Today would be the 127th birthday of Nadia Boulanger – the foremost music educator of the 20th century. Her skill and expertise were widely sought, and her list of students is more than extensive and impressive. I highly recommend Bruno Monsaingeon’s excellent documentary Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger, which was completed in honor of her 90th birthday, and which can be viewed in full on YouTube:
But though remembered, and deeply respected, as an educator (a role society had already determined to be quite fitting for a woman…) her work as a composer is usually neglected. For instance, the 1994 Norton/Grove Dictionary of Women Composers lists barely a handful of her works. We should acknowledge that is due in part to her own devices: Nadia stopped composing while she was quite young (feeling her work to be inadequate), and instead advocated for the work of her younger sister, Lili Boulanger, who tragically died at age 24. Nadia strove to erase the evidence of her own composing, and some of her own students were unaware that she ever composed a note (much less successful and powerful works). The attitude expressed by Aaron Copland, in fondly recalling his teacher, can help us understand why Boulanger would feel (either consciously or unconsciously) it was necessary to hide her work as a composer:
Nadia Boulanger was quite aware that as a composition teacher she labored under two further disadvantages: she was not herself a regularly practicing composer and in so far as she composed at all she must of necessity be listed in that unenviable category of the woman composer. Everyone knows that the high achievement of women musicians as vocalists and instrumentalists has no counterpart in the field of musical composition. This historically poor showing has puzzled more than one observer. … Is it possible that there is a mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that runs counter to the nature of the feminine mind? … The future may very well have a different tale to tell; for the present, however, no woman’s name will be found on the list of world-famous composers. Copland on Music, 1960.
The Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Centre now strives to preserve their respective pasts, as well as to provide scholarships and awards to up-and-coming composers.
In honor of Nadia’s birthday let’s not only be thankful for her incredible talent as an educator who influenced countless young musicians and composers, and whose legacy continues to live on in teaching studios throughout the world, but also remember her great accomplishments as a composer.
Here is Nadia’s Fantasie for Piano and Orchestra: