Nadia Boulanger (French: [ʒy.ljɛt na.dja
bu.lɑ̃.ʒe]; 16 September 1887 – 22 October 1979) was a
French composer, conductor, and teacher. She is notable for having
taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th
century. She also performed occasionally as a pianist and organist.
From a musical family, she achieved early honours as a student at the
Paris Conservatoire but, believing that she had no particular talent
as a composer, she gave up writing music and became a teacher. In that
capacity, she influenced generations of young composers, especially
those from the United States and other English-speaking countries.
Among her students were those who became leading composers, soloists,
arrangers and conductors, including Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Quincy
Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor
Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, İdil Biret, Daniel
Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla.
Boulanger taught in the US and England, working with music academies
including the Juilliard School, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Longy
Royal College of Music
Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, but
her principal base for most of her life was her family's flat in
Paris, where she taught for most of the seven decades from the start
of her career until her death at the age of 92.
Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in
America and Europe, including the
BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony,
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras. She
conducted several world premieres, including works by Copland and
1.1 Early life and education
1.2 Professional life
1.3 Life after Lili's death, 1918-21
1.4 The American School at Fontainebleau, 1921-1935
1.5 Touring and recording
Second World War
Second World War and emigration, 1940-45
1.7 Later life in Paris, 1946-79
2 The pedagogue
3 Honours and awards
4 Key works
8 External links
Early life and education
Nadia Boulanger was born in Paris on 16 September 1887, to French
composer and pianist Ernest Boulanger (1815–1900) and his wife
Raissa Myshetskaya (1856–1935), a Russian princess, who descended
from St. Mikhail Tchernigovsky,.
Ernest Boulanger had studied at the
Paris Conservatoire and, in 1835
at the age of 20, won the coveted
Prix de Rome
Prix de Rome for composition. He
wrote comic operas and incidental music for plays, but was most widely
known for his choral music. He achieved distinction as a director of
choral groups, teacher of voice, and a member of choral competition
juries. After years of rejection, in 1872 he was appointed to the
Paris Conservatoire as professor of singing.
Raissa qualified as a home tutor (or governess) in 1873. According to
Ernest, he and Raissa met in Russia in 1873, and she followed him back
to Paris. She joined his voice class at the
Conservatoire in 1876, and
they were married in Russia in 1877. Ernest and Raissa had a
daughter who died as an infant before Nadia was born
on her father's 72nd birthday.
Through her early years, although both parents were very active
musically, Nadia would get upset by hearing music and hide until it
stopped. In 1892, when Nadia was five, Raissa became pregnant
again. During the pregnancy, Nadia's response to music changed
drastically. "One day I heard a fire bell. Instead of crying out and
hiding, I rushed to the piano and tried to reproduce the sounds. My
parents were amazed." After this, Boulanger paid great attention to
the singing lessons her father gave, and began to study the rudiments
Her sister, named Marie-Juliette Olga but known as Lili, was born in
1893, when Nadia was six. When Ernest brought Nadia home from their
friends' house, before she was allowed to see her mother or Lili, he
made her promise solemnly to be responsible for the new baby's
welfare. He urged her to take part in her sister's care.
From the age of seven, Nadia studied hard in preparation for her
Conservatoire entrance exams, sitting in on their classes and having
private lessons with its teachers. Lili often stayed in the room for
these lessons, sitting quietly and listening.
In 1896, the nine-year-old Nadia entered the Conservatoire. She
studied there with Fauré and others. She came in third in the
1897 solfège competition, and subsequently worked hard to win first
prize in 1898. She took private lessons from
Louis Vierne and
Alexandre Guilmant. During this period, she also received religious
instruction to become an observant Catholic, taking her First
Communion on 4 May 1899. The
Catholic religion remained important to
her for the rest of her life.
