Author’s note: this article is based on a Composer of the Week programme I scripted and presented for New Zealand National Radio’s Concert-FM. Embedded are links to various works of Lili Boulanger posted on YouTube for the reader’s listening and enjoyment.
Saturday, July the fifth, 1913. In the great meeting hall of the Institut de France, the competitors for the Paris Conservatoire’s Prix de Rome are each presenting their final works for judgement by the Académie des Beaux-Arts. This year’s challenge is to compose a cantata on a prescribed text, a lyric episode titled “Faust et Hélène” by the poet Eugène Adénis. At this public performance, the atmosphere seems anything but decorous. According to a critic in attendance, “…perched on the piano like jockeys…the daring young composers spurred on the accompanists, and lashed out at the performers with desperate gestures and disordered mimicry…” After an hour or so of these rock-star-like histrionics, the third contestant takes the stage, presenting a contrast in every conceivable way. This young composer emanates calm assurance, humility, and professionalism. Dress is simple, manner placid, with the easy joy of being part of the the process, engaging the audience and lending confidence to the performers. The inner inspirations of the composer explode into the consciousness of the audience, rather than battering against it pointlessly. And, almost as an afterthought in the shadow of the score’s obvious mastery, its author happens to be a woman – Lili Boulanger.
Lili Boulanger’s status as a competitor for the Prix de Rome goes beyond any traditional narratives of the struggle for gender equality. Born into an artistic home that simply oozed music, surrounded by such encouraging lights as Gounod and Fauré, it’s unlikely that Lili directly experienced the type of institutionalized sexism that provokes defiance. Rather, it was the very essence of family identity that steeled the young composer’s determination, past all reasonable limits on her dubious health and expected place in French society. Her father, Ernest Boulanger, had won the Prix de Rome at age twenty in 1835, and gone on to a respectable career as an opera composer and teacher at the Conservatoire.
Her older sister Nadia had also entered the Prix de Rome, earning Second Prize in 1908, but not making the final round in 1909. Until that year, the 16-year-old Lili had merely played with the notion of entering the family business. Nevertheless, her precocity had been evident from an early age, with perfect pitch and photographic note-memory as a toddler. By age six, she was tagging along with Nadia to sit in on classes at the Conservatoire, studiously filling notebooks with harmony exercises. However, attempts to fulfill this early promise and become a child prodigy were invariably countered by chronic illness. Lili suffered from intestinal tuberculosis, what we now know as Crohn’s Disease. As a result, though she could play four instruments and speak three languages, much of her childhood was spent either convalescing or going to spas with her mother in search of relief.
The Boulanger sisters were the children of father Ernest’s maturity, who at age 60 married their mother Raïssa Mychetsky, a 19-year-old Russian countess. The girls were not born until Ernest was in his 70’s. Though a warm and involved father, his lifespan was out of time with his children, ending in 1900 when Lili was only seven. At that time, her thirteen-year-old sister Nadia was no less a prodigy than Lili. By age sixteen, Nadia was teaching lessons professionally, and by her early twenties had become the main financial support of the family.
Such were the circumstances in which Lili’s mother sat her down in 1909 for a serious talk. Lili’s health being what it was, it was unlikely that she would ever marry. Frankly, she might not have a long life to live. And yet how would she survive without support from her mother or Nadia? What kind of occupation could give her intellectual fulfillment and freedom to compensate for her ongoing dependency? Lili’s reply was immediate: she wanted to study composition seriously, and win the Prix de Rome.
What’s really impressive in the story of Lili Boulanger is the systematic way she set about the task of becoming a serious composer. She took up private lessons with two Conservatoire teachers, Georges Caussade and Paul Vidal, auditing classes when her health permitted. Though she was not formally accepted until the start of 1912, she was for all practical purposes a full-time Conservatoire student from 1910, and her work was often shared in class. During this time, she methodically prepared herself for the Prix de Rome by composing the type of extended vocal works that were expected as final entries, within the strict time limits that she would eventually face. She did this several times, completing sample cantatas and choral works in anywhere from three weeks to four days. But the results were often destroyed afterwards, as were many of her other student compositions. One early work that does survive is the haunting “Les Sirènes.” Its descriptions of the carnal beauty of women and their maddening allure are especially poignant, coming from a woman whose whole life was denied the possibility of romance by her condition.
