Boulanger (September 16, 1887 – October 22, 1979) was an influential
composer, conductor, and music professor. She taught many of the most
important composers and conductors of the 20th century.
grandmother was the singer Juliette Boulanger. Her grandfather, Frédérick
Boulanger won first prize in violoncello in his fifth year (1797) at
the recently founded Paris Conservatoire. Her father, Ernest Boulanger,
later studied at the same conservatory (his teachers included Charles-Valentin
Alkan), and won the Prix de Rome in 1835. He later taught there, where
he met Nadia's mother, the Russian Princess, Raissa Myshetskaya.
emotional life was largely centered around her love for her sister,
Lili Boulanger, who was six years younger. Lili was one of Nadia's first
composition students, and it was largely under her guidance that Lili
became the first woman ever to win the Prix de Rome, in 1913.
entered the Paris Conservatoire at the age of ten. It was here that
she studied organ with Alexandre Guilmant and later with Charles-Marie
Widor. She also studied composition with Gabriel Fauré. After
winning first prize in organ, accompaniment, and fugue, she won the
Deuxième Grand Prix de Rome in 1908.
Boulanger, who liked
to be known as 'Mademoiselle', was the first woman to conduct several
major symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the
Boston Symphony, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in England the Hallé
Orchestra of Manchester and the BBC Symphony Orchestra.
Her first teaching
position was at Alfred Cortot's École Normale de Musique de Paris,
in 1916. After World War I (1921) she was appointed professor of Harmony
at the American Conservatory of Music in Fontainebleau, where she was
discovered by a new generation of American composers [see below.] She
eventually became its director . She also taught at the Longy
School of Music and the Paris Conservatory.
Many of her students
from the 1920s, including Aaron Copland, Walter Piston, Roy Harris,
and Virgil Thomson, established a new school of composition based on
her teaching, and Walter Piston, in addition to his compositions, has
produced three superb textbooks, on Harmony, Counterpoint and Orchestration.
It used to be said that every town in America had its Boulanger pupil.
Her influence was immense throughout most of the Western musical world.
methods included traditional harmony, score reading at the piano, species
counterpoint, analysis, and mastery of sight singing (using fixed-Do
solfège). Her students were also expected to memorize Bach's
Well-Tempered Clavier Books 1 and 2, and to learn to improvise fugues
(as Bach often did). Her range was phenomenal, her ear perfect, her
memory seemingly photographic, and her disciplinary demands absolute.
Her whole character was imbued with passionate dedication, generosity,
and intense love of life.
Here is an incomplete
list of her musical students. Neither Boulanger nor Annette Dieudonné,
her life-long friend and assistant, kept records of those students who
studied with Boulanger. In addition, it is virtually impossible to determine
the exact nature of an individual's private study with Boulanger.
These two sisters
made an extraordinary impact on French musical life, Lili being the
first woman to win the much coveted Prix de Rome, and Nadia becoming
perhaps the most influencial musical teacher of the 20th century.
Nadia entered the
Paris Conservatoire aged ten, and later studied with Faure. Her cantata
La sirene won her second prize in the Prix de Rome in 1908. She was
deeply affected by the death of her sister in 1918, and from 1919 was
no longer active as a composer. She devoted her life to conducting and
teaching; her pupils included Lennox Berkeley, Elliott Carter, Aaron
Copland, Jean Francais, Thea Musgrave and Walter Piston.
musical career was guided to begin with by Nadia. Her cantata Faust
et Helene won the Prix de Rome in 1913, after which her achievements
became headline news. Ill from the age of twelve, and fragile for the
rest of her brief life, she composed a surprising amount of music. Above
all her sensitive handling of large choral and orchestral forces continues
to compel admiration.