In 1900 her father Ernest died, and money became a problem for the
family. Raissa had an extravagant lifestyle, and the royalties she
received from performances of Ernest's music were insufficient to live
on permanently. Nadia continued to work hard at the
become a teacher and be able to contribute to her family's
In 1903, Nadia won the Conservatoire's first prize in harmony; she
continued to study for years, although she had begun to earn money
through organ and piano performances. She studied composition with
Gabriel Fauré and, in the 1904 competitions, she came first in three
categories: organ, accompagnement au piano and fugue (composition). At
her accompagnement exam, Boulanger met Raoul Pugno, a renowned
French pianist, organist and composer, who subsequently took an
interest in her career.
In the autumn of 1904, Nadia began to teach from the family apartment
at 36, rue Ballu. In addition to the private lessons she held
there, Boulanger started holding a Wednesday afternoon group class in
analysis and sightsinging. She continued these almost to her death.
This class was followed by her famous "at homes", salons at which
students could mingle with professional musicians and Boulanger's
other friends from the arts, such as Igor Stravinsky, Paul Valéry,
Fauré, and others.
After leaving the
Conservatoire in 1904 and before her sister's death
in 1918, Boulanger was a keen composer, encouraged by both Pugno and
Fauré. Caroline Potter, writing in The New Grove Dictionary of Music
and Musicians, says of Boulanger's music: "Her musical language is
often highly chromatic (though always tonally based), and Debussy's
influence is apparent." Her goal was to win the First Grand Prix
de Rome as her father had done, and she worked tirelessly towards it
in addition to her increasing teaching and performing commitments. She
first submitted work for judging in 1906, but failed to make it past
the first round. In 1907 she progressed to the final round but again
did not win.
In late 1907 she was appointed to teach elementary piano and
accompagnement au piano at the newly created Conservatoire
Femina-Musica. She was also appointed as assistant to Henri Dallier,
the professor of harmony at the Conservatoire.
In the 1908
Prix de Rome
Prix de Rome competition, Boulanger caused a stir by
submitting an instrumental fugue rather than the required vocal
fugue. The subject was taken up by the national and international
newspapers, and was resolved only when the French Minister of Public
Information decreed that Boulanger's work be judged on its musical
merit alone. She won the Second Grand Prix for her cantata, La
In 1908, as well as performing piano duets in public concerts,
Boulanger and Pugno collaborated on composing a song cycle, Les Heures
claires, which was well-received enough to encourage them to continue
working together. Still hoping for a Grand Prix de Rome, Boulanger
entered the 1909 competition but failed to win a place in the final
round. Later that year, her sister Lili, then sixteen, announced
to the family her intention to become a composer and win the Prix de
In 1910, Annette Dieudonné became a student of Boulanger's,
continuing with her for the next fourteen years. When her studies
ended, she began teaching Boulanger's students the rudiments of music
and solfège. She was Boulanger's close friend and assistant for the
rest of her life.
Boulanger attended the premiere of Diaghilev's ballet
The Firebird in
Paris, with music by Stravinsky. She immediately recognised the young
composer's genius and began a lifelong friendship with him.
In April 1912,
Nadia Boulanger made her debut as a conductor, leading
the Société des Matinées Musicales orchestra. They performed her
1908 cantata La Sirène, two of her songs, and Pugno's Concertstück
for piano and orchestra. The composer played as soloist.
With the advent of war in Europe in 1914, public programs were
reduced, and Boulanger had to put her performing and conducting on
hold. She continued to teach privately and to assist Dallier at the
Conservatoire. Nadia was drawn into Lili's expanding war work, and by
the end of the year, the sisters had organised a sizable charity, the
Comité Franco-Américain du
Conservatoire National de Musique et de
Déclamation. It supplied food, clothing, money, letters from home,
etc. to soldiers who had been musicians before the war.
Weakened by her work during the war, Lili began to suffer ill health.
She died in March 1918.
