The Boulanger sisters, Nadia (1887-1979) and Lili (1893-1918), are two of the best-remembered women in twentieth-century music. In 1913, at the age of 19, Lili was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome. Nadia, already second prize winner in the 1908 competition, eventually became the most sought-after composition teacher of her era.
Initially, both sisters were composers. In Caroline Potter's book, the 79 musical examples - of which less than a quarter are by Nadia - give an absorbing insight into the Boulangers' respective musical styles. Equally fascinating is the description of the social attitudes of the early 1900s. The Paris Conservatoire barred women from some classes, including the study of fugue and composition, until the end of the nineteenth century. In the Boulanger's time, male and female students were taught solfège and harmony separately. Separate syllabuses existed for the violin and piano classes, as women played less demanding repertory. Nadia Boulanger was not appointed to a permanent teaching post at the Paris Conservatoire until 1946.
What success would Lili Boulanger have enjoyed as a composer, had she lived longer? Any triumph would have been achieved against the handicap of poor health, for Lili had intestinal tuberculosis from the age of three. Some said that she could be allowed to win the Prix de Rome because, unlikely to live long, she would not be a professional threat to her male peers! Sadly, she died at 25.
Nadia, one of the first female professional conductors and a highly-praised organist, is remembered principally as a teacher. Her composition students, known colloquially as the boulangerie (the well bred?), included George Antheil, Lennox Berkeley, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Jean Françaix, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Joseph Horovitz, Quincy Jones, Nicholas Maw, Astor Piazzola, Edwin Roxburgh and Virgil Thomson. Surprisingly, she turned down George Gershwin ('he had already found his voice'), and Iannis Xenakis.
Philip Glass recalls that the only way to live up to Nadia Boulanger's standards was to get up between six and seven in the morning and work all day long. "And, if I did that every day, I would turn up at my lesson and Boulanger gave me the impression that I had done just about the very minimum," he says.
On the dust jacket, the publishers claim that this is essential reading for anyone interested in French music of the twentieth century. One couldn't agree more. Indeed, for me the book could have been longer.
John Robert Brown
First published in Classical Music magazine, 2008. Used by kind permission. Reproduction forbidden.
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