Boulanger, Nadia (1887–1979)

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Boulanger, Nadia (1887–1979)

French composer, performer, and first woman to conduct the London Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, Boston Philharmonic, and Philadelphia orchestras, who was best known as a teacher of music, including among her students Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland, thereby making her one of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Pronunciation: Nah-dya Boo-lawn-jay. Born Juliette Nadia Boulanger in Paris, France, on September 16, 1887; died in Paris on October 22, 1979; daughter of Ernest (a composer and professor of voice at the Paris Conservatoire de Musique) and Raissa or Raïssa (Princess Michetsky or Mychetsky) Boulanger (a vocalist from St. Petersburg); sister of Lili Boulanger (1893–1918); attended The Paris Conservatoire de Musique; never married; no children.

Won the first of many First Place competitions at Paris Conservatoire de Musique at age 11 (1898); began performing career (1903); began studies with Italian pianist and composer Raoul Pugno (1904); collaborated with Pugno on the music for Gabriele d'Annunzio's drama, La Ville morte, and began lifelong friendship with Igor Stravinsky (1910); abandoned performing in favor of teaching (1920); became teacher of Aaron Copland at Fontainebleau (1921); made concert tour of U.S. and offered teaching

chair at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia (1924); accepted position at the École Normale du Musique in Paris, teaching organ, harmony, counterpoint, and the history of music, an unprecedented appointment for a woman; became first woman to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London (1936); repeated the honor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1938), and the New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras (1939); appointed judge of the prestigious Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow (1966); inducted as a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor (1977).

In 1921, when the American composer Aaron Copland became one of the first music students of Nadia Boulanger at Fontainebleau, he was so impressed by her teaching that he decided to ask for private lessons. Years later, reflecting on the sexism then rampant in the music field, Copland admitted to taking the step with some trepidation. "No composer ever had a woman teacher. It wasn't Nadia Boulanger I was worried about—it was my reputation!" After three years of study with Boulanger, Copland's appreciation of his teacher never wavered, and over the years he sent her many students from the United States. Virgil Thomson, Leonard Bernstein, and George Gershwin were only a few of the century's brilliant American musicians who made their way to France to study under the internationally known conductor, composer, and teacher known to all her pupils as "Mademoiselle."

Juliette Nadia Boulanger was born on September 16, 1887, her father's birthday, in the ninth arrondissement of Paris. Ernest Boulanger was a well-known figure in the musical world, a talented musician and composer who came from a long line of famous opera singers and actors, and a professor of voice at the prestigious Paris Conservatoire de Musique. Nadia's mother, Raissa Michetsky, or Mychetsky, was a Russian who claimed to be a princess, and may well have been, though the claim has never been substantiated. She had met Ernest Boulanger in St. Petersburg, probably in 1874, when he was directing concerts there. The young Russian vocalist was quite taken with the French professor, who was 43 years her senior, and arranged to become his student. They fell in love and their marriage remained a happy one despite the vast difference in their ages. Nadia was born on Ernest's 72nd birthday, and her sister, Juliette Marie, called Lili , who also became a talented composer and musician, was born five years later.

Raissa Boulanger was a strict disciplinarian whose life revolved around her children and music. By the age of five, Nadia was applying herself rigorously to French music courses, and at eight she began to study organ with Louis Vierne. The following year, she entered the Conservatoire National du Musique to learn the system of music study known as solfège; at age 11, she was the youngest entrant in the school's solfège competition when she won first place. By the time of her father's death the following year, Nadia's life was immersed in music. At age 14, she was studying with the famous composer Gabriel Fauré and was awarded the conservatory's second prize in harmony. Two years later, in 1903, she won a first prize, as well as firsts in organ, piano accompaniment, fugue, and composition. At 16, she was teaching piano to students who were often her own age. She began to perform professionally, playing before the president of the republic, Émile Loubet, at the Trocadero Palace.

