Teacher to great composers
“Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music; she knew the oldest and the latest music, pre-Bach and post-Stravinsky, and knew it cold. All technical know-how was at her fingertips: harmonic transposition, the figured bass, score reading, organ registration, instrumental techniques, structural analyses, the school fugue and the free fugue, the Greek modes and Gregorian chant. Needless to say this list is far from exhaustive.”1
Aaron Copland, from On Music
When you read album liner notes, music books, profiles of performers and composers, you’ll start to see the name Nadia Boulanger popping up regularly. Here’s why.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a composer and conductor, pianist and organist, but is perhaps best known as a teacher. Here are only some of her students:
Aaron Copland, John Eliot Gardiner, Dinu Lipatti, Vigil Thomson, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass, Ástor Piazzolla, Elliott Carter, and Quincy Jones.
She was the first woman to conduct the following orchestras:
BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, Washington National Symphony, London Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic Society London.
Boulanger studied at the Paris Conservatoire, and won several prizes while she was there. She studied composition with Gabriel Fauré. She became friends with Fauré, poet Paul Valéry, and Igor Stravinsky.
She founded the French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau, and this was a magnet for American composers in the 1920s (however, she told Gershwin, as had Ravel, “I can teach you nothing”).2 American composers were drawn by her rigorous instruction and encyclopedic knowledge of the repertoire.
She visited Great Britain and the US on numerous occasions to teach and conduct, and taught at the Longy School of Music in Cambridge, and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore during World War II. She returned to France after the war. She taught until nearly the very end, and died at age 92.
American composer Quincy Jones said, “Nadia Boulanger used to tell me all the time, ‘Quincy, your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.’ It’s okay to play fast and all that other stuff, but unless you have a life experience, and have something to say that you’ve lived, you have nothing to contribute at all.”3
Because of her many students, and the great influence she had upon them, Nadia Boulanger continues to cast a long shadow in the music history of the 20th century.
Here is her Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra.
- Copland, Aaron, On Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1963, pp. 87-88.
- Rosenstiel, Leonie and Rosenstiel, Annette, Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1982, p 216.
Image attribution: Photograph of Nadia Boulanger, 1925 by Edmond Joaillier, Paris (Bibliothèque nationale de France) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ANadia_Boulanger_1925.jpg