For four decades sitting at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, if you were a composer of promise seeking to deepen your skill and find your voice, be you American or French, English or Japanese, there was one threshold that you sooner or later had to cross, one lair into which you had to descend and prove your mettle.  Here, surrounded by a cadre of worshipful students, sat her time’s greatest composition teacher, and the authority on the sometimes confusing new directions music was beginning to gravitate towards, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979).

She could be savage in her assessments and demanded almost total control over all aspects of your life, but sitting in her class, listening to her pore over the long history of Western instrumental music, analyzing the Why of each harmonic decision with a passion bordering on the divine, you would learn the primal elements of music creation in a way unavailable anywhere else in the world.  She taught a reluctant generation to embrace the revolutionary soundscapes of Igor Stravinsky, and coaxed Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliott Carter into providing the United States with a distinct classical voice.

Indomitable in matters of musical analysis, however, she struggled her life long with the inability to connect with audiences as a performer, and with a crushing sense of familial obligation that prevented her from soaring as a composer.  As a very young child, the daughter of the popular French oratorio composer Ernest Boulanger and the vivacious polylinguist Raissa Myshetskaya, who claimed to be descended from Russian nobility and demanded the very finest, she was in fact terrified of music.  She would wail when her father gave lessons at home, and in public would rush under her mother’s skirts with screams of terror whenever a band happened to pass by.  Her parents didn’t know what to make of this small girl who seemed destined for anything but musicianship.

Then, one day, to their astonishment, Ernest and Raissa watched as Nadia ran to the piano to attempt to pick out the sound of a nearby fire bell.  Thereafter, Nadia could not get enough of music – she listened to her father’s lessons attentively and developed her own skills.  Was this the reaction of a young child to the impending arrival of a sibling, an attempt to secure her place in the affections of her parents in the face of impending competition, or simply one of those tectonic shifts that happen to children from time to time, a flicking of a neural switch with its antecedents more in biochemistry than psychology?

There is no answer at this distant remove, but the consequences of that swerve towards music were profound.  Now that she had chosen what appeared to be her life’s path, her mother turned her attention towards perfecting the child’s gift, never letting her believe for a second, even amidst her greatest triumphs, that she had done as well as she could have.  “Was that really your best?” was the constant refrain of her young life, and under its weight Nadia drove herself relentlessly, pushing herself to new heights that were never enough.  She fought her way into the prestigious Conservatoire in her early teens and waged battle for the opportunity to enter the Prix de Rome competition which was the summit of achievement for a young European composer.  In spite of the vehement disapproval from compositional superstar and panel judge Camille Saint-Saens, she managed to earn a secondary Prix de Rome award for her cantata composition, but never took the first prize.

Indomitable in matters of musical analysis – an interpreter of antique music and an expositor of the new trends in European composition – Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was the greatest composition teacher of her time.

Meanwhile, Nadia’s sense of obligation was pulling her distinctly away from her sense of musical self as her younger sister Lili seemed to effortlessly glide over all the musical hurdles that Nadia had sweat and struggled to clear.  Composition and performance came so easily to Lili, and Nadia felt the real tear of professional jealousy grinding against the social imperative of supporting her younger sibling.  Everywhere the two sisters were compared, Lili was the fragile, angelic, feminine genius, while Nadia, in her somber square-ish clothes and stern glasses, was described as a hard-working but “mannishly” ambitious figure.  Lili won the Prix de Rome that Nadia hadn’t.  Lili was adored where Nadia was cautiously respected.  Lili had to be treated delicately because of her recurring sickness while Nadia was assumed to be wrought from brick and iron.

As Lili descended further into illness, Nadia felt keenly the strain between the sisterly obligation to tend to her, and the need to travel to establish herself as a composer, performer, and one of the continent’s first women conductors.  Caught between contradictory imperatives, she denied herself crucial opportunities, and rushed into disappointing entanglements with last-minute haste, establishing a pattern of anguished procrastination followed by chaotic compensation that would mark much of her career.  She formed a tight professional relationship with one of France’s reigning piano virtuosi, Raoul Pugno, with characteristically mixed results.  On one hand, she benefited from the encouragement and collaboration with a first-tier musician.  On the other, their joint performances tended to dramatically display the differences between their performance styles to Nadia’s detriment.  Pugno was a massive human famous for his ability to establish an instant and warm rapport with audiences through his natural charm, which was an aspect of performance that Nadia was aggressively uninterested in.  From her perspective, it should have been enough that she was offering beautiful music performed with immaculate intelligence.  On her own, she might have won growing respect as a knowledgeable and serious musical presence, but working next to Pugno on stage after stage, she receded into the background as a talented but comparatively unsympathetic figure.

