Catapulting into Classical

A headlong leap into music, history, and composing

Haiku Wednesday: Nadia Boulanger


Photograph of Nadia Boulanger, 1925.

Nadia Boulanger, 1925.

Nadia Boulanger
Teacher to great composers
Quietly excelled

“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 Nadia Boulanger speaking about music and genius.

Here is her Fantaisie pour piano et orchestra


  1. Copland, Aaron, On Music. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1963, pp. 87-88.
  2. 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.

3 thoughts on “Haiku Wednesday: Nadia Boulanger

  1. How wonderful to have her summoned from yesterday, from all those liner notes I read so diligently, never getting to know her except in that limited way. Knowledgeable. A word we take for granted from encounters with persons who know not only widely but deeply. The remark reported by Quincy Jones, priceless. What comes from all good music and inevitably from great music, is life, breathing, quietly, in a drawing room, or at the horse race, seething, embracing, letting go, getting entangled, and so on. Whatever electricity goes through our bodies, flipped by musicians outward into an invisible sequence of sound that induces compatible currents in just the reverse direction, caroming and crisscrossing like echoes from the canyon. Are we the fabric or are we the loom?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks! A great lady- and no prisoners were taken either. Very rigorous traditional approach, with very heavy-duty skills acquisition of all kinds, and an insistence on perfection of thinking, execution, reading, playing and hearing. She dedicated her life to sister Lily, a marvelous composer, who died very young, and whom Nadia idolized and promoted her whole life. We will not see her like again, I feel sure.



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