Once invested as an official student in January 1912, Lili entered the Prix de Rome without delay. But it was not a great year for the competition, nor for Lili’s health. During the preliminary examinations in May, she was forced to withdraw. Her manuscripts tell the whole tale, with a hand that grows ever weaker and shakier through the elimination round’s five days. The contest itself fared little better. The judges were so disappointed at the low quality of the final entries that no Grand Prize was awarded that year.
In July, after two months of severe illness, the 18-year-old composer picked up the threads of her grand scheme once again. Within six weeks she composed not one, but two complete works for chorus. One of these, La Nef légère, was probably destroyed, as no copies have been found. The other, Hymne au Soleil, survived. This “Hymn to the Sun” is full of intriguing harmonic ideas, like stacked fourths and transitions between seemingly unrelated chords. It’s a collection of grand gestures that are tied together by a sometimes muscular sense of lyricism, revealing the marks of an indomitable spirit, however infirm the vessel that contained it.
Hymne au Soleil:
Lili Boulanger’s life was now falling into a pattern of brilliant, copious bursts of creativity, punctuated by weeks of ill health and recovery. It was a rhythm that kept her hard at her task, with little time to socialize or seek recreation. At the very least, during her relapses, she had time to correspond with friends, study, and think over her next creative efforts. Sometimes, though, she worked right through almost paralyzing incapacities. Hard on the heels of composing La Nef and the Hymn, she set to work on a new choral piece, Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat. This cantata was a response to a challenge set by Georges Caussade, to compose a work with a wider dramatic scope. Lili forged on, overcoming a crippling attack that caused severe pain in her extremities, and completed a well-developed, fully orchestrated work by the start of 1913. Though the dramatic arcs, thematic development, and lyrical beauty are all first-rate, it’s the orchestration that stands out. Boulanger captures the sombre mood of elegy, perfectly balancing winds and brass to evoke the atmosphere of a military funeral. Yet there’s something more – a shaping of chordal phrasing, using the tonality of the instruments to convey despair, regrets, and bitterness. After the simple chanting entry of the lower voices, the strings state the Dies Irae motif, adding a layer of humanity that counterpoints the mood of devastation. It’s no mere student work, but a masterpiece.
Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat (not the greatest recording, but very spirited)
Though Lili attended no autumn classes at the Conservatoire in 1912, Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat earned her top marks from her teachers. She was awarded the Prix Lepaulle, and granted an orchestral performance at the Salon des Musiciens Français in February 1913. Les Sirènes and Hymne au Soleil also received public performances at this time, and Paris started to notice the emergence of this remarkable talent. But Lili had no time to bask in the praise. She was kept very busy in the early part of the year, completing her end-of-semester examinations, making preparations for the upcoming Prix de Rome competition, and undergoing one more intense course of study in fugal technique.
By entering the Prix de Rome again, Lili was not just putting the family reputation on the line. There was also the risk that the process itself might consume her, even push her health past a certain point of retrieval. In order to compete, she would be required to spend many days in isolation in the Palais de Compiègne, away from the constant care of her mother. Her very discretion was in some ways an obstacle. Earnestly wishing for her health to have no issue in the proceedings, she might well receive no useful treatment should she have a serious collapse. So it can’t have been easy to show up at the Palais for the first, week-long elimination round. On May 6, 1913, Lili Boulanger presented herself along with twelve other applicants, and received a text for a choral work, along with a fugue subject. This time, she got lucky. Her health stayed level, and within six days she had completed both works with enough merit to advance to the final round.
