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Boulanger, Lili (1893–1918)

Boulanger, Lili (1893–1918)

French composer, first woman to win the Premier Grand Prix de Rome for music, whose early death cut short a promising composing career. Pronunciation: Boo-lawn-jay. Born Juliette Marie Olga Boulanger on August 21, 1893, in Paris, France; died of tuberculosis on March 15, 1918, in Paris; daughter of Ernest Boulanger (the composer) and Raissa or Raïssa (Princess Michetsky or Mychetsky) Boulanger (a vocalist from St. Petersburg); sister ofNadia Boulanger (1887–1979), famous teacher of 20th-century composers.

The second of her parents' two daughters, Lili Boulanger was born into an extremely talented musical family. Her father Ernest Boulanger, who had won the Prix de Rome for composition, was well known, especially for his operas. Her mother Raissa Boulanger , many years younger, had been a pupil of her husband's when he came to St. Petersburg and was determined to marry him. Despite several decades difference in age, the Boulangers had a happy marriage, and the family was close. Nadia, who was six years old when Lili was born, was taken into the room where her mother was holding the newborn and told to swear she would look after her baby sister. She solemnly pledged she would.

Ernest Boulanger died when Lili was three, but life continued to revolve around music. Raissa learned harmony, in order to teach her daughters the rudiments, and both Lili and Nadia read, played, and composed music at early ages. Because Lili's health was poor from birth and she had no regular course of schooling, Nadia and her mother devoted much time and energy to her education; in consequence, Lili was a child prodigy. When she entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1909, she studied composition with Georges Gaussade and Paul Vidal. She found her

own musical personality almost at once, proving to be an extremely gifted composer. Hers was "the instinct of genius marked by death," said Marcelle de Manziarly.

Lili composed continuously despite extremely precarious health. Daunted by her younger sister's drive, Nadia devoted her energies to teaching rather than composing, a decision which was to profoundly affect the 20th-century musical world. After only a year at the Paris Conservatoire, Lili won the Prix Lepaulle. In 1912, she entered the Prix de Rome competition. Though not successful at her first attempt in Rome, when no prizes were given, she tried again in 1913 and was admitted to the final round of the Prix de Rome that May, the only woman of the five contestants. Thin and ill but elegantly dressed, Lili—only 19 years old—conducted a performance of her composition Faust et Hélène. She won over not only the audience but also the jury. Thirty-one out of thirty-six voting members of the Académie des Beaux-Arts decided she should be the first woman to receive the Premier Grand Prix de Rome in music.

Though she continued to compose, Lili Boulanger's health deteriorated. In 1911, she had written Nocturne for flute or violin and piano; in 1912, Pour les funérailles d'un soldat had been composed for orchestra; in 1916–17, Three psalms for orchestra was composed; and in 1917, she was at work on an unfinished opera. She also wrote a work for soprano, strings, harp, and organ in 1918, the year of her death. In that short life, Lili Boulanger produced a significant body of vocal and instrumental works and had a great impact on the musical world. By instituting a prize in composition, Nadia kept her beloved sister's name alive. A brilliant composer, Lili Boulanger broke new ground for women, before she died at age 24.


Kendall, Alan. The Tender Tyrant: Nadia Boulanger, a Life Devoted to Music. London: MacDonald and Jane's, 1976.

Rosenstiel, Léonie. Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. NY: W.W. Norton, 1982.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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