Influential People: Nadia Boulanger

Ms. Boulanger with Igor Stravinsky
I have a fascination with charts, like the “six degrees of separation” type charts that resemble family trees or mind mapping graphs.
I even laid a few out years ago, to see, interestingly, who is connected with whom in what way on what projects, and it’s interesting to see how people’s lives and projects and work intertwine and work together and butterfly effect and little decisions cause big waves, blah blah.
Think of people in history whose family trees would have influenced entire empires or continents. Genghis Khan potentially fathered thousands of children (with a number of his morganatic wives, those benign considered legitimate children), and other historical figures likes King Solomon (and others) who had hundreds of wives would have had massive, earth-shatteringly large type family trees.
Take that idea, and apply it to pedagogy (not the fathering of children as much as nurturing students’ creativity and talents), and you will have some idea of what Nadia Boulanger did for the world. Her sphere of influence is staggering, and many of the pieces or people or performances that you appreciate or enjoy from the 20th century could very likely be influences from her or her students.
Born Juliette Nadia Boulanger, she came from a musical family, her father and mother

romantically being composer/pianist and Russian princess, respectively (perhaps hence the name Nadia). They had a daughter who died as an infant before Nadia came along, and Wikipedia states that Nadia was born on her father’s 72nd birthday; he was also eventually appointed to the Paris Conservatoire as a professor of singing, which is where he met his future wife. They were married a few years after she enrolled in his voice classes.

Interestingly, although her parents were both quite musically inclined and active, music seemed to upset the young Nadia, but her response to music changed when Mrs. Boulanger became pregnant with another daughter. Again, most all of this comes from Wikipedia, but there’s a story about her hearing a fire bell and running to the piano to try to replicate the sound. Thus began her musical education.
The younger sister Lili was born when Nadia was six, and they all are fly had a very close relationship.
Boulanger entered the Paris Conservatoire when she was only 9, took private lessons, participated in some competitions, and apparently decided to become Catholic.
Apparently more resourceful and determined than her mother, after her father died, Nadia worked hard to support the family, the royalties from her father’s career not enough to support the extravagant lifestyle of a Russian princess.
Her efforts began to pay off. She won first prize in harmony at the Conservatoire, and began to earn money from piano and organ performances. She began studying composition with Gabriel Fauré, who apparently taught her well, because she later won first prize in thre categories of the 1904 competitions: organ, piano accompaniment, and fugue (composition). One of the judges there, Raoul Pugno, a famous pianist, took an interest in her career.
Later that same year, she began teaching in what would later become a very famous address, the family apartment at 36, rue Ballu. Along with this, she also held afternoon group classes in analysis and sightseeing. How amazing it would have been to be a part of that group…. She continued these sessions apparently to near the end of her life. She also apparently hosted “at homes,” which sound like little underground restaurant clubs for music, where her students would go to meet and chat with professional musicians and friends of Boulanger’s including her instructor Fauré, as well as people like her friend Stravinsky. Fascinating. To be a fly on the wall in the Boulanger home.
Interestingly, after all her instruction and success in competitions composing, she eventually gave it up, having composed a large selection of vocal works, some chamber pieces, and a few orchestral works. I have not heard any of these compositions, so I can’t attest to their quality, but there are scores if not hundreds of people who are indebted to her decision to dedicate herself to teaching.
You can read the rest of the Wikipedia article for the details on how she came to her fame and taught at Fountainbleau, among her students there the first year being Aaron Copland; she toured the US on a recommendation from Walter Damrosch, premiering Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra which was dedicated to her; she conducted the Orchestre Philharmonic de Paris; substituted for Alfred Cortot in his master classes; became the first woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra; she later conducted the Royal Philharmonic performing her teacher Fauré’s Requiem. During another American tour, she also became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, NY Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and National Symphony Orchestra, in total giving 102 lectures in 118 days.
She helped some of her students to leave France during World War II, and eventually found herself at the Peabody Conservatory in Boston.
As a friend of the family, she was asked to handle the music for the wedding of Prince Rainier to Grace Kelly. She was invited to the White House by the Kennedys, judged the International Tchaikovsky Competition, and taught at the Yehudi Menuhin school, gave lectures at both the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music. She apparently didn’t sleep.
For the rest of her biography, again, just check out her Wikipedia page. This is what I find mind-blowing: her list of students (couldn’t find the actual link; scroll down). A quick glance at this impressive list reveals names I recognize like George Antheil, Burt Bacharach, Daniel Barenboim, Marion Bauer, Idil Biret, Arthur Berger, Elliot Carter, Aaron Copland, Clifford Curzon, Ross Lee Finney, Kenneth Gilbert, Philip Glass, Karel Husa, Quincy Jones, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Jeremy Menuhin, Gian Carlo Minotti, Ástor Piazzolla, Walter Piston, Harold Shapero, Soulima Stravinsky, Geirr Tveitt, Antoni Wit. Amazing.
Some of her students studied with other students of hers as well (at least Shapero with Piston, and probably others).
Again, these are only the ones from the list that I recognize, and that list itself is not exhaustive. There are plenty more names I’m sure professionals or historians would recognize, but with just the few dozen above, think of the influence she had on them, and that they had on their students, all the way down to us, the listeners, many of whom may never have heard of Boulanger.
Think of the works these students of hers composed, the performances they gave, the books they wrote on counterpoint or composition, the lessons and master classes they gave, the lives they changed. And what do they all have in common? Nadia Boulanger.
I once spent a little time tracing my musical roots, if you will. My piano teacher isn’t even out of university and is quite well-connected. One of her private teachers was a student of Earl Wild, and within five or six degrees of separation (or even less) connect to names like Byron Janis, Carl Orff and even Liszt and Brahms.
Granted, that’s not to say that being six degrees away from Liszt and nine from Mozart himself bestows any advantage or inspiration to me. I just kind of think it’s cool to say, and I attribute my piano teacher’s awesomeness, at least in part, to that heritage.
As a matter of fact, there’s probably some way or other to work Boulanger into that family (pedagogical) tree.


In short, this woman’s sphere of influence in performance, conducting, composition, instruction and social good is immeasurable, and she is most assuredly someone I’d like to spend a long, quiet delicious meal with in close proximity to a piano.

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