Life after Lili's death, 1918-21
In 1919, Boulanger performed in more than twenty concerts, often
programming her own music and that of her sister. Since the
Conservatoire Femina-Musica had closed during the war, Alfred Cortot
and Auguste Mangeot founded a new music school in Paris, which opened
later that year, the École normale de musique de Paris. Boulanger was
invited by Cortot to join the school, where she ended up teaching
classes in harmony, counterpoint, musical analysis, organ and
Mangeot also asked Boulanger to contribute articles of music criticism
to his paper Le Monde Musical, and she occasionally provided articles
for this, and other newspapers, for the rest of her life, though she
never felt at ease setting her opinions down for posterity in this
In 1920, Boulanger began to compose again, writing a series of songs
to words by Camille Mauclair. In 1921, she performed at two concerts
in support of women's rights, at both of which music by Lili was
programmed. Later in life she claimed never to have been involved
with feminism, and that women should not have the right to vote as
they "lacked the necessary political sophistication."
The American School at Fontainebleau, 1921-1935
Château de Fontainebleau
In the summer of 1921 the French Music School for Americans opened in
Fontainebleau, with Boulanger listed on the programme as a professor
of harmony. She inaugurated the custom, which would continue for
the rest of her life, of inviting the best students to her summer
residence at Gargenville one weekend for lunch and dinner. Among the
students attending the first year at Fontainebleau was Aaron
Boulanger's unrelenting schedule of teaching, performing, composing,
writing letters etc. started to take its toll on her health; she had
frequent migraines and toothaches. She stopped writing as a critic for
Le Monde musical as she could not attend the requisite concerts. To
maintain the living standard for her and her mother, she concentrated
on teaching. This was her most lucrative source of income. Fauré
believed she was mistaken to stop composing, but she told him, "If
there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that I wrote useless
In 1924, Walter Damrosch,
Arthur Judson and the New York Symphony
Society arranged for Boulanger to tour the US towards the end of the
year. She set sail on the
Cunard flagship RMS Aquitania on
Christmas Eve. The ship arrived on New Year's Eve in New York after an
extremely rough crossing. During this tour, she performed solo
organ works, pieces by Lili, and premiered Copland's new Symphony for
Organ and Orchestra, which he had written for her. She returned to
France on 28 February 1925.
Later that year, Boulanger approached the publisher Schirmer to
enquire if they would be interested in publishing her methods of
teaching music to children. When nothing came of this, she abandoned
trying to write about her ideas.
Gershwin visited Boulanger in 1927, asking for lessons in composition.
They spoke for half an hour after which Boulanger announced, "I can
teach you nothing." Taking this as a compliment, Gershwin repeated the
story many times.
Great Depression increased social tensions in France. Days after
the Stavisky riots in February 1934, and in the midst of a general
strike, Boulanger resumed conducting. She made her Paris debut with
the orchestra of the École normale in a programme of Mozart, Bach,
and Jean Françaix. Boulanger's private classes continued; Elliott
Carter recalled that students who did not dare to cross Paris through
the riots showed only that they did not "take music seriously
enough". By the end of the year, she was conducting the Orchestre
Philharmonique de Paris in the
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées
Théâtre des Champs-Élysées with a
programme of Bach, Monteverdi and Schütz.
Her mother Raissa died in March 1935, after a long decline. This freed
Boulanger from some of her ties to Paris, which had prevented her from
taking up teaching opportunities in the United States.
Touring and recording
Boulanger with Igor Stravinsky
In 1936, Boulanger substituted for
Alfred Cortot in some of his piano
masterclasses, coaching the students in Mozart's keyboard works.
Later in the year, she traveled to London to broadcast her
lecture-recitals for the BBC, as well as to conduct works including
Schütz, Fauré and Lennox Berkeley. Noted as the first woman to
conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra, she received acclaim for
Boulanger's long-held passion for Monteverdi culminated in her
recording six discs of madrigals for HMV in 1937. This brought his
music to a new, wider audience. Not all reviewers approved her use
of modern instruments.
Hindemith published his The Craft of Musical Composition,
Boulanger asked him for permission to translate the text into French,
and to add her own comments.
Hindemith never responded to her offer.