Her compositions were performed here and there, but were never received with the enthusiasm of Lili’s pieces, and upon Lili’s death in 1918, Nadia all but renounced composing her own works in order to advocate for the preservation through performance of Lili’s oeuvre.  Prematurely giving up her career as a composer, and resigning herself to the fact that she would never be received as anything more than a workmanlike pianist, she had to look elsewhere to support her mother’s demands for a lavish lifestyle, and in doing so found her true calling.

During a tour of America after the First World War, Boulanger was met with near universal indifference when it came to her piano playing, but was enthusiastically received as a lecturer.  She interjected her lectures with live performances from an array of talented musicians, underscoring her deep sense of the continuity of the musical tradition with skillfully chosen examples ranging from obscure medieval masters to the cutting edge of the avant garde.  She was a spellbinding teacher, and back in France she stretched herself to the limit offering classes at the Ecole Normale (an up-and-coming rival to the more conservative Conservatoire) and a newly established school at Fontainebleau for American musicians who wanted to experience the rigors of French musical training.  Her classes were legendary for their ability to wring deep historical meaning from simple exercises in counterpoint and harmony, taking students on daily journeys, illustrated with countless examples, into the thoughts and choices of Europe’s compositional masters.

When an unknown youth named Aaron Copland returned to America from Fontainebleau and made a splash as the great hope of American classical music, Nadia found herself inundated with a steady stream of American students wishing to learn from her the deep art of composition.  Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, and Elliott Carter all studied composition with her on their way to forming the vanguard of American music.  The legendary pianist Dinu Lipatti came to her for her insights into performance, and Idil Biret made her name as Turkey’s foremost pianist under Boulanger’s watchful eye.  In 1957 she worked with a young composition student by the name of Quincy Jones, who composed a string of important film scores in the 1960s before becoming a household name in the 1980s as Michael Jackson’s producer on the albums Off the Wall, Thriller, and Bad.

A trailblazer, Nadia Boulanger was the first woman to conduct major orchestras in England and America, and was one of the first conductors to record the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque.

The word was out – if you wanted to understand how composition worked, really worked, you had to go to Nadia Boulanger.  She demanded complete surrender to the cause of music, and considered it an almost unforgivable betrayal if any of her students chose to marry while they were under her instruction, particularly her women students.  Driven by the memory of how humiliation and a constantly attacked self-esteem drove her to excel as a child, she brought that spirit into her classroom, lashing out hard at unprepared students, and using her child prodigies to whip her older students into a sense of shame and inadequacy.  The pressure of Nadia’s method produced two types of students: those like Virgil Thomson who could not stand her controlling style and steady scorn and cut themselves loose from her grasp early, and those who became deeply attached to her as the strict but fair gateway to true musical knowledge.

Her students became her support staff, handling the details of her life, organizing her concerts and travels, and bore the brunt of both her love and dissatisfaction.  She leaned heavily on them for the maintenance of her break-neck schedule, but in exchange offered profound musical vistas and a steadfast devotion to the promotion of their careers through her multitude of international contacts.

Successful as a teacher, she was nonetheless repeatedly denied admission to the faculty of the Conservatoire.  There was always somebody a bit older to give new positions to, somebody who it could be plausibly argued needed the job a bit more by way of a final official honor before death.  Boulanger, though disappointed by each rejection, had plenty on her plate however – widely in demand as a lecturer, and incredibly popular as a teacher, she began stretching her wings as a conductor throughout the 1920s and 30s, becoming the first woman to conduct major orchestras in England and America, winning over audiences everywhere definitively to the idea that women had not only the musical insight to conduct, but the singleness of vision and resolution of spirit to drag often hostile male orchestras to her ideals of performance.  As a recording artist, she was one of the first conductors to record the music of the Renaissance and early Baroque, and in concert she wove eclectic concert experiences that thematically linked five hundred years of musical tradition in ways nobody had ever thought to before.