It’s worth listening to her choral sample, which has stood the test of time. Soir sur la plaine reveals Lili at her most enchanting, with rapturous melodicism and shifting harmonies. There are also startling advances, like an open major ninth chord at the beginning of the choral passage. Here she seems to have cast dry scholastic guidelines aside and written directly from the heart. The stamp of a strong individuality is imprinted firmly on top of the obvious impressionist and late romantic influences, showing most deeply in the character and pacing of the emotional arcs, and the intelligence of the lyrical structure. To accept this as a Prix de Rome elimination work would demand a tacit validation of the artistic identity of the composer, a risk that Lili Boulanger seemed all too willing to take.
Soir sur la plaine:
Lili emerged from seclusion to find herself a minor celebrity in Parisian music circles. Le Monde Musical printed a detailed review of her February debut, and her photo was taken with the other finalists for the cover of Musica magazine. This image is revealing: the male contestants are grouped around Lili, looking confrontational and self-important. In the middle, Lili Boulanger stands, impeccably dressed and yet looking modest and somewhat pale. The shadow from her wide-brimmed hat disguises her tired-looking eyes. At nineteen years old, she is six to ten years younger than her fellow Prix de Rome finalists.
By the 22nd of May, Lili and the boys were back that the Palais, where they received the text for the final composition. Within the span of thirty days, each contestant would have to compose not only a clear, workable piano score, but a fully orchestrated version of the cantata as well. This put the emphasis on craft and inspiration. The young composers would not have much time to sketch and develop their ideas. Inspiration would have to ensure that the first ideas were the best ideas; while craft would be necessary to give those ideas life and solidity without error.
This was probably the greatest challenge of Lili Boulanger’s life. Predictably, the stability of her health started to erode over the march of long days with little sleep. Still, she stuck with it, lavishing the development of the ideas with as much time as she could spare, completing the piano score in twenty-four days. This gave her less than a week to orchestrate thirty minutes of music. And yet the final orchestral score is subtle, varied, even audacious at times. It bears the mark of much consideration and forethought. Surely Lili must have worked out the scoring mentally as she completed the piano version. The textures and gestures seem spontaneous and intuitive, but show no signs of haste. Her level of craft is on a par with professional opera composers of the time, with well-plotted changes of scene, imaginative support of the singers, and a phenomenal sense of structure. The 19-year-old composer created not merely a cantata, but a world of sound, emotion, and light.
Faust et Hélène:
The score of Faust et Hélène is dedicated to Lili Boulanger’s sister Nadia, a source of constant strength and guidance throughout her life. By 1913, the 25-year-old Nadia had secured her reputation as an outstanding composition teacher. She was on staff at the Conservatoire, and in demand as a pianist and conductor. The bond between the sisters was such that they shared a single calling-card, and did everything they could to create the perception that they were a social duo. This has led to some misconceptions that still masquerade as musical scholarship, for instance, the notion that Nadia was Lili’s main teacher. In truth, Nadia merely coached Lili a little through one of her counterpoint courses. Even worse is the romantic glurge that Nadia quit composing forever right after Lili died (she didn’t), or the out-and-out lie that Nadia composed most of Lili’s works. The young women may have been a combined artistic force to be reckoned with, but they were certainly no sister act. To really understand each composer, they have to be appreciated on their own individual terms, and not limited to the context of their mutual relationship, however strong.
Two weeks after the contestants were released from seclusion, their final works were judged by the Academie in a public concert. Which brings us back to that momentous scene at the top of this essay, with Lili Boulanger shepherding the debut of Faust et Hélène before the audience. Seated at the piano was Nadia, premiering a piece that she was to perform many more times throughout her long career. The night before, the Conservatoire’s judging panel had privately voted in favor of Lili’s piece by five to three. But the prize could only be awarded by a full vote of the entire Academie des Beaux-Artes. After the concert, the final tally was thirty-one out of thirty-six to award Lili the First Grand Prize. It was generally agreed that her piece had been one of the most musical and significant works submitted in many years.
This victory created a sensation in Paris. The press were quick to congratulate the young composer, and themselves for having discovered her a few months back. Calling her cantata “a work absolutely beyond compare,” Le Monde marveled at Lili Boulanger “for having, at her age, such an ability, such a sense of the stage, a touching musicality, turn by turn caressing and despairing, rude and supple, and the innate ability to see and attain exactly the right means of expression. Her cantata was the revelation of the day.”
