About this Recording
8.223636 - BOULANGER, Lili and Nadia: In Memoriam Lili Boulanger

In Memoriam Lili Boulanger
Lili Boulanger, as remembered by her sister Nadia

Music was second nature for my younger sister, Lili, born on 21st August 1893 in Paris. She had perfect pitch and a love of singing even as a child. Fauré himself used to come to our home to read his latest songs with her. From the age of six to sixteen, she studied harmony, played a little piano, violin, cello and even the harp, while discovering new scores, such as Debussy’s Pelléas. Her very poor health kept her away from school, as well as from practicing too hard. In fact, she mastered composition with Paul Vidal and Georges Caussade in only three years. At the age of nineteen, she made history by being the first woman to be awarded the prestigious Premier Grand Prix de Rome for composition. After the great Parisian success of her cantata Faust et Hélène, she traveled through Italy and wrote some of her best works in the Villa Medici in Rome.

These happy times were interrupted by the war. Back home, she devoted herself to caring for wounded soldiers. Knowing that her days were numbered, she worked feverishly. Towards the end of her life, she dictated to me her Pie Jesu. On her deathbed, her strong faith gave her a sense of serenity. She died on 15th March 1918.

Though there are no technical novelties in Lili’s writing (she lived in an age when intellectual speculation had not yet arrived), she was able to find the necessary elements for expressing her own very personal message, leaving a short but lasting mark in musical history.

Nadia Boulanger
Paris, 1968

The first recording of Lili Boulanger’s Thème et variations for piano (1914) is due to the recent rediscovery and completion of the manuscript by Emile Naoumoff. The austere beauty of these few pages is almost frightening.

D’un matin de printemps (1917) is a small fantasy using “Debussyan” technique for quick changes of mood. The slow and meditative Nocturne (1911, first draft in 1908) is followed by the joyous and playful Cortège (1914). D’un vieux jardin and D’un jardin clair (1914) both describe imaginary landscapes, much as Satie would do, using a subtle and very sensitive palette of shades and colours, reminiscent of impressionist paintings. These gardens are probably those of her childhood in Hanneucourt (near Giverny).

The Clairières dans le ciel (1914, words by Francis Jammes), is a song cycle, reflecting a woman’s life. The last song is a poignant vision of her own death. Her unique talent for dramatic expression is enhanced here by both her Slavic and French origins.

The Chants (1910-1916) were written in her adolescence, displaying a striking early maturity, creating a harmonious balance between the lyrics and the music. In order to reflect the profundity of the text, she uses the very low register of the voice, combined with unusually long held notes and rests. She achieves an emotionally powerful peak with the Pie Jesu (1918, composed on her deathbed). It is very representative of her religious works, such as Vieille prière bouddhique or her Psalms.

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) composed between 1906 and 1922. The rest of her long life was devoted to the music of others. In her youth, her works were widely played and published with the exception of her opera La ville morte (1914), the performance of which was cancelled owing to the outbreak of the First World War and which was never staged. She was, however, a major influence in the musical scene of the twenties and thirties, mainly through Stravinsky. The first of her Pieces for cello and piano (1915) has the expressivity of Bloch’s Prayer, while the second is a very exuberant and strongly syncopated Spanish dance.

Vers la vie nouvelle (1919) symbolises the hope of the post-war period, as well as a “new life” for Nadia Boulanger herself after her sister’s painful death. The obsessive and rather Slavic use of the harmonic pedal (of C) in the opening pages, is reminiscent of Mussorgsky’s technique in Boris Godunov’s coronation scene.

With Couteau (1922) Nadia Boulanger proves her extremely wide range of interest in song-writing by choosing words of popular and relatively crude content. Since 1918, Nadia’s Lux aeterna and Lili’s Pie Jesu have been sung every 15th March at a memorial Mass in Paris. The original version of this piece was called Hymne à I’amour (1910). The Latin version, composed at a later date, followed her sister’s choice of instruments such as the organ, harp and strings.

In memoriam Lili Boulanger by Nadia Boulanger’s last pupil Emile Naoumoff, for bassoon and piano, was written during the making of this record in June 1993. This follows a French tradition of musical tributes from composers to their peers, such as Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin or Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau.

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