Nadia Boulanger

By James David Jacobs

Mar. 6

Eleven years ago, there were a lot of end-of-century debates and panel discussions aiming to answer the question of who was the most important and influential musician of the 20th century. (Sorry, Brian Bell - while great musicians may be more likely to actually devour each other than the masterpieces they create are, the exclusionary tone of this sort of discussion can be just as destructive. But I digress.) The names that kept popping up were Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Britten, Bernstein, Ellington. One name I never heard mentioned was a name that is mentioned in just about every biography of any twentieth-century composer: Nadia Boulanger. In honor of Women’s History Month we’ll feature on Sunday mornings in March the work and legacy of this woman who did indeed make history, as we listen to works by Nadia Boulanger and her students.

A very long (partial!) list of her American students can be found here. There are quite a few names here of composers who went on to become giants in the realm of classical music, including Aaron Copland, Elliot Carter, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson. Surprisingly, there are also a few names here of composers of a later generation, some of whom went far afield of classical music: Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Charles Strouse (composer of Bye Bye Birdie and Annie) and Joe Raposo (composer of the theme songs for "Sesame Street" and "Three's Company")*.

It's hard to think of ANY sort of music produced in America in the twentieth century that was untouched by Nadia Boulanger. As Virgil Thomson put it, "She was a one-woman graduate school, so powerful and so permeating that legend credits every United States town with two things: a five-and-dime and a Boulanger pupil." Ned Rorem was less acerbic in his praise, comparing her to Socrates and declaring in 1979 that "So far as musical pedagogy is concerned —and by extension of musical creation —Nadia Boulanger is the most influential person who ever lived."


Nadia Boulanger studied with Gabriel Fauré, served as his assistant in his position as organist for the Eglise de la Madeleine, and is the person most responsible for the popularity of his Requiem in English-speaking countries, having conducted the local premieres of the work in several British and American cities in the 1930s. The Boston Symphony Orchestra's first performances of the Fauré Requiem took place under her direction on February 18 and 19, 1938, marking the first time the orchestra was led by a woman. (On the first half of the program Boulanger played the organ in Saint-Saëns's Third Symphony, presumably with Koussevitsky on the podium.)

The program booklet for those concerts included an essay by Boulanger about Fauré's music; here are some excerpts:

"Inner gifts, exceptional ones, determined the career of Gabriel Fauré - the balance between sensibility and reason has made its beauty....His music is inwardly moving: without pose, vain exclamations or outcry, it ponders, loves, and suffers...He seems to have conceived religion rather in the manner of St. John or St. Francis of Assisi than St. Bernard, or Bousset. He looks for and finds in it a source of love and not of fear. This must be accepted if he is to be understood...The Requiem is not only one of the greatest works of Gabriel Fauré, but also one of those which do most honor to music and thought. Nothing has been written which is purer, clearer in definition... Certainly his musical web, his architecture, his reason and order, are the essential causes of his sovereign beauty, as one could demonstrate with a joy, a pride, and a respect for all the minutiae of his workmanship. But it is where these attributes end, admirable as they are, that the real Requiem begins. No exterior effect alters its sober and rather severe expression of grief, no restlessness troubles its deep meditation, no doubt stains its spotless faith, its gentle confidence, its tender and tranquil expectancy. All is truly captivating and marked with the hand of a master. Everything is usual; but with an alteration, a passing note, some special inflection of which he has the secret. Gabriel Fauré gives a new and inimitable character to all that he touches. The end with its linked chords, descending in double measures, strangely recalls an adorable Agnus Dei in G major, by Claudio Monteverdi. 'The artist must love life, and show us that it is beautiful.' All that Gabriel Fauré has touched he has sensitized and made cherishable. If anything could truly mitigate for us the thought of death, it would be the image of hope, of serenity which he has made for us."

Speaking of Monteverdi, another one of Boulanger's many accomplishments is her leading, in 1937, an ensemble of singers and instrumentalists in the first recording ever made of his music, a collection of madrigals. We'll hear a couple of selections from that recording, as well as her legendary recording that same year of Brahms waltzes for piano duet with Dinu Lipatti. (Stravinsky's "Dumbarton Oaks" Concerto, the premiere of which was conducted by Boulanger, can be heard in a dynamic performance by the Discovery Ensemble here.) And we'll hear Fauré's Requiem, written by a man but known the world over thanks to the efforts of an extraordinary woman, one whose efforts brought so much music to life.

*When Raposo left her class after eighteen months, Mme. Boulanger urged him to stay for "five more years of counterpoint." She begged him not to go popular, warning "what happened to Gershwin will happen to you." Raposo replied, "I certainly hope so."

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