The fact that this was the first woman to win the Grand Prize in the 115-year history of the contest was not lost on either the public or the critics. Émile Vuillermoz, one of Ravel’s Apaches and a reviewer for Musica, reported on his attendance at the July 5th concert in a wry but worshipful article, “War in Laces.” “Several months ago, in this column, I warned musicians of the imminence of the ‘Pink Peril:’ events have not hesitated to prove me right. Madamoiselle Lili Boulanger has just triumphed in the last Prix de Rome competition over all its male contestants, and has carried off the Grand Prize with an authority, a speed, and an ease apt to seriously disturb the candidates who, for long years, cried tears and sweated blood while laboriously approaching this goal. Do not be fooled: this deed stands on its own merits. Not only did the gallantry of the judges not intervene to facilitate her victory, but it could be said that they were stricter with this young girl of nineteen than with her competition. The misogyny of the jury was known. […] And it required all the crushing weight and indisputable authority of this woman’s work to triumph over the student’s homework that surrounded it.”
Having won the title of prize-winner, Lili now had to step into the role. For the next six months, she was kept busy with courtesy calls to members of the Academie, interviews, awards ceremonies, and talks with publishers. This last concern was the most practical, at least in keeping with the whole point of her stated goals to have a supportable occupation. And indeed, she settled on a contract with Ricordi, which granted her a stipend in return for right of first refusal on any of her works. By 1914, she had become a self-supporting professional composer, who had the esteem of both the public and the musical intelligentsia.
But Lili was still Lili, in both temperament and undependable health. A series of public concerts given at the end of 1913 were all triumphs, but robbed her of her much-needed resistance. She soon caught a cold, then the measles, which in her weakened state nearly killed her. In order to fulfill the requirements of the Prix de Rome, contestants were expected to take up residence in the Villa de Medici for several years, sending back compositions to the Academie at regular intervals. Having been at death’s door for weeks, Lili procured an extension for the expected date of departure from Paris, delayed for as long as possible after that, and then very slowly made her way to Italy, with long stopovers en route. Her reception by the administration of the Villa was anything but welcoming. The director, Albert Besnard, proved completely clueless about how to accept a young woman into the ranks of his men’s club. He bitterly protested her late arrival, her refusal to eat meals in common with the other resident artists, and the necessity of boarding her mother and her maid at the Villa. Of course, Lili might be unable to eat at times without having a reaction, and required as much care as she could get – but the true severity of her condition was still being kept a close secret. In fact, she rarely left her room for the first few weeks as she tried to recuperate. Besnard interpreted every special care as the mark of a self-important little diva, and a personal affront to his authority. What’s worse, he paid heed to idle speculations and vicious gossip, and reported them as fact back to his superiors. It is to the credit of the Academie that they dismissed Besnard’s concerns, supported Lili, and made what peace they could in their replies from Paris.
On her way to Rome, Lili Boulanger started reading the poetry collection Tristesses by Francis Jammes. Identifying strongly with a recurring female character, she immediately set to work on a new song cycle based on Jammes’ texts: Clairières dans le ciel. Under her pen, the litany of lost love, yearning, and mortality become an assemblage of intoxicating moments, filled with a heartstrung expectation. The cycle stands with some of the best of French art song, though it’s rarely performed.
Clairières dans le ciel, nos. 1 & 2
Once back on her feet, Lili Boulanger set to the task of really enjoying her stay in Rome: taking in the culture and the sights, and befriending the more sympathetic residents at the Villa de Medici. Her optimism shines in the little salon piece, Cortège, which she appears to have tossed off in a couple of days in June. Several other long-term projects were started during this time. She also completed several shorter works, half of which she destroyed with typical perfectionist zeal. To the Academy, she could do no wrong, and was granted unprecedented leave by them to make extended trips to Southern France and Northern Italy. But to Besnard, she could do nothing right, and his paranoia and vitriol soon surpassed any sense of reality. When a general protest was submitted over the horrible state of the Villa’s plumbing and its noisome cesspit, he was certain Lili was behind it. When Lili sheepishly invited her fellow residents to a restaurant in apology for many dinners missed at the Villa, it was seen as a rebuke to the Villa’s traditions. And, incredibly, when Besnard returned from a trip to find that the entire Villa had been vacated due to the mobilization in August 1914, he immediately held the Boulangers responsible, and fired off a scorching letter to the Academy.
