Nadia Boulanger

1887 - 1979

French

Summary

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Biography

Born in Paris on September 16th 1887, French composer, conductor and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger was a hugely influential figure in twentieth century music. She studied at the Paris Conservatory, having tuition in harmony with Paul Vidal and composition with Widor and Fauré whilst having private organ tuition with Vierne and Guilmant. Her first moment of public recognition came when she submitted an instrumental fugue for the preliminary round of the Prix de Rome, as opposed to the vocal fugue requested, but still progressed to the final round winning the second prize for her cantata La sirène, resulting in a scandal. She worked as a concert pianist and organist for a lot of her early career, working alongside the virtuoso pianist Raoul Pugno from 1904 until his death in 1914. In this time the also collaborated compositionally on the song cycle Les heures claires in 1909 as well as a four-act opera, La ville morte. 

Unfortunately, in the early 1920s, Boulanger’s composing came to a halt because she was so badly affected by the incredibly premature death of her sister Lili, for whom she had greater respect than for herself. Most writers suspect that a combination of this as well as a lack of confidence in her own ability and an extremely high level of self-criticism drove her focus to teaching. This focus upon channelling her immense talent into her teaching was largely what made her one of the foremost teachers of composition of the twentieth century as well as being one of the first female professional conductors. Her first official teaching post was of piano and piano accompaniment at the Conservatoire Femina-Musica in Paris in 1907. She was appointed later as one of the first members of staff at the Ecole Normale de Musique where she taught harmony, counterpoint, music history, analysis, organ and composition from 1920 to 1939, taking on keyboard harmony as well from 1957. 

Boulanger was one of the founding members of the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau in 1921 and became its director in 1948. She also taught piano accompaniment at Paris Conservatory from 1946 to 1957 becoming renowned as a charismatic lecturer and powerful artist. Through her life, she became a very important part of American musical life in the 20th century, touring the country as an organist in 1925 and championing American music to the rest of the world in order to bring it greater esteem. Later in her career she was honoured by numerous international governments and organisations, including the Order of the British Empire, an honorary fellowship of the Royal College of Music in London and the Order of St Charles of Monaco.