The composer, conductor and teacher Nadia Boulanger was born into a highly musical family. Her mother was a celebrated singer and her father was a composer who also taught the violin at the Paris Conservatoire; his mother had been a Russian princess. Boulanger entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten, her teachers including Vierne, Fauré and Widor, and by the time she was seventeen she had won first prize in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, organ, and piano accompaniment. Two years later she took the second prize in the Grand Prix de Rome for composition. In the same year, 1906, she became the assistant to the organist Vallier at the church of the Madeleine in Paris. From 1909 until 1924 she was assistant professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, in 1913 completing an opera, La Ville morte.
Nadia’s younger sister Lili, born in 1893, a most gifted composer and the first woman to be awarded the coveted Prix de Rome outright at the Conservatoire, died prematurely in 1918. After her death Nadia stopped composing, and henceforth dedicated her life to teaching and to making her sister’s music better known. From 1920 to 1939 she taught at the École Normale de Musique, and in 1921 she was appointed professor of harmony, counterpoint, and composition at the American Conservatory of Music in Fontainebleau, continuing these teaching duties there until her death in 1979. In 1921 she made her first trip to the USA, where in 1925 she lectured on music at Rice University, Houston, Texas, published her Lectures on Modern Music, took part in the first performance of Copland’s ‘Organ’ Symphony as soloist, and commenced her career as a conductor in America.
She was to go on to appear as a conductor with the symphony orchestras of Boston and New York, the first woman to do so. Among her most memorable interpretations were her performances of Fauré’s Requiem, a work which she did much to establish in the repertoire: a recording of one of her broadcast performances has been released. Her influence as a teacher on American students of music in particular was immense: among her pupils were Aaron Copland, Walter Piston and Roy Harris, as well as the English composer Lennox Berkeley. In 1937 she became the first woman to conduct an entire concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London, and in 1938 she directed the first performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC. Boulanger was resident in the USA between 1940 and 1946, where in addition to her conducting she taught at many American schools of music including Juilliard, Radcliffe, Wellesley, Longy, Mills, and Yale.
Returning to France in 1946, she was appointed professor of accompaniment at the Paris Conservatoire. This appointment was followed in 1950 by the directorship of the American Conservatory of Music at Fontainebleau. Boulanger taught privately, accepting as a pupil virtually anyone who approached her, and also at the Yehudi Menuhin School in England; in addition, she was named maître de chapelle to the Principality of Monaco, a post she retained until the end of her life. Held in universal esteem as a musician of profound understanding and capability, she died at Fontainebleau in 1979 aged ninety-three.
As a teacher Nadia Boulanger concentrated on developing the musical ear of her pupils through a strict application of musical techniques, and on encouraging each to develop his or her own individuality. She took the role of a guide, teaching music in all its aspects. She herself had an astonishing musical memory: one of her pupils recalled that Nadia looked at one of her scores for a few seconds and said, ‘My dear, these measures have the same harmonic progression as Bach’s F major Prelude and Chopin’s F major Ballade. Can you not come up with something new and interesting?’
Although regrettably her published recorded output was small, it was extremely influential. In 1937 HMV issued three sets of discs featuring her work: the Piano Concerto in D by Jean Françaix, which she conducted; the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, in which she and Dinu Lipatti were the duo pianists with a vocal ensemble; and the first recordings ever to be made of the music of Monteverdi: a selection of his madrigals, which she directed. These last recordings have been described as revelatory and ‘…one of the purest treasures the gramophone has given us’. Although Nadia was credited with being one of the first musicians to perform Monteverdi in modern times, she took delight in pointing out that the composer d’Indy was the first to do so in France, ‘…but he made the mistake of performing it in French.’ She also recorded excerpts from Charpentier’s Médée, and from the operas of Rameau; Claude’s chansons, and a disc of French Renaissance vocal music. Of the many quotations attributed to her, one of the most descriptive of her own personality was, ‘The essential (conditions) of everything you do… must be choice, love, passion.’
© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Conductors, Naxos 8.558087–90).
Role: Classical Artist