After he fled from
Nazi Germany to the United States, they did not
discuss the matter further.
Late in 1937, Boulanger returned to Britain to broadcast for the BBC
and hold her popular lecture-recitals. In November, she became the
first woman to conduct a complete concert of the Royal Philharmonic
Society in London, which included Fauré's Requiem and Monteverdi's
Amor (Lamento della ninfa). Describing her concerts, Mangeot
She never uses a dynamic level louder than mezzo-forte and she takes
pleasure in veiled, murmuring sonorities, from which she nevertheless
obtains great power of expression. She arranges her dynamic levels so
as never to have need of fortissimo...
In 1938, Boulanger returned to the US for a longer tour. She had
arranged to give a series of lectures at Radcliffe, Harvard, Wellesley
and the Longy School of Music, and to broadcast for NBC. During this
tour, she became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony
Orchestra. In her three months there, she gave over a hundred
lecture-recitals, recitals and concerts These included the world
premiere of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto. At that time she
was seen by American sculptor
Katharine Lane Weems
Katharine Lane Weems who recorded in her
diary, “Her voice is surprisingly deep. She is quite slim with an
excellent figure and fine features, Her skin is delicate, her hair
graying slightly, she wears pince-nez and gesticulates as she becomes
excited talking about music.”
HMV issued two additional Boulanger records in 1938: the Piano
Concerto in D by Jean Françaix, which she conducted; and the Brahms
Liebeslieder Waltzes, in which she and
Dinu Lipatti were the duo
pianists with a vocal ensemble, and (again with Lipatti) a selection
Brahms Waltzes, Op. 39 for piano four hands.
During Boulanger's tour of America the following year, she became the
first woman to conduct the
New York Philharmonic
New York Philharmonic Orchestra at Carnegie
Philadelphia Orchestra and the Washington National Symphony
Orchestra. She gave 102 lectures in 118 days across the US.
Second World War
Second World War and emigration, 1940-45
Second World War
Second World War loomed, Boulanger helped her students leave
France. She made plans to do so herself.
Stravinsky joined her at
Gargenville, where they awaited news of the German attack against
France. Waiting to leave France till the last moment before the
invasion and occupation, Boulanger arrived in New York (via
Lisbon) on 6 November 1940. After her arrival, Boulanger traveled
Longy School of Music
Longy School of Music in Cambridge to give classes in harmony,
fugue, counterpoint and advanced composition. In 1942, she also
began teaching at the
Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. Her classes
included music history, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, orchestration
Later life in Paris, 1946-79
Leaving America at the end of 1945, she returned to France in January
1946. There she accepted a position of professor of accompagnement au
piano at the Paris Conservatoire. In 1953, she was appointed
overall director of the Fontainebleau School. She also continued
her touring to other countries.
As a long-standing friend of the family (and officially as
chapel-master to the Prince of Monaco), Boulanger was asked to
organise the music for the wedding of
Prince Rainier of Monaco and the
American actress, Grace Kelly, in 1956. In 1958, she returned to
the US for a six-week tour. She combined broadcasting, lecturing, and
making four television films.
Also in 1958, she was inducted as an Honorary Member into Sigma Alpha
Iota, the international women's music fraternity, by the Gamma Delta
chapter at the
Crane School of Music
Crane School of Music in Potsdam, New York.
In 1962, she toured Turkey, where she conducted concerts with her
young protégée Idil Biret. Later that year, she was invited to
White House of the United States by President
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy and
his wife Jacqueline, and in 1966, she was invited to Moscow to
jury for the International Tchaikovsky Competition, chaired by Emil
Gilels. While in England, she taught at the Yehudi Menuhin School.
She also gave lectures at the
Royal College of Music
Royal College of Music and the Royal
Academy of Music, all of which were broadcast by the BBC.
Her eyesight and hearing began to fade toward the end of her life.
On August 13, 1977, in advance of her 90th birthday, she was given a
surprise birthday celebration at Fontainebleau's English Garden. The
school's chef had prepared a large cake, on which was inscribed:
"1887–Happy Birthday to you, Nadia Boulanger–Fontainebleau, 1977".