The Academy had bigger things to worry about than the Villa’s drains. With nearly every resident of the Villa now spread across different regiments of the French Army, the Prix de Rome was put on hold. The First World War had started. Lili Boulanger was already back in Paris, and as the casualties immediately started to mount, she and her sister Nadia set up a foundation to assist French musicians serving in uniform. Much of the effort was simply dedicated to helping these musicians stay in contact with each other, and with their families. Packages and letters were sent out, and assistance sometimes given to their loved ones at home. Eventually, the sisters edited a gazette, in which the musicians shared their experience of war, and let others know how to reach them. It was the kind of engaging, inspiring work that Lili could probably do sitting up in bed, pen in one hand and letter-opener in the other. Sometimes she even corrected harmony lessons of student composers who were sitting in the trenches. A noble effort, but it left her little time for her own music. She did set aside the month of April in 1915, and prepared a stack of manuscripts for eventual publication, representing her life’s work up to that point. One little idea seemed to take hold, though, a persistent, ominous bass that echoed the bleakness and tragedy of the ongoing war, and the pile of corpses that Europe was accumulating. It was a line that was to evolve, through ever greater heights of inspiration and depths of despair into another masterpiece: the Psalm 130, de Profundis. Here is the authentic voice of a unique musical personality, released from scholastic expectations and tempered by experience. And yet the tragedy is anything but self-pitying or morbid. Rather, its brutal honesty seems to speak for all humanity, with such originality that certain passages feel entirely contemporary today.
Psalm 130, de Profundis:
In 1916, Lili Boulanger was back at the Villa de Medici, busy at work on an opera, La Princesse Maleine. Progress was slow, and she admitted in correspondence at the time that she was becoming ever more frustrated at the way that frequent collapses of her health interfered with her work. But more bad news was on the way. She had been feeling a slow lessening of vitality for months, rather than the sharp ups and downs of her previous bouts. The honest opinion of a specialist was that she had two years at the most to live. Her condition was simply getting past the point where her health could continue to rebound.
At this point, a change seems to come over the life’s work of Lili Boulanger. Before, she had defied death, completely giving herself to the goal of winning the Prix de Rome and becoming one of the best composers of her generation. But now that she had attained that height, what more personal fulfillment and achievement could she aspire to with only a short time left? The answer is that she became ever more saint-like, resigned to her fate, finding solace through her composition and her devout Catholicism. But it was a beatitude of awesome creativity, as potent inspiration started to dominate every bar and every phrase. The opera was gradually abandoned, and shorter works became the focus. Lili composed directly to her phenomenal strengths as an orchestrator and choral writer. In this last period, she completed the hypnotic “Vieille prière bouddhique,” one of the great choral works of the 20th century. The text seems emblematic of her state of mind, with her music and spirit encircling the universe for one last embrace. “Let every creature, all living souls, and the spirits unborn, let every woman that liveth, let every man that liveth, without a foe, without hindrance, pain and sorrow transcend, at last attain peace and joy. Let all creatures freely move, each one in the path which to him is assigned.”
Vieille prière bouddhique
In 1917, Lili Boulanger made her way home to Paris to prepare for the end. Resolutely, she completed one stunning work in progress after another. The last of these were two instrumental sister pieces, D’un matin de printemps and D’un soir triste. Each movement was composed in three different arrangements, as duo, trio, and fully orchestral. D’un matin de printemps, “of a spring morning,” is all lightness and banter, with dancing energy and interweaving phrasing. It’s early 20th-century orchestral scoring at its finest, with cleverly balanced textures, fascinating episodes, and telling contrasts of mood and color. While her models are clear, her individual voice stands out in how she shapes a timbre, supports a melodic idea, and creates a coherent, overarching vision of sound.