Fleeing France ahead of the German Army at the beginning of the Second World War, she found in America a stable of wealthy friends and generous institutions who kept her comfortable and gave her a sense of purpose through the long years of exile.  Here, she was at the height of her powers and influence, respected as both an interpreter of antique music and as an expositor of the new trends in European composition, her mind sharp and discerning and her energy for new projects seemingly boundless.

In an era of rapidly evolving musical ideas, she had remained at the forefront of musical life for decades, an impressive testament to the depth of her musical understanding and instinct…

In an era of rapidly evolving musical ideas, she had remained at the forefront of musical life for decades, an impressive testament to the depth of her musical understanding and instinct, but as the 1950s pressed on, a new generation of musical rebels arose who saw Boulanger’s Stravinsky-laced neo-Classical ideals as just so much conservative debris to be cleared from the field of the true avant-garde.  With the expansion of atonal composition and electronic music, which Boulanger respected intellectually but could never embrace as examples of where music ought to go, Neo-Classicism seemed suddenly quaint and old-fashioned.

Still, all might have gone well had promotion not raised Boulanger at last to a position where her predilection for getting in her own way stood a chance to do substantial institutional harm.  Raised to the position of director of the American School at Fontainebleau, she found it impossible to decide on class schedules and offerings until the very last moment year after year, and resisted all attempts to coordinate the school’s curriculum with American institutions, meaning prospective American students neither knew what classes they might be taking or if those would count for any credit, until well after it was too late to make plans to attend the school.  Enrollment dropped precipitously during her tenure, and in her classes she had to watch helplessly as her eyes and hands progressively failed her, reducing her to a frustrated figure in a chair, unable to read music or play it, repeating old formulas and snapping at students with a harshness born of self-frustration.

Honored lavishly by the musical firmament at her birthday celebrations, professionally the last two decades of her life represented decline and disappointment – too physically diminished to do what she once could, too old to be in sympathy with the new music arising from the seeds she had planted decades ago,  and too stubborn to relinquish the positions she had rightfully earned but the responsibilities of which she could no longer fulfill, she watched as the companions of her youth and lavish patrons died one by one, and the famous rigor of her classes descended into casual dismissal from students who knew she couldn’t see them and increasingly couldn’t hear them either.

If she died in a state of Honored But Ignored, she was in good company.  Music is a cruel business for those who refuse to die young, in the classical realm as well as the popular.  Unless gifted with a David Bowie-like ability to continually renew one’s musical self from the best impulses of each era, a decade of popularity followed by several of honorable decline seem the norm, and that Boulanger retained her position of intellectual prominence from the Teens through the Fifties is a remarkable achievement for any era, let alone one which began with Debussy as the exemplar of musical revolution and ended with Stockhausen.  She did what all great teachers must do, incorporating revolution into a long story of synthesis to show the continuity at the heart of the contemporary, and the value of tradition in the forwarding of the radical.  She gave a continent its first wave of rigorous composers, and rescued pre-modern melodies for the consideration of her own continent’s evolving musical consciousness.

We can only hope that this story told by Leonard Bernstein about her final days is true.  On September 16, 1979, he was one of the last people to speak with her before she slipped into a coma.  He came to her bedside and asked her if she still heard music.  She told him that she did.  He asked what music she heard, curious about what companions a musician’s mind chose to revisit when facing the end.  Her response mentioned no names.  She said simply, “A music that has neither beginning nor end.”

FURTHER READING:  The musicologist Leonie Rosenstiel contacted Nadia some time before her death with the idea of doing a biography of Lili Boulanger, and in the process of gathering resources for that book and planning it with Nadia, became interested in doing a second book devoted just to the famous teacher.  Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music was published in 1982, three years after Nadia’s death, and remains the most important source for information about her, and is further an evocative account of the world of French music in the early 20th century generally.


Bruno Monsaingeon put together a film about Nadia Boulanger in 1977 and it features some priceless footage of her at age ninety still teaching her class:

Boulanger’s works are few in number and rarely recorded, but here is a rendition of her fantasy for piano and orchestra composed in 1912 which gives a slight hint of what might have been:

And finally here is Nadia herself on the piano in one of the Monteverdi recordings that kindled a new wave of interest in pre-modern musical preservation, Zefiro Torno:

Lead Photo Credit: Nadia Boulanger, Agence de presse Meurisse – Bibliothèque nationale de France, Public Domain

Get to know more trailblazing Women In Music in Dale’s column.