Nadia and Lili Boulanger were daughters of Ernest Boulanger, who taught at the Paris Conservatoire. Both studied with and were influenced by notable French composer Gabriel Faure. Both competed for the Prix de Rome prize in composition – Nadia won second place, Lili was the first woman to win the prize.
Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)
Marie-Juliette Olga (Lili) Boulanger was musical prodigy who, aside from being a singer, also played piano, organ, harp, violin and cello. A gifted composer, she was 19 years old when she became the first woman to win Prix de Rome award, a coveted prize for composition, for her orchestral accompanied cantata Faust et Helene, which was composed in only four weeks.
Gabriel Faure detected Lili’s perfect pitch when she was two years old, and Lili attended music classes with big sister Nadia before she was five. Her win of the Prix de Rome in 1913 landed her a contract with the Ricordi publishing company, who gave her a monthly income for composition.
Lili’s health was always fragile – she had a serious illness as a toddler that left her immune system weak. She dictated her final work, Pie Jesu (a text asking Jesus for everlasting rest), to her sister Nadia while she was ill. She died shortly after Pie Jesu was completed – her short life of 24 years left music of tremendous maturity and a life of inspiration for us to enjoy and admire.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979)
Nadia Boulanger was a towering musical figure whose teaching influenced much of the notable composition in the 20th century. Nadia was a composer and conductor, but when her sister died at an early age Nadia shifted her focus to teaching. This shift came from her way of dealing with the grief of the loss of her sister, and from being hard on herself in comparing her own compositions to those of Lili. Ultimately this shift put Nadia in a position of tremendous influence over an entire generation of composers and conductors, including Aaron Copland, Astor Piazzolla, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thompson, Daniel Barenboim and Sir John Eliot Gardiner.
She is repeatedly referred to as “the greatest teacher.” Her instruction provided solid musical grounding in theory and composition technique for her students, and yet allowed each to develop their own musical voice – a difficult accomplishment as a teacher! She was a remarkably disciplined student, and expected the same of those who studied with her. She was hard on her students, but that allowed the best in them to shine.
Her musical reputation led her to be the first female to conduct several world class orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
After Lili’s death, Nadia became a tremendous advocate of Lili’s music, ensuring that her genius sister’s work would not be lost by her early death. Nadia continued to program Lili’s music throughout her career, which lasted through her 90s.
Nocturne and Cortege, Lili Boulanger
The Nocturne is a form of music that invokes the images of night time – most commonly composed for piano. Cortege refers to a ceremonial procession. These short pieces were adapted for flute and piano and expertly performed by Naama Neuman.
Video: Naama Neuman, flute
D’un Soire Triste, Lili Boulanger
D’un Soire Triste (Of a Sad Evening) is one of the two final pieces that Lili composed in her own hand. This is a full orchestral work with rich, modern harmonies and significant tension. Though the flute is not featured, there are places where a full flute section can be heard distinctly in the texture.
Video: BBC Philharmonic
D’un Matin de Printemps, Lili Boulanger
D’un Matin de Printemps (A Spring Morning) is the cheerful counterpart to D’un Soire Triste which changed instrumentation over time. Lili began this work in 1917 for violin and piano (or flute and piano), but later turned it into a full orchestral work. This video is a flute and piano arrangement, beautifully played by Jayden Lee.
Trios Pieces for Cello and Piano, Nadia Boulanger
These three short chamber pieces showcase Nadia’s expertise in harmonic progression and musical character.
- Sans vitesse et a l’aise
- Vite et nerveusement rythmé
Video: Cheng2 Duo
Improvisation, Nadia Boulanger
Nadia was an organist, so it is fitting to hear a work that she composed for the instrument. This is a free-form improvisation that creates an ambiance of musical texture. I love how the end sounds completely unresolved until she adds one final note that makes it whole.
Fantaisie Variee pour Piano et Orchestre, Nadia Boulanger
This piece combines Nadia’s keyboard expertise and orchestration skills for symphony orchestra to create a colorful masterwork. French performers capture Nadia’s Parisian roots. There are some nice woodwind and flute section features in the later part of the piece.