Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Boulanger Sisters

Nadia Boulanger in 1925

Lili Boulanger
A week or two ago, I had the opportunity to think about French music, specifically French music after 1900.  The opportunity? A serendipitous bit of advance program planning that dropped into my lap. It felt a bit like old home week in a very nice way, revisiting la France et sa musique--a musical "land" I'd spent a decent amount of time in the 90's with the Athena Trio and the talented Sylvie Beaudette and Jan Roberts-Hayden, touring and ultimately recording the program that became our CD "Fabulous Femmes."

So back to 20th century French music, programming, and women composers. I started thinking about the Boulanger sisters, Nadia and her younger sister Lili.  Without doubt the most influential musical pedagogue of the 20th century, Nadia taught literally scads of today's major composers. Her influence fans out exponentially if you include second generation Boulanger students, i.e., those composers who studied with those who studied with her.

Nadia won second place in the Prix de Rome, and lil' sis' Lili won it, the first woman to do so.  A talented composer in her own right, Nadia always insisted that her sib was the better of the two.  Yet Lili, never strong in constitution, died tragically young, before her 25th birthday.  In response, Nadia virtually ceased composing and turned her full attention to teaching, where she was already active, performing and conducting.

This leads to an interesting game of what if.

Imagine for a moment...

What if Lili had survived?  What then? 

Well, first of all, the world would probably have a wealth of works by Lili and Nadia--a wonderful legacy of both their musical talents and not a bad thing at all.

But what about all the composers who Nadia taught, such as Walter Piston, Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter,  Philip Glass, Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copland, and locally, David Conte, among many others?  Might their compositional voices have developed differently?  What might the shape, color, and sound of classical music in the second half of the twentieth century, let alone today, have been like without Nadia Boulanger as such a major pedagogue, if, for example, she had continued  to split her attention between teaching and composing? Or if she'd decided to stop teaching and simply compose?

The mind boggles.

Much like so much of chaos theory, in which the beating of butterfly wings halfway across the globe can change things a continent away, a single event had untold significant consequences. In this case, stunning tragedy begot a stunningly positive legacy.

What I'm reading: Poetry by Czeslaw Milosz and Paul Celan; Meet at the Ark at Eight (yes, those were my chuckles you heard), Luna, The Princess Curse, Playing Juliet, and that fabulous international mystery set in Berlin, The Lady in Zagreb.

What I'm listening to: Clara Schumann's Op. 6 and Robert Schumann's Davidsbundlertaenze (inspired by a lovely concert played by a friend and wonderful colleague recently); music by Nadia and Lili Boulanger.

What I'm working on: Winter Solstice Songs by Elena Ruehr, Kay Ryan Songs by Laura Schwendinger, Bartok folk settings, and songs by Vandor,  in other words, my  November performance repertory for E4TT.  (And a big shout out to the PJCC for presenting us this weekend for that repertory! Wonderful concert, with a great audience.)

Post a Comment