the craftsmanship of the musical profession, the primacy of counterpoint over harmony, the concept of interpretation, curiosity and openness in musical matters.

Lili Boulanger’s death in 1918

On March 15, 1918, her sister Lili Boulanger died of pneumonia when she was just 24 years old and was already decisively aiming as a great composer.

Lili Boulanger
Lili Boulanger younger sister of Nadia Boulanger. Credit: web

The weight of her sister’s memory was carried by Nadia Boulanger for life. For sixty years, she organized a funeral every March 15 to commemorate the death of her sister.

Nadia Boulanger, conductor

As a conductor, she was one of the first to recover the works of Claudio Monteverdi, in the 1930s.

Nadia Boulanger was the first woman to conduct a concert for the “Royal Philharmonic Society” in London, in 1937.

In 1938, she was director of the “Boston Symphony Orchestra“.

Boston Orchestra
The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the best known in the world. Credit: Wikipedia. Author: Michael J. Lutch

The following year, in 1939, Nadia Boulanger was director of the “New York Philharmonic Orchestra“.

Nadia Boulanger music teacher

Nadia Boulanger stood out as a pianist, composer and conductor. But, she was unsurpassed in her role as a music teacher.

Nadia Boulanger’s teaching career began when she was sixteen. She gave private music lessons. Since then, her dedication to teaching was total.

From the beginning of her career, Nadia Boulanger combined and completed her work in the various institutions with teaching at home.

In 1904 she settled in Parisian street Ballu, 36, known in the musical environment as the “bakery”. Since 1970, that address is Plaza Lili Boulanger, nº 1.

When she was 20 years old, in 1907, Nadia gave some music classes at the “Conservatory Femina-Música” in Paris.

In a professional way, Nadia taught from 1920 to 1939, at the “Normal School of Music in Paris.” In 1957, she returned as a teacher to this Normal School of Music.

In 1921, she was one of the founders of the “American Conservatory of Fontainebleau.” In that institution she was a teacher and then a director, until 1948.

Between 1946 and 1957, she gave piano accompaniment classes at the “Conservatory of Music in Paris.” Since 1950 she was the director of this institution.

The classes that she had started in her apartment in 1904, she kept for 70 years. Every Wednesday, students and intellectuals met at 36 Ballu Street.

Nadia Boulanger always insisted on the importance of consistency, whatever the style.

The students obtained a great musical background, key to the success of Nadia Boulanger’s teaching.

The success of Nadia Boulanger’s classes resulted in tours of the United States, England and Europe.

She taught at the Juilliard School, at the Yehudi Menuhin School, at the Longy School, at the Royal College of Music, at the Royal Academy of Music.

Death of Nadia Boulanger

Nadia Boulanger, never married. It is estimated that it had more than 1,200 students, many of them world famous

This extraordinary and talented teacher of musicians, died in Paris at the age of 92, in 1979.

Her heirs were: her personal assistant and former student Cécile Armagnac; and the composer and teacher Annette Dieudonné, who donated part of Nadia Boulanger’s possessions.

Honors awarded to Nadia Boulanger

  • 1932: Knight of the Order of the Legion of Honor (French Republic)
  • 1934: Order of Poland
  • 1962: Henry Howland Memorial Award (United States of America)
  • 1975: Gold Medal of the “Academy of Fine Arts of the Institute of France”
  • 1977: Grand Officer of the Order of the Legion of Honor (French Republic)
  • 1977: Order of the British Empire
  • 1977: Order of Saint Charles (Principality of Monaco)
  • 1977: Order of the Crown (Kingdom of Belgium)

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