A Small Tribute to Nadia Boulanger

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX

 

Nadia Boulanger was an unstoppable force who reshaped modern musical practices and challenged traditional gender roles. She was a world-famous composer, conductor, and educator whose students have gone on to become some of the most successful figures in contemporary music.

Boulanger was born into a musical family in Paris, France in 1887. Her father, Ernest Boulanger, was a successful professor at the Paris Conservatory and her mother, Raissa Myschetsky, was a Russian princess and vocalist. At the age of ten, Nadia was enrolled in the Paris Conservatory and began studying composition with internationally renowned composers including Louis Vierne, Auguste Chapuis, and Gabriel Fauré. She completed her studies in 1904 and accepted a position as an assistant professor at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique in Paris only five years later, at the age of twenty-two. In this same period, Boulanger and her younger sister both made history by being the first women ever to win first and second place in the Prix de Rome competition (Nadia Boulanger, La Sirène, 2nd place, 1908 and Juliette “Lili” Boulanger, Faust et Helene, 1st place, 1913).

Over the next decade, Boulanger proceeded to change the face of music through multiple positions in education and revolutionary performance tours. From 1920-1939, she worked at the Ecole Normale de Musique in Paris as an instructor, head of the music theory department, and head of the department of music composition. It should be noted that she was not only one of the youngest professors at the time, but also one of the only women in the world to head any department, much less two. From 1935-1939, she was also employed by the American Conservatory at Fountainebleau in Paris as a professor of music and conducting. Through this position, she was also able to complete multiple lecturing and performance tours in the United States. It was at this time that Boulanger also began to accept lecturing positions at multiple universities in the U.S. including Radcliffe College, Wellesley College, the Washington College of Music, and the Juilliard School of Music. In 1936, she made history again by becoming the first woman ever to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (London) and followed it with similarly ground-breaking performances in front of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. When asked about her feelings about making history for women everywhere, Boulanger famously replied that she had been “a woman for a little over fifty years and [had] gotten over [her] initial astonishment.”

Nadia Boulanger was responsible for training several of the most famous contemporary composers including Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Thea Musgrave, Quincy Jones, Roy Harris, and Elliot Carter. Lennox Berkeley, who studied with Boulanger from 1927 to 1932, described her teaching method in an article for the Monthly Musical Record in 1931. He listed the three main portions of her instruction as follows; the study of form and orchestration by the “great masters,” practice writing musical exercises, and the completion and revision of musical compositions. Boulanger was a great proponent of studying works by successful composers of history whether it be Beethoven, Bach, or Stravinsky (with whom she was personally acquainted). Berkeley elaborated that these studies including analyzing scores, playing the works on a piano, and lectures by Boulanger. He defined “musical exercises” as practicing specific devices like counterpoint or fugue until “absolute correctness” of technique was achieved. When it came to advising her students on actual compositions, Berkeley shared that Boulanger “was very severe” in her criticisms of compositional technique while simultaneously being “extremely impartial” to individual styles. Whether because of her incredibly high standards, contemporary approach to composing, or her willingness to be flexible the the individual needs of each pupil, Boulanger’s students were completely devoted to her. Berkeley described her as having “infectious enthusiasm, keen intelligence, and an open mind” while another student, Virgil Thomson, referred to her as a “one-woman graduate school.”

From 1940 to her death in 1979, Boulanger continued to teach in Paris and eventually became the director of the American Conservatory at Fountainebleau. She continued to earn prestigious honors including being named the Master of the Chapel to the Prince of Monaco (1947), earning the Howland Medal (1962), being named Grand Officer by the Legion of Honor (1977), earning the Gold Medal from the Academy of Beaux-Arts (1977), and several others. In her seventies and eighties, she visited the United States three more times and made more than thirty trips to England to lecture and conduct sold-out performances.

 

For more information, consider Leonie Rosenstiel’s Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music.

 

 

Sources

A&E Television Networks. (2014). Nadia Boulanger Biography. Biography.com. Web. 15 April,

          2018. <https://www.biography.com/people/nadia-boulanger-9221266>

 

"Boulanger, Nadia." Contemporary Musicians. Encyclopedia.com. 15 April,

          2018. <https://www.encyclopedia.com/people/literature-and-arts/music-history-

          composers-and-performers-biographies/nadia-boulanger>  

 

Berkeley, Lennox. (1931). Nadia Boulanger as Teacher. The Monthly Musical Record. Music

          Web International. Web. 15 April, 2018. <http://www.musicweb-

          international.com/classrev/2008/June08/Boulanger_Berkeley.htm>

 

Editors. (2018). Lili Boulanger. British Broadcasting Company. Web. 24 April, 2018.

          <https://www.bbc.co.uk/music/artists/ef8694eb-09d9-4695-8eee-1c2717564a37