The close relationship of Raissa Boulanger and her two daughters was cemented by the extremely precarious health of Lili. Nadia was devoted to her extremely talented younger sister, who was destined to die at an early age. In 1904, Nadia began to study with the famous pianist Raoul Pugno, who was a friend of the family and spent summer vacations with the Boulangers. He soon began to send her students, including her first American. In 1906, Boulanger and Pugno began to compose and to perform together, and it may have been Pugno who encouraged Nadia to present herself as a candidate for the Concours de Rome. No woman had ever carried off a first prize in this musical competition, and Boulanger made three attempts without ever succeeding. But since women rarely competed at that level, the competition garnered a great deal of publicity for her and heightened her status in the musical world at a young age. Against such odds, the second place that she won was considered a great victory and recognized around the world by women in music.

In that era, the world of classical music was still primarily a male domain. Although some women managed to establish successful concert careers, playing in an orchestra was seldom an option (even at the close of the 20th century there were a dwindling number of orchestras, such as the prestigious Vienna Philharmonic, that remained entirely male); once women did attain acceptance in music's hierarchical ranks, they were paid less than men. In 1913, a book by Otto Ebel listed more than 800 women composers throughout musical history. Subsequently, the achievements of Nadia Boulanger would help to revolutionize the music field.

Although raised a strict Catholic, Boulanger showed a streak of rebelliousness from childhood. At an early age, she preferred to wear the black velvet suits traditionally worn by little boys. As she grew older, her clothing remained masculine, and black was always a favorite color. She traveled around Paris unchaperoned day and night, behavior considered radical for a respectable woman before World War I. In 1910, Boulanger collaborated with Pugno on the music for the drama La Ville morte, by Gabriele d'Annunzio, the Italian poet whose works and scandalous escapades were known throughout Europe. Boulanger formed a friendship with the most famous of his mistresses, the Italian actress Eleonora Duse . That same year, she saw Fire-bird, the modern ballet by Igor Stravinsky that was then rocking the musical world, and she gained an introduction to its youthful composer. It was the beginning of their lifelong friendship.

In 1913, Lili was studying under her older sister when she decided to enter the Concours de Rome. Succeeding where Nadia had failed, Lili became the first woman to win the Premier Grand Prix de Rome. That same year, Nadia began a concert tour with Raoul Pugno, going to Berlin and then on to Russia, but during the tour Pugno died suddenly of a pulmonary embolism. He had been her teacher, friend, and probably a love interest, and the unexpected death was a great shock. Even so, Boulanger was forced to continue working because her mother and sister both depended on her for support. Then Lili, who veered from one health crisis to the next, died of tuberculosis in March 1918, before reaching 25. For Nadia, the loss was enormous.

By 1920, the demands of practicing, performing, teaching, and composing were taking their toll on Boulanger's health. Forced to withdraw for a while and recover, she decided to concentrate on teaching and composing rather than performing, and began to take on students in Paris and at nearby Fontainebleau. She became friends with Walter Damrosch, an American musician of first rank, beginning another lifelong friendship that would provide her with many American students and permanently establish her influence in the American music world. Because of her gender, however, years would pass before she was offered a position at the conservatory where her father had taught. Nevertheless, the École Normale du Musique put her in charge of classes in organ, harmony, counterpoint, and the history of music. Her appointment, the first of its kind for a woman, caused a sensation. Her classes were so popular that enrollment soon had to be limited.

In 1924, after she had taught Copland, Boulanger came to the U.S., where she gave a series of 26 concerts which received rave reviews. Thanks to Damrosch, she made many important contacts and was offered a permanent chair of music at the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia, but she returned to Paris because of her mother's failing health. In Paris, America then began to come to her, and the teacher known to everyone as Mademoiselle could now take her pick of the world's most talented students.

