Women in Music: Nadia Boulanger
May 18, 2014 by Christine Gengaro, Ph.D.
When the world of concerts, conductors, and art music was forming in Europe, men dominated every position. They were the composers, the conductors, the impresarios, the instrumentalists, the copyists, and the teachers. Certainly a woman emerged now and then, sometimes she was a notable performer or perhaps even a composer. We know about some of the talented women who were related to famous male composers (Fanny Mendelssohn and Nannerl Mozart spring to mind), and we have some historical accounts of women who created a musical life, despite the societal conventions. This week I am introducing an intermittent series on the women who have been part of the musical fabric of history. The first edition of this “Women in Music” series is about a famous teacher.
It is tempting to believe that our favorite composers were born writing, destined to fulfill their potential no matter what. But the truth is that our favorite composers were once beginners, and they had teachers who helped them and changed them for the better. Bach and Mozart, for example, had close relatives as their first teachers. Some started out with local teachers of varying quality, but encountered their most influential mentors once they were out of school. One of the most famous, influential, and important teachers in the twentieth century was a woman named Nadia Boulanger.
Nadia Boulanger was born in 1887, and before she became a teacher, she was of course a student. Her father, Ernest Boulanger was a composer and pianist. Eventually he taught singing at the Paris Conservatoire, where he had attended as a student. When he was twenty, Ernest won the Prix de Rome, one of the most prestigious prizes for composition. Nadia, who became fascinated by music at about the age of about five, listened in on her father’s lessons. When Nadia was six, her younger sister Lili was born. By the time Nadia was seven, she was already serious about attending the Conservatoire, so she took lessons with some of the teachers there and studied diligently for the entrance exams. Lili would often attend her sister’s lessons as a quiet observer. Nadia entered the Conservatoire at the age of nine, and showed great promise, and an even greater work ethic. When her father died in 1900, Nadia, was put in the position of having to help support the family. She planned to become a teacher, but also began performing as a pianist and an organist to bring in extra money.
Nadia considered a career in composition. Her teachers, Raoul Pugno and Gabriel Fauré encouraged her. She wrote in a style that seems influenced by Claude Debussy and the Impressionists, although her works usually have some tonal grounding. She was determined to follow in her father’s footsteps and win the Prix de Rome. She applied in 1906, but did not win. The following year, she did better, making it to the final round of judging, but again, she didn’t win. In 1908, she tried a third time, stirring up controversy by submitting an instrumental fugue rather than a vocal fugue. Although her work was accepted, she did not take home the first prize, but placed second. She applied once more in 1909, but did not make it to the final round.
Lili, in the meantime, had become a musician and composer as well, and it became her goal to win the Prix de Rome as well. Lili achieved what her sister could not, and in 1913 became the first woman to win the prize. Far from being competitive with her sister, Nadia was intensely proud of her sister’s accomplishment. Unfortunately, Lili suffered from chronic illness, now thought to be Chrohn’s disease, and it caused her tragically early death at the age of twenty-four. In her final years, she wrote as much as she could, but also helped her sister with support efforts for French soldiers in the First World War. Lili’s final piece was a setting of the “Pie Jesu” text, which was dedicated to Nadia. Although Nadia lived many more decades without Lili, her devotion to her sister never faded. When Nadia died in 1979 at the age of ninety-two, she was laid to rest in the same tomb as Lili.
In 1904, Nadia began her career as a teacher, and although she had received attention for composition, she felt better suited to teaching. Her studio was in the family’s apartment in Paris. She taught private lessons, but also held a Wednesday afternoon class on sight-singing. These Wednesday afternoon sessions were held for decades—nearly Nadia’s entire life. After the weekly sight-singing class, composers and musicians would drop by and the students would be able to chat with them informally. Among such guests were Igor Stravinsky and Gabriel Fauré. Nadia had met Stravinsky at the premiere of The Firebird, and their meeting was the beginning of a fruitful friendship. She conducted the world premiere of his piece, Dumbarton Oaks Concerto.
Many composers passed through her doors. One of the most notable of these was Aaron Copland. When they began their work together, Boulanger was thirty-four years old; Copland was twenty-one. He was at first wary of having a woman for a teacher, but soon discovered that he liked the way she did things. In a letter to his brother, Copland said of his teacher, “This intellectual Amazon is not only professor at the Conservatoire, is familiar with all music from Bach to Stravinsky, but is prepared for anything worse in the way of dissonance that I may choose fit to hammer out….A more charming womanly woman never lived.” The list of her students is extensive and includes Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach, Walter Piston, Elliot Carter, Thea Musgrave, and Virgil Thomson.
The best teachers do not try to make their students into clones. They inspire, encourage, and most of all help their students find their own unique voice and talents. One of my favorite Nadia Boulanger stories concerns the Argentinean composer Astor Piazzolla. He hid from her the fact that he loved and played tango music. Perhaps he thought she wouldn’t approve. He had lessons with her during the day and played tango in the clubs at night. Knowing something was up, she asked him about it, and finally he played his bandoneón—the accordion-like instrument associated with tango—for her. Instead of telling him he must play the violin or piano like a “real” musician, she was delighted because she knew it was his true voice she was hearing. “Astor,” she told him, “your classical pieces are well written, but the true Piazzolla is here. Never leave it behind.”
But being a teacher wasn’t her only contribution to music, although it would be enough if it were. Nadia Boulanger was also a conductor, and she was the first woman to conduct some of the major symphony orchestras in the US and Europe, like the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the BBC Symphony, the Hallé Orchestra in Manchester, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Nadia Boulanger’s influence is immeasurable. She helped generations of musicians and composers over the seven decades she was a teacher. Some of her students became teachers themselves, extending her influence even further. She taught in Europe and the United States, and her standards were high, but she was sensitive to the needs of individual students. I think an important part of her talent was knowing who her students were as people, not just as musicians. She enriched the collective creative output of twentieth century composers, nurturing many exceptional artists, but never creating them in her own image. She once said that it was the mark of true genius to always be yourself.