Nadia Boulanger : teacher of the century


Juliette Nadia Boulanger (16 September 1887 – 22 October 1979) was a French composer, conductor, and teacher.   She taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century including  Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, Idil Biret, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Ástor Piazzolla.

boulanger2Nadia Boulanger was born into a highly musical family. Her mother was a celebrated singer and her father was a composer who also taught the violin at the Paris Conservatoire; his mother had been a Russian princess. Boulanger entered the Conservatoire at the age of ten, her teachers including Vierne, Fauré and Widor, and by the time she was seventeen she had won first prize in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, organ, and piano accompaniment.  Nadia’s younger sister Lili, born in 1893, a most gifted composer and the first woman to be awarded the coveted Prix de Rome outright at the Conservatoire, died prematurely in 1918. After her death Nadia stopped composing, and henceforth dedicated her life to teaching and to making her sister’s music better known.

In the late 1930s Boulanger recorded little-known works of Claudio Monteverdi, championed rarely performed works by Heinrich Schütz and Fauré, and promoted early French music. She spent the period of World War II in the United States, mainly as a teacher at the Washington (D.C.) College of Music and the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, Md. Returning to France, she taught again at the Paris and American conservatories, becoming director of the latter in 1949.

boulanger1Her influence as a teacher was always personal rather than pedantic: she refused to write a textbook of theory. Her aim was to enlarge the student’s aesthetic comprehensions while developing individual gifts.  Nadia Boulanger concentrated on developing the musical ear of her pupils through a strict application of musical techniques, and on encouraging each to develop his or her own individuality. She took the role of a guide, teaching music in all its aspects. She herself had an astonishing musical memory: one of her pupils recalled that Nadia looked at one of her scores for a few seconds and said, ‘My dear, these measures have the same harmonic progression as Bach’s F major Prelude and Chopin’s F major Ballade. Can you not come up with something new and interesting?’

As Boulanger grew older, she received many accolades, including being named as a grand officier of the Légion d’honneur by Georges Pompidou.

On October 22, 1979, Boulanger died in Paris at the age of 92. Her years of dedication to teaching—one student, Virgil Thomson, described Boulanger as a “one-woman graduate school”—provided her with a lasting musical legacy.

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