Hidden figures (2/3) – The Boulanger sisters

The composing careers of Nadia and Lili Boulanger were at once swift, dazzling and exceptional. Both sisters shared the intimate bond of sisterhood but also had very different musical personalities. However, even though they gained instant recognition in their lifetime, they did not manage to escape the gender stigma. Like so many of their fellow women composers, the music of Nadia (1887-1979) and Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) was silenced for many years. Their name was known as one of the few exemples of women composers, but their music was rarely performed or recorded. Things are starting to slowly change, and there are more and more books, recordings, concert programmes and festivals focused on the works of women composers, which of course benefits the best known women composers like the Nadia and Lili Boulanger. The superb album that pianist Johan Farjot has just devoted to the piano music of the Boulanger sisters is an exemple of this movement towards the recognition of women composers, and it is a wonderful opportunity to delve into the work of these two great musicians.

As Jacques Amblard explains in a compelling text, « The history of women composers is an abyss (« une œuvre au noir »). Or a 2,700 year old war, with media coverage, in which many battles were lost. In order for a female work to see the light of day (thanks to the protection of what we will call here a « FIRST » shield), and, better still, in order for it not to be forgotten, to be obscured today (a « SECOND » miracle), it was necessary to have protections, successive socio-historical bubbles, specific to each era, and even war machines and strategies ». (« Exceptions, protections: champions and shields », Jacques Amblard, in Compositrices: l’égalité en actes). The Boulanger sisters are representative of this twofold process described by the musicologist.

The two Boulanger sisters benefited from an impressive number of protections, which enabled them to build up a solid shield: « The protective effect was first of all bourgeois, clannish, reinforced by the fierce mutual support between the two sisters (Lili-Nadia). » The shield was initially a family one: their father Ernest Boulanger (1815-1900) was a renowned composer, who won the Grand Prix de Rome, and was a singing teacher at the Paris Conservatoire. The two sisters met many prestigious musicians in the family salon, including Gabriel Fauré, who was particularly close to the two sisters and was in a way their mentor.

Lili’s sudden death in 1918, following a very long illness which had hindered her career as a musician from a very young age, served as a trigger for the mythification of the youngest of the Boulanger sisters. This ‘miracle’ has enabled the memory of Lili Boulanger to be kept alive after her death, as a myth, whereas many female composers fall into oblivion after their death, was achieved thanks to the devotion of her sister.

After Lili’s death, Nadia became the champion of her sister’s works, to which she lent the considerable influence she acquired as a performer and teacher: « Indeed, the woman whom Leonard Bernstein called the ‘Queen of Music’ enjoyed an authority in the musical world that made her both a central and prestigious figure. » (Alexandra Laederlich, in Nadia and Lili Boulanger, testimonies and studies, Symétrie). But this ‘miracle’ came at the expense of Nadia’s career as a composer. She gave up composing in the 1920s for reasons that have not yet been fully clarified, but which seem to be intimately linked to the death of her younger sister. She justified her to the documentary filmmaker Bruno Monsaingeon with this stinging sentence: « For me it was the awareness that my music was useless.

However, Nadia herself became a myth in her lifetime. She achieved this status through her work as a performer and above all as a teacher. A close friend of Paul Valéry and Igor Stravinsky, « Mademoiselle », as she was known, taught music to more than a thousand students. Her long list of pupils includes prestigious performers such as Dinu Lipatti, John Eliot Gardiner and Daniel Barenboim, as well as famous composers, especially American ones, from George Gershwin to Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Michel Legrand, Astor Piazzolla and Quincy Jones. Her last pupil, the pianist Emile Naoumoff, described Nadia Boulanger’s teaching as strict, where others considered her tyrannical: « She was extremely austere. Basically, she taught on merit, there were no competitions, no free passes, no favourites. »

Johan Farjot’s recording of the piano music of Lili and Nadia Boulanger is a real gem, which enables us to discover the piano writing of the two sisters, to compare them and to appreciate them at their true value. As the pianist explains in the booklet of the disc, the two sisters each have their own style and musical personality. Of Lili Boulanger, Johan Farjot says in the booklet of the disc that she « had this modernity and singularity, structured by a very original harmony and sound structure », but that her vision is not « pianistic ». The pianist and composer explains that Lili Boulanger « proceeds by constructing layers of sound. » « All of her writing is organised around pre-orchestral superposition, which goes far qbove and beyond the ‘pianism’ of her contemporaries. » An example of this can be found in the Prelude in B, the original manuscript of which is marked « Prelude for Orchestra ».

Johan Farjot rightly remarks that there is a Nadia Boulanger mystery: the mystery of the end of her creative career, but also the mystery of the gap between the austere and cold image that the musician has built up for herself and the reality of her music: « She continually gave the impression of controlled authority, when her music, to the contrary, is full of humanity and emotion. » (Johan Farjot, booklet of the recording). The pianist remarks that Nadia’s writing is « more chiseled, more instrumentally perfonified but of great inspiration too. » Listening to this album one discovers a deeply joyful musical world of great lightness and virtuosity. Nadia’s writing seems to me to be more luminous than her sister’s, even if Nadia’s music also has its share of melancholy. Her music is rooted in life and turned towards the light, whereas Lili’s often seems inexorably drawn to darkness and death.

This album is the first complete piano work by the two sisters. It allows us to discover three previously unpublished pieces by Nadia Boulanger: a piece for two pianos from 1910, a piece for the entrance exam to the Paris Conservatoire (1914) and a melody « Mon Âme » (My soul) from 1906, which had never been published or recorded. With the help of the International Nadia et Lili Boulanger Center and the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Johan Farjot was able to see the original manuscripts. Thanks to the painstaking work of Johan Farjot, music lovers can now hear these works for the first time, and I hope that other unknown manuscripts of Nadia Boulanger will be discovered in the near future.

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