When the cake was served, 90 small white candles floating on the pond
illuminated the area. Boulanger's then-protégé, Emile Naoumoff,
performed a piece he had composed for the occasion. Boulanger
worked almost until her death in 1979 in Paris. She is buried at
the Montmartre Cemetery, as is her sister Lili.
36 rue Ballu, Paris
For Boulanger's notable students, see List of music students by
teacher: A to B § Nadia Boulanger.
Asked about the difference between a well-made work and a masterpiece,
I can tell whether a piece is well-made or not, and I believe that
there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved,
but I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned
down. I won't say that the criterion for a masterpiece does not exist,
but I don't know what it is.
She claimed to enjoy all "good music". According to Lennox Berkeley,
"A good waltz has just as much value to her as a good fugue, and this
is because she judges a work solely on its aesthetic content."
However, her taste has also been described as, "to put it mildly,
eclectic": "She was an admirer of Debussy, and a disciple of Ravel.
Although she bore little sympathy for Schoenberg and the Viennese
dodecaphonicians, she was an ardent champion of Stravinsky".
She insisted on complete attention at all times: "Anyone who acts
without paying attention to what he is doing is wasting his life. I'd
go so far as to say that life is denied by lack of attention, whether
it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece."
In 1920, two of her favourite female students left her to marry. She
thought they had betrayed their work with her and their obligation to
music. Her attitude to women in music was contradictory: despite
Lili's success and her own eminence as a teacher, she held throughout
her life that a woman's duty was to be a wife and mother According
to Ned Rorem, she would "always give the benefit of the doubt to her
male students while overtaxing the females". She saw teaching as a
pleasure, a privilege and a duty: "No-one is obliged to give
lessons. It poisons your life if you give lessons and it bores
Boulanger accepted pupils from any background; her only criterion was
that they had to want to learn. She treated students differently
depending on their ability: her talented students were expected to
answer the most rigorous questions and perform well under stress. The
less able students, who did not intend to follow a career in music,
were treated more leniently. Each student had to be approached
differently: "When you accept a new pupil, the first thing is to try
to understand what natural gift, what intuitive talent he has. Each
individual poses a particular problem." "It does not matter what
style you use, as long as you use it consistently." Boulanger used
a variety of teaching methods, including traditional harmony, score
reading at the piano, species counterpoint, analysis, and
sight-singing (using fixed-Do solfège).
When she first looked at a student's score, she often commented on its
relation to the work of a variety of composers: for example, "[T]hese
measures have the same harmonic progressions as Bach's F major prelude
and Chopin's F major Ballade. Can you not come up with something more
Virgil Thomson found this process frustrating:
"Anyone who allowed her in any piece to tell him what to do next would
see that piece ruined before his eyes by the application of routine
recipes and bromides from standard repertory." Copland recalled
that "she had but one all-embracing principle...the creation of what
she called la grande ligne - the long line in music." She
disapproved of innovation for innovation's sake: "When you are writing
music of your own, never strain to avoid the obvious." She said,
"You need an established language and then, within that established
language, the liberty to be yourself. It's always necessary to be
yourself – that is a mark of genius in itself."
She always claimed that she could not bestow creativity onto her
students and that she could only help them to become intelligent
musicians who understood the craft of composition. "I can't provide
anyone with inventiveness, nor can I take it away; I can simply
provide the liberty to read, to listen, to see, to understand."
Only inspiration could make the difference between a well-made piece
and an artistic one. She believed that the desire to learn, to
become better, was all that was required to achieve – always
provided the right amount of work was put in. She would quote the
Rameau (who wrote his first opera at fifty), Wojtowicz
(who became a concert pianist at thirty-one), and Roussel (who had no
professional access to music till he was twenty-five), as
counter-arguments to the idea that great artists always develop out of
Her memory was prodigious: by the time she was twelve, she knew the
whole of Bach's
Well-Tempered Clavier by heart. Students have
described her as knowing every significant piece, by every significant
composer. Copland recalls,
Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music; she
knew the oldest and the latest music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky.
