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‘Nadia Boulanger and Her World’ Review: The Mother of Contemporary Classical


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This year, the Bard Musical Festival is dedicating its programming to the life and work of the pedagogue, composer and musician.


Nadia Boulanger

Photo: Archives of the Centre international Nadia et Lili Boulanger

Always adventuresome and provocative, the Bard Music Festival has been examining major composers for three decades. But unlike previous Bard laureates, this year’s subject—the revered French musician and pedagogue Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)—is virtually unknown as a composer. Her few compositions, beautiful as they are, have rarely been performed.

But as an intrepid woman in the male-dominated musical world of her day, Boulanger was artistically well armed. A masterly organist, she toured the U.S. in 1925 as soloist in the premiere performances of her student Aaron Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. One of the first professional female conductors, she was the first woman to lead the Boston Symphony, Philadelphia and New York Philharmonic orchestras, among others. A great Stravinsky advocate, she conducted the 1938 premiere of his “Dumbarton Oaks” in Washington.

Nevertheless, it was as a composition teacher and a demanding muse to successive generations of young American composers that Boulanger joined the immortals. She “single-handedly shaped the course of modern American music from Aaron Copland to Philip Glass, ” observes Bard Festival founder and co-artistic director Leon Botstein by telephone. “Her influence in this arena is equivalent to that of Enrico Fermi and Albert Einstein on American science.” Spotlighting Boulanger also realizes Mr. Botstein’s longstanding goal “to examine the function of teachers and their value to creative students.”

The two Bard Festival weekends (Aug. 6-8 and 12-15), running under the program name “Nadia Boulanger and Her World,” will place the composer’s long career in context through performances and pre-recorded panel discussions and lectures. Each concert is being offered both in person and via livestream, with tickets for both available on the website of Bard’s Fisher Center auditorium. The programs feature a dazzling panoply of music by Boulanger’s mentors, including Gabriel Fauré, Louis Vierne and Charles-Marie Widor, contemporaries like Ravel, Satie and Poulenc, and her extraordinary roster of students, illustrating the evolving world of European and American music in which she worked and spread her influence for over 60 years. 

Music was in the Boulanger family marrow. Her paternal grandparents were noted musicians; her father was the composer Ernest Boulanger (1815-1900). Nadia’s phenomenal gifts earned her a coveted place at the Paris Conservatoire at age 10. Upon entering the school’s 1908 Prix de Rome competition as a composer, itself a bold move for a young woman, she scandalized the judges by writing an instrumental fugue instead of the stipulated vocal one. Her cantata “La Sirène” ultimately earned her only second place. Ironically, her younger sister, Lili, became the first woman to win the Grand Prix de Rome for music, in 1913, only to die of intestinal tuberculosis in 1918.

Devastated by Lili’s death, and believing her own creative efforts inferior, Nadia stopped composing by the early 1920s. Having taught privately since age 16, she embraced teaching full time, most famously becoming a founding member of the Conservatoire Américain at Fontainebleau upon its establishment in 1921 at the celebrated chateau. The school was founded to offer young, promising Americans the best of French musical training, which was highly regarded, especially in the anti-German atmosphere prevailing after World War I.

Boulanger and her colleagues were initially shocked that some American apprentice composers confused harmony and counterpoint and that students were insufficiently grounded in other steps of French basic training, believing that “all you have to do is sit at the piano and you’ll find the right chords.” Thus, she and her colleagues imparted to successive generations the knowledge and understanding of the particularly refined, highly organized French music theory, and especially of the crucial techniques of ear training, musical dictation (i.e., notating complex music as it is played) and harmonic and formal analysis that provided an ironclad technical grounding for modern composition and performance. The charismatic Boulanger infused students with a rigorous classic discipline of musical craftsmanship and probing, in-depth understanding, while always encouraging them to develop their creative individuality. 

This painstaking regimen inspired some of the finest 20th-century musical minds, who flocked to her classes, beginning with Copland in the 1920s, and including Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Elliott Carter, Marc Blitzstein, Astor Piazzolla, Walter Piston, David Diamond, Louise Talma (the first American invited to teach there), George Walker (the first African-American to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music), and such pop and jazz luminaries as Burt Bacharach, Michel Legrand, Donald Byrd and Quincy Jones.

Beside the reflected glory of her students’ works, Bard Festival audiences will enjoy the rare opportunity to hear music by both Boulanger sisters. Nadia’s songs and chamber compositions beautifully and sensitively deploy the chromatically rich emotive language of late Romanticism and Impressionism—her songs are especially influenced by Fauré and Debussy.

Lili’s music is even more arresting. Quoting motifs from Wagner’s “Parsifal” and “Tristan und Isolde,” her scintillatingly orchestrated “Faust et Hélène” is a rapturous operatic trio adding the theatrical verve of Massenet to the mix. In contrast, her “Vieille Prière Bouddhique” (“Old Buddhist Prayer,” 1914-17) mesmerizingly exploits ancient Eastern modality in chant-like choral writing, while the vigorous brass and organ harmonies and bold quasi-antique textures of Lili’s 1916 setting of Psalm 24 reveal her emerging modernism. We can be grateful that the Bard’s Boulanger celebration is at last shedding light on their two legacies and others so long overshadowed.

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