D’un matin de printemps:
If the craft of D’un matin du printemps is all cleverness, vivacity and subtlety, then its partner D’un soir triste is potent, dark, enigmatic: the sorrows of the world being borne with sincerity and innocence. It’s a work as modern and compelling as any composed by her compatriots up to that time. The orchestration is uniquely devised, with touches of solo tone underlining or wisping above moody, shifting chords. The construction of some textures is exceedingly complex in places, with the slightest touch pushing the sound into an unexpected place, or a supporting line seeping through the dominant color to stain it, tear at it, sometimes annihilate it. Sheerly as a piece of orchestral scoring, it’s on a par with Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Sheherezade, while being nothing like either. But as an emotional expression, it’s devastating. The exquisite peril of giving yourself over completely to empathy with the composer may result in your heart getting torn out.
D’un soir triste:
D’un soir triste was the last piece of music that Lili Boulanger was able to score by hand. In fact, the writing on the manuscript becomes ever weaker and more indistinct, until it’s difficult to make out the notes. It was left to her sister Nadia to add articulations and dynamics, using the chamber versions as a guide. But now the curtain was closing. Lili dictated one last work to Nadia, the Pie Jesu, as Paris was being bombarded by German artillery. She put every last bit of self into it, her harmonic ambiguity, her intense lyricism, and her sense of the transcendent. Then, after receiving her last rites, she died peacefully in her sleep. It was March 15, 1918. Lili Boulanger was 24.
As Paris had marveled at the debut of Lili Boulanger, it was now shocked by news of her death. Setting aside the countless military and many civilian deaths, Le Temps dedicated an entire obituary section to her life and music. Many colleagues and admirers weighed in, and the sense of public grief was palpable, even at a time when Paris was almost numb with loss. Memorial concerts were held, and a monument was created for her at the Villa de Medici by the now repentant Besnard. A yearly scholarship was established in her name at the Conservatoire for young composition students, along with bequests to others wounded in the war. Her sister, always Lili’s support in life, now became her champion, and helped to spread interest in her work across the world as Nadia’s own career and connections became international in scope.
Gradually, two mythic perceptions began to arise around the figure of Lili Boulanger. One myth anointed her as a feminist icon, the other cast her as a tragic figure who was defined by her illness and untimely death. While she did break ground for woman musicians, and she did struggle against chronic illness, I feel that both of these stereotypes completely miss the point. She was born into a family culture of professional music. She proved to herself that she could rise to that same standard, and in doing so she ended up surpassing everyone’s expectations, including her own.
While she can’t have ever thought that she’d live a long life, her challenges were to stay focused at a level of genius in the face of extreme recurrent illness. This she did, overcoming her condition again and again to compose works of overpowering beauty and mystery. It’s tempting to contrast her achievement to the great composers of her era, as she had accomplished at 24 what most of them had barely set out to do by the same age. But comparisons only dull the unique character of her life and artistic vision. If there is one thing, and one thing only that Lili Boulanger was able to prove, it was that her music must be taken, as she always demanded, on its own unique terms. And to accept that is to redefine, as we always must, what we thought we knew about music and the course of the creative life.
Links to my two YouTube Orchestration Lessons on Lili Boulanger’s Vielle prière bouddhique:
Lili Boulanger: Faust et Hélène, BBC Philharmonic, Yan Pascal Tortelier cond. CHAN 9745
In Memoriam Lili Boulanger. Emile Naoumoff, Piano, others. MARCO POLO 8-223636
Un flot d’astres frissone. Calliope, Choeur de femmes. CAL 9374
Lili Boulanger • Fanny Hensel • Clara Schumann – Chöre & Lieder. Heidleberger Madrigalchor, Gerard Kegelmann cond. BR 100 104 CD
Lili Boulanger: 3 Psaumes. Choer Symphonique de Namur, Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, Mark Stringer cond. TIMPANI I C 1046
Lili Boulanger: Clairières dans le ciel. Martyn Hill, tenor; Andrew Ball, Piano. HYPERION CDA 66726