“Music seems to exist in and of itself, like a temple built around your soul.”

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)

The story of music in the twentieth century would have been very different without the inspirational force of Nadia Boulanger—conductor, pianist, organist, and teacher to some of the era’s greatest composers. She was a woman who “knew everything about music” and possessed an “infallible ear,” according to her devoted students, the most famous of which was Aaron Copland. Yet more than a master musician, Boulanger was a cultural hero who upheld spiritual ideals in a time of artistic turmoil. She transmitted to her students not merely the bricks and mortar of musical technique, but the meaning of art and how it connected to life.

Nadia Boulanger and her beloved younger sister Lili—a composer of exquisite talents whose life was cut short by tuberculosis—came from a musical family. Their father Ernest taught singing at the Paris Conservatory, and their Russian mother Raissa was a singer. Amazingly, Ernest was 72 years old when Nadia was born and his father, also a teacher at the conservatory, was born in 1777, the era of Haydn and Mozart. The sisters’ musical path seemed preordained, despite the fact that Nadia was frightened by music as a small child. (This fear came to an end when she heard a fire bell one day and tried to reproduce the sound at the piano.) By age nine she was studying at the Paris Conservatory with the renowned composers Widor and Fauré.

Although a capable composer, she eventually realized that teaching was her true metier. Her method consisted of a rigorous study of the classics, from Renaissance polyphony to Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and on to moderns like Debussy and Stravinsky. By analyzing how the great composers crafted their music—through the elements of harmony, counterpoint, and form—the student learned to write in his own musical language, building on the base of tradition.

A typical Boulanger class session had students gathered around the piano while a selected pupil played through a great work, say a Mozart sonata. “Mademoiselle” would pull the music apart, showing how the composer used harmony and melodic structure to lead the listener on an emotional journey. In private lessons, individual students were guided in finding their personal voice as composers.

Boulanger developed a special rapport with young American composers, becoming a sort of godmother to American classical music. Studying with “Mademoiselle” became a tradition, with a pilgrimage to the beautiful Palace of Fontainebleau, site of the American Conservatory, where she taught for nearly sixty years. Her legion of disciples was affectionately dubbed the “Boulangerie” (“bakery”). Boulanger returned the favor by teaching, lecturing, and conducting throughout the United States during and after World War II.

A philosophy of music

Boulanger’s teachings about music had a profound spiritual core. The renewal movement in French Catholicism influenced her deeply, and she counted the Thomist philosopher Jacques Maritain as a friend. In his book Art et scholastique Maritain had interpreted aesthetics in Thomistic terms, positing that beauty consists of “the shining forth of form through proportioned matter.”

Thinking along these lines, Boulanger conceived of music as “sounding form,” in contrast to the German Romantic idea of music as self-expression. Form is an interior carrier of meaning, not a mere shell into which the composer poured his subjective emotions. Structural coherence was paramount. Boulanger often spoke of la grande ligne—the developing line of musical thought that carries the listener along in a Bach fugue or Beethoven symphony.

As a believing Catholic, Boulanger likened the relationship between form and emotion in music to the relationship between reason and faith. One of her sayings describes this relationship: “One must approach music with serious rigor and, at the same time, with a great, affectionate joy.”

The history of music showed the dangers of separating the heart and the head. It led to the wild extremes of Romantic hyper-emotionalism on the one hand, and the academic “mind music” of the 12-tone composers on the other. Boulanger wanted to put feeling and intellect together again, with emotional expression always guided by rational control.

Closely related to this was her idea that “music was not invented by the composer, but found.” In other words, music is part of the objective order of the universe. And tonality, in the broad sense of the term, was part of that order. Boulanger had little sympathy for Arnold Schoenberg’s atonal thinking, and even less for the radical avant garde (although both were studied in her classroom). Instead she championed Igor Stravinsky, who was for her the ideal of a composer expressing supreme intelligence in ordered sound.

Boulanger also believed that music had an ethical dimension. It could be a service to God and one’s fellow man, a form of good works. She often spoke of musical performance in liturgical terms, as a communion between human beings and with God. A concert could be a revelation of mystery, an illumination of truth. The musician should think of himself as a conduit for a spiritual message, a humble servant of a higher ideal. As she put it, “The supreme interpreter becomes invisible”—a far cry from the self-regarding Romantic “genius.”

Cultural renewal

Many of these ideas flowed from the experience of World War I, with its immense devastation to human life and culture. The war was the pivotal event in the lives of the Boulanger sisters. Nadia had performed charitable work with Lili during the war, sending clothing and other goods to soldiers at the front, and Lili had died months before the Armistice. After the war many of Boulanger’s generation embraced order and reason as a way to heal the wounds of the conflict and regenerate culture from within.

This response to the times was in stark contrast to those artists (the Dadaists) who surrendered to the absurdity of life by creating art that was equally absurd. And in contrast to those iconoclasts who desired a complete break from, even a dismantling of the past, Boulanger insisted on fusing tradition and innovation.

For Boulanger, music was a calling like that of a monk or nun and demanding similar devotion. She never married and dedicated her whole life with a single mind to her art. Her first question to a new pupil was, “Can you live without music?” Once chosen, the musical path required absolute concentration: “Life is denied by a lack of attention, whether it be to cleaning windows or trying to write a masterpiece.”

Boulanger’s artistic credo formed a very diverse group of students—Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Jean Françaix, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, jazz musician Quincy Jones, Broadway composer Charles Strouse, just to name several. As different as their music was, they all drew from her a sense of exactness and discipline, as well as grace, humor, and rhythmic joie de vivre. It was perhaps the closest twentieth-century music came to a “common practice.” When Nadia Boulanger passed away in 1979, her aesthetic seemed as remote and unfashionable as the conservative black clothes and pince-nez glasses she always wore. Yet her principles lived on in the countless musicians and musical works she inspired. One need only listen to a work such as Copland’s Appalachian Spring to hear her methods translated into sound.

We have not dwelt upon the fact of Nadia Boulanger’s being a woman—but that is exactly how this grande dame of music would have wanted it. Although she was the first woman to conduct a number of orchestras on both sides of the Atlantic, she never touted this accomplishment nor saw herself as part any movement. The quip she delivered to a journalist on her Boston Symphony debut was typical, and unforgettable: “I’ve been a woman for a little over fifty years and have gotten over my initial astonishment.”

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The featured image of Nadia Boulanger is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

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