All technical know-how was at her fingertips: harmonic transposition,
the figured bass, score reading, organ registration, instrumental
techniques, structural analyses, the school fugue and the free fugue,
the Greek modes and Gregorian chant.
Murray Perahia recalled being "awed by the rhythm and character" with
which she played a line of a Bach fugue.
Janet Craxton recalled
listening to Boulanger's playing Bach chorales on the piano as "the
single greatest musical experience of my life".
Quincy Jones says Boulanger told him "Your music can never be more or
less than you are as a human being".
Honours and awards
1932 Chevalier to the Légion d'honneur
1934 Order of Polonia Restituta
1962 Foreign Honorary Member of the American Academy of Arts and
1962 Howland Memorial Prize
1975 Médaille d'Or of the
Académie des Beaux-Arts
Académie des Beaux-Arts of the Institut de
1977 Grand officier to the Légion d'honneur
1977 Order of the British Empire
Order of St. Charles
Order of St. Charles of Monaco
Order of the Crown of Belgium
Allons voir sur le lac d'argent (A. Silvestre), 2 voices, piano, 1905
Ecoutez la chanson bien douce (Verlaine), 1 voice, orchestra, 1905
Les sirènes (Grandmougin), female chorus, orchestra, 1905
A l'aube (Silvestre), chorus, orchestra, 1906
A l'hirondelle (Sully Prudhomme), chorus, orchestra, 1908
La sirène (E. Adenis/Desveaux), 3 voices, orchestra, 1908
Dnégouchka (G. Delaquys), 3 voices, orchestra, 1909
Over 30 songs for 1 voice, piano, incl.:
Extase (Hugo), 1901
Désepérance (Verlaine), 1902
Cantique de soeur Béatrice (Maeterlinck), 1909
Une douceur splendide et sombre (A. Samain), 1909
Larme solitaire (Heine), 1909
Une aube affaiblie (Verlaine), 1909
Prière (Bataille), 1909
Soir d'hiver (N. Boulanger), 1915
Au bord de la nuit, Chanson, Le couteau, Doute, L'échange (Mauclair),
J'ai frappé (R. de Marquein), 1922
Chamber and solo works
3 pièces, organ, 1911, arr. cello, piano
3 pièces, piano, 1914
Pièce sur des airs populaires flamands, organ, 1917
Vers la vie nouvelle, piano, 1917
Fantaisie variée, piano, orchestra, 1912
With Raoul Pugno
Les heures claires (Verhaeren), 8 songs, 1 voice, piano, 1909
La ville morte (d'Annunzio), opera, 1910–13
Mademoiselle: Premiere Audience - Unknown Music of Nadia Boulanger,
Delos DE 3496 (2017)
Tribute to Nadia Boulanger, Cascavelle VEL 3081 (2004)
BBC Legends: Nadia Boulanger, BBCL 40262 (1999)
Women of Note. Koch International Classics B000001SKH (1997)
Chamber Music by French Female Composers. Classic Talent B000002K49
Le Baroque Avant Le Baroque. EMI Classics France B000CS43RG (2006)
^ Lennox Berkeley, Sir, Peter Dickinson,
Lennox Berkeley and Friends:
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Me: A Memoir, Vantage Press, New York, 1985 p.105
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^ a b Doyle, Roger O. (2003). Martha Furman Schleifer, ed. Women
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^ a b Bernheimer, Martin (September 8, 1985). "Mademoiselle:
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Burton, Anthony, and Griffith, Paul, Nadia Boulanger, in Alison
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The American Conservatory at Fontainebleau
Nadia Boulanger at Find a Grave
Nadia Boulanger at The Art Song Project
Free scores by
Nadia Boulanger at the International Music Score
Library Project (IMSLP)
ISNI: 0000 0001 1027 9883
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