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ClassicsOnline Home » BOULANGER, Lili and Nadia: In Memoriam Lili Boulanger
"A beautiful release"
In Memoriam Lili Boulanger
Lili Boulanger, as remembered by her sister Nadia
second nature for my younger sister, Lili, born on 21st August 1893 in Paris.
She had perfect pitch and a love of singing even as a child. Fauré himself used
to come to our home to read his latest songs with her. From the age of six to
sixteen, she studied harmony, played a little piano, violin, cello and even the
harp, while discovering new scores, such as Debussy’s Pelléas. Her very poor health
kept her away from school, as well as from practicing too hard. In fact, she
mastered composition with Paul Vidal and Georges Caussade in only three years.
At the age of nineteen, she made history by being the first woman to be awarded
the prestigious Premier Grand Prix de Rome for composition. After the great
Parisian success of her cantata Faust et Hélène, she traveled through Italy and
wrote some of her best works in the Villa Medici in Rome.
times were interrupted by the war. Back home, she devoted herself to caring for
wounded soldiers. Knowing that her days were numbered, she worked feverishly.
Towards the end of her life, she dictated to me her Pie Jesu. On her deathbed,
her strong faith gave her a sense of serenity. She died on 15th March 1918.
there are no technical novelties in Lili’s writing (she lived in an age when
intellectual speculation had not yet arrived), she was able to find the necessary
elements for expressing her own very personal message, leaving a short but
lasting mark in musical history.
recording of Lili Boulanger’s Thème et variations for piano (1914) is due to
the recent rediscovery and completion of the manuscript by Emile Naoumoff. The
austere beauty of these few pages is almost frightening.
matin de printemps
(1917) is a small fantasy using “Debussyan” technique for quick changes of
mood. The slow and meditative Nocturne (1911, first draft in 1908) is
followed by the joyous and playful Cortège (1914). D’un vieux jardin
and D’un jardin clair (1914) both describe imaginary landscapes, much as
Satie would do, using a subtle and very sensitive palette of shades and
colours, reminiscent of impressionist paintings. These gardens are probably
those of her childhood in Hanneucourt (near Giverny).
dans le ciel (1914, words by Francis Jammes), is a song cycle, reflecting a
woman’s life. The last song is a poignant vision of her own death. Her unique
talent for dramatic expression is enhanced here by both her Slavic and French
(1910-1916) were written in her adolescence, displaying a striking early
maturity, creating a harmonious balance between the lyrics and the music. In
order to reflect the profundity of the text, she uses the very low register of
the voice, combined with unusually long held notes and rests. She achieves an
emotionally powerful peak with the Pie Jesu (1918, composed on her
deathbed). It is very representative of her religious works, such as Vieille
prière bouddhique or her Psalms.
Boulanger (1887-1979) composed between 1906 and 1922. The rest of her long life
was devoted to the music of others. In her youth, her works were widely played
and published with the exception of her opera La ville morte (1914), the
performance of which was cancelled owing to the outbreak of the First World War
and which was never staged. She was, however, a major influence in the musical
scene of the twenties and thirties, mainly through Stravinsky. The first of her
Pieces for cello and piano (1915) has the expressivity of Bloch’s
Prayer, while the second is a very exuberant and strongly syncopated Spanish
vie nouvelle (1919)
symbolises the hope of the post-war period, as well as a “new life” for Nadia
Boulanger herself after her sister’s painful death. The obsessive and rather
Slavic use of the harmonic pedal (of C) in the opening pages, is reminiscent of
Mussorgsky’s technique in Boris Godunov’s coronation scene.
(1922) Nadia Boulanger proves her extremely wide range of interest in
song-writing by choosing words of popular and relatively crude content. Since
1918, Nadia’s Lux aeterna and Lili’s Pie Jesu have been sung every
15th March at a memorial Mass in Paris. The original version of this piece was
called Hymne à I’amour (1910). The Latin version, composed at a later date,
followed her sister’s choice of instruments such as the organ, harp and strings.
memoriam Lili Boulanger by Nadia Boulanger’s last pupil Emile Naoumoff, for bassoon and piano,
was written during the making of this record in June 1993. This follows a
French tradition of musical tributes from composers to their peers, such as
Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin or Debussy’s Hommage à Rameau.
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