Nadia Boulanger was a relentless taskmaster. Weak or mediocre students were ruthlessly weeded out of her teaching schedule, and she demanded total dedication from her students. Remaining open to innovation, she became widely known for her ability to interpret the music of Stravinsky; she was also open to non-classical forms. When the Argentinean Astor Piazzola studied with her, Nadia made clear that she was unimpressed with his composition and playing, until she learned one day that he improvised tangos. Insisting that he demonstrate some of his compositions, she listened to him play with fascination and then told him, "That's your field! Give up symphonic music and dedicate your energies to the tango." Piazzola, who always regarded Boulanger as his second mother, went on to become the king of the tango.

If there is one person who shaped the course of music from 1920 to 1940, that person has been Nadia Boulanger.

—Harold Schonberg

By the mid-1930s, Nadia Boulanger was called the "princess of music." She was known as organizer of the Poulinac and Cercle Interallié concerts, and she was awarded the Grand Prix du Disque for her Renaissance recordings, which made her name a household word. Her career was in full ascendancy. Then, her mother died, on March 19, 1935, four days after the 17th anniversary of the passing of her sister, Lili. For Boulanger, the month of March became a time of mourning. She would withdraw from all except the most essential social events and activities.

In 1936, Nadia Boulanger became the first woman to conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Queen's Hall in London. The engagement caused an uproar within the orchestra, and at her first rehearsal the reception she received from the musicians was chilly. She quickly established her authority from the podium, and at the conclusion of her stay she was applauded by musicians and critics alike. In 1938, she won instant respect as the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and she repeated her success the following year with both the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, in Carnegie Hall, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Players and critics bowed alike to the quality of her work. Wrote one critic: "The prejudice against women conductors, which lurks in the bosom of every orchestra player, breaks down instantly when it comes in contact with Mlle. Boulanger's masterful touch."

Over the next 20 years, Boulanger's career went from success to success. In February 1962, at the invitation of Leonard Bernstein, she led the New York Philharmonic in performing Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, Virgil Thomson's A Solemn Music, and Lili Boulanger's Psaumes. In this triumphal last tour of the U.S., she performed with the Cleveland, Chicago, and Boston orchestras and was invited to lunch at the White House with John and Jacqueline Kennedy . In 1966, she was invited to judge the Tchaikovsky Concours in Moscow, and the visit to her mother's homeland also added to her international reputation. In 1967, when Nadia Boulanger was 80, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco (Grace Kelly ) sponsored a celebration in her honor. At the Monte Carlo Opera, she was welcomed by the prince and given a standing ovation; the following day, she was honored with a dinner and awarded the insignia of the Commander of the Legion of Honor.

Despite her advancing age, Boulanger's professional life continued to be busy. In 1975, she taught at the Royal Academy in London and lectured at Cambridge. Early in 1976, although her health by now was failing, she was filmed in her apartment on the rue Ballu; toward the end of the year, she fell seriously ill. On February 9, 1977, she rallied for her induction, as a Grand Officer of the Legion of Honor, bestowed on her by the President of the Republic, M. Giscard d'Estaing. As she continued to grow weaker, students came to visit, often to perform for her; others kept watch outside her door. On September 16, 1979, Leonard Bernstein visited for the last time. Nadia Boulanger succumbed, finally, on October 22, at age 93.


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Monsaingeon, Bruno. Conversations with Nadia Boulanger. Translated by Robyn Marsack. Boston, MA: Northeastern University Press, 1988.

Page, Tim and Vanessa Weeks Page, eds. Selected Letters of Virgil Thomson. NY: Summit Books, 1988.

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

Spycket, Jérôme. Nadia Boulanger. Translated by M.M. Shriver. Stuyvesant, NY: Pendragon Press, 1987.

Thomson, Virgil. Virgil Thomson: An Autobiography. NY: E.P. Dutton, 1985.

Zaimont, Judith Lang, Catherine Overhauser and Jane Gottlieb, eds. The Musical Woman: An International Perspective. Vol. II, 1984–1985. CT: Greenwood Press, 1987.

Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Boulanger, Nadia (1887–1979)

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