Being the younger sister of prolific composer and educator, Nadia Boulanger, Lili Boulanger has perhaps not received as much attention from modern writers. It should be our mission in 2018 to uncover the delights of women composers, especially those who have not received as much media attention. March 15th 2018 sees the centenary of Boulanger’s premature death, and it is with great pride that I am writing this blog in her memory for Illuminate’s fantastic women composers blog series.
Born on 21st August 1893 in Paris, Lili Boulanger was considered at a young age as a musical child prodigy. This was perhaps not too surprising for the Boulanger family, with her mother and grandmother being singers, her elder sister, Nadia, being a composer and educator, and her father, Ernest, also working as a composer. It became apparent as early as two years old, that Lili had perfect pitch, therefore her parents supported her musical studies (something which is perhaps not always seen). Lili was very close to her father, who passed away when she was six years old. It is suggested that many of her works touch on themes of grief, as she was greatly affected by his passing. Music was thus a central part of the Boulanger household, and Lili thrived in this sort of setting.
After battling poor health from the age of two (which stayed with Lili the rest of her short life), the young aspiring composer attended music classes with her sister at the Paris Music Academy when she was well enough. From there, Lili began taking classes in music theory (from as young as five years old), and she also began studying organ performance with Louis Vierne. Lili also became proficient at playing the piano, violin, cello, harp, as well as being a good singer, and she subsequently was educated by the likes of Marcel Tournier and Alphonse Hasselmans. She became so absorbed in music, having lessons 7 days a week, that she rapidly improved and gained entry into the prestigious Paris Conservatoire in 1912, to study composition.
In 1912, Lili competed for the prestigious Prix de Rome prize, but halfway through her performance she collapsed. A year later, however, she entered again and won the composition prize for her cantata Faust et Hélène, making her the first woman composer to win this prize. Winning the Prix de Rome gained Lili a five-year international scholarship, which put her at the centre of the French music scene at this time. Lili became a student under her sister Nadia, and also prolific French composer, Gabriel Fauré. Soon after winning the composition prize, Lili was offered a contract with the publishing company, Ricordi, which gave her a fixed salary, as well as the publication safety so she could distribute her works abroad.
Lili’s life and work were consistently troubled by her chronic illness, which began as bronchial pneumonia, and formed into crohn’s disease, which ended her life in March 1918. Although she enjoyed travelling, Lili was often forced to cut trips short, like after going to Rome in 1914 to compose, she soon returned home to help her sister support French soldiers after WWI had broken out. In 1916, she was told she had two years to live, and in this time Lili was incredibly creative, as she rushed to complete the works she had already started. Compositions such as Pie Jesu (1918), Vieille prière bouddhique (1917) and D’un matin de printemps (1918) were completed by the time she passed, however her opera La Princesse Maleine remained uncompleted.
The last orchestral work completed by Lili before her untimely death in 1918 was D’un Matin de Printemps (‘One Spring Morning’). Originally composed as a duet for violin and piano, in the spring of 1917, this work has been adapted into various versions, including an orchestral version (1918), a trio version with piano and violin (1917), and a duet for flute and piano (1917). This work is only short, clocking in at around 4-5 minutes, however it is full of playful twists and turns, as well as exhibiting a fine art for both storytelling and complex musical cohesion. For the purposes of this article, I shall now be referring to the duet version for flute and piano.
Unlike many of her other works, which are darker in character and harmony, D’un Matin de Printemps is full of a fresh, joyful character. Adhering to the ‘rules’ of impressionism in the early twentieth century, Lili begins this piece with three sets of minor seconds played by the piano (A, B - E, F - A, B). This creates a certain frivolity to the work, as the tonality of the work is unsure at this point. The flute enters in b. 3 and this melody is then syncopated with the accompaniment, creating a slight uneasiness between the duo, however, due to the sheer sweetness of the character of this piece, it comes across as fun and exciting.
The ostinato phrase that is heard for quite some time underpins the first section of the work. This soon changes into a slighter darker middle section, where the flute carries some ominous trills, whilst the piano accompaniment becomes much more complex. This then segues back into the next, much faster section, that resonates that of the introduction. This soon calms, and the flute moves into a sweeping melody. The constant changes between sections of this work keeps you on your toes, as well as keeping you engaged in the music. The work ends with a some bold flourishes from both the flute and piano, before a full-scale glissando from the piano and a short and sharp last note.
Lili Boulanger’s style of composition can certainly be read from different stand points. The first is her obvious nod to impressionism, and the likes of Claude Debussy. D’un Matin de Printemps is a prime example of this kind of musical expression. Secondly, her style can be likened to that of Gabriel Fauré, who, as well as being her teacher, was also a close family friend, and taught Lili much of what she knew about composition. Lastly, Lili’s compositional style was progressive for her time, which is largely due to her extensive music education from such a young age.
Although the premature death of Lili Boulanger raises many ‘what if’ questions, there is no time to waste. I suggest focusing on all of the wonderful works that this prolific woman composer left behind as her legacy. Her incredible story has left behind so many untold stories, under-celebrated works and new treasures to be found. She also leaves behind a large catalogue of music, which can mostly be accessed online. Lili was, and should still be considered, a pivotal French composer, as without her, who knows what might have happened to the Boulanger family legacy. As her 100 anniversary of her death soon approaches, now is the time to celebrate her legacy and memory.
©Alex Burns 2018
Alex Burns recently graduated from The University of Sheffield after studying for a BMus in Music and for an MA in Musicology. Her specialisms are the life and works of Gustav Mahler, as well as the works and lost stories of women composers. She runs the No. 1 classical music blog in the world, and has written on a range of different composers, aiming to make classical music more accessible to everybody.
Dr Helen Thomas