For several months in 1916, the sisters Nadia and Lili Boulanger stayed together at the Villa Medici in Rome. A residency at the villa was typically awarded to the winner of the Prix de Rome, a major competition for French composers; Lili had won in 1913, but an earlier visit to Italy had been interrupted by the outbreak of World War I.
When the sisters arrived, the villa was mostly empty because of the war, and they quickly got to work. Each was trying to finish an opera, and they found solace and inspiration in each other’s creativity. It was a perhaps unprecedented moment in classical music’s patriarchal history: two women, side by side, composing operas.
“They really did lean on one another,” the musicologist Kimberly Francis, who has written a forthcoming journal article about the sisterly collaborators, said in a recent interview. “It was this unique partnership.”
The partnership did not last. During their trip, Lili, then 22, developed a lung infection, and Nadia, six years her senior, cared for her, as she always had. Within two years, Lili was dead, her opera never completed, and the life of Nadia, her own opera not fully orchestrated, changed forever.
After her younger sister’s death, Nadia moved away from composing toward pedagogy, becoming the most renowned composition teacher of the 20th century — if not of all musical history. Her pupils, the so-called “Boulangerie,” included such luminaries-to-be as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass and Quincy Jones. The composer Virgil Thomson once described Boulanger as a “a one‐woman graduate school so powerful and so permeating that legend credits every U.S. town with two things: a five‐and‐dime and a Boulanger pupil.”
And that is largely how Boulanger, who died in 1979 at 92, is still remembered today, as a great teacher who taught great composers. This subordinate role is one that women have often played in music history: mothers, muses and schoolmarms to the men of the canon. A two-week festival, Nadia Boulanger and Her World, which begins Aug. 6 at Bard College, invites a reconsideration of her life and legacy.
After three decades featuring male composers — Dvorak and His World, Mendelssohn and His World, Schumann and His World — the annual Bard festival is finally spotlighting a woman.
“What happens if you change it to her?” the musicologist Jeanice Brooks, the festival’s scholar in residence, said in a recent interview. “What happens is that you put a question mark after the title: Boulanger and Her World? Is it really? Is it hers?”
The festival’s 12 concerts will feature compositions by both sisters as well as music by Nadia Boulanger’s precursors, contemporaries and students, revealing her not only as teacher but also as composer, conductor and visionary musical thinker.
Born in 1887 to a well-connected family — her father was a composer on the Paris scene — Boulanger studied music intensely from the age of 5, under the supervision of her domineering mother. Before she reached her teens, she became a star pupil at the Paris Conservatory, surrounded by students a decade older. A budding composer, Boulanger set her sights on the Prix de Rome. Many expected her to be the first woman to win the prize.
In the first round of the Prix, competitors were asked to compose a vocal fugue based on a melody written by one of the jurors. But the headstrong Boulanger decided that the tune was better suited for a string quartet. The incident became known as the “affaire fugue,” and Boulanger received international attention for defying the jurors. Some wanted her expelled from the competition; women were not expected to flout the French musical establishment. She instead won second place, placing her in line to potentially win the grand prize the following year. But she didn’t, probably because of lingering sexist resentments.
Undeterred, Boulanger continued composing, just as her sister’s career was beginning to take off. Nadia’s music conjures the ethereal sound of the late Belle Époque, in songs like “Cantique,” a gleaming setting of a Maeterlinck poem. Lili demonstrated extraordinary promise from a young age; her oeuvre includes a handful of powerful sacred works, including a grand, plaintive setting of Psalm 130, a memorial to their father, who died when they were children. When it came time for Lili to compete for the Prix de Rome, she diligently conformed to the rules, and became the first woman to win.
In this period, Nadia developed an artistic and romantic partnership with the virtuoso pianist Raoul Pugno, a family friend 35 years her senior. Though the unconventional relationship stirred gossip, it allowed her to flourish professionally; she performed with Pugno as a piano duo and even conducted, at a time when few women led orchestras. It was with Pugno that she began working on an opera, “La Ville Morte”; the two wrote it together, in what one Paris magazine called the first collaboration between a “composer” and a “female composer.”
Her close connections with Lili and Pugno established a complex dynamic that would persist throughout Boulanger’s life: She fed off dialogue with other, powerful musical personalities. When Pugno toured without her, she fell into spells of intense self-doubt.
“I tell myself it is stupid to expect something from life; it brings you nothing but disillusion,” she wrote in her diary. “I am good for nothing, what atrophy I create.”
Though her relationships inspired her, they also placed her in a subservient role. “I try to reconcile what I can do for Lili and for Pugno,” she wrote. “It’s complicated because she is too young to fully understand and he is not young enough to give me up.”
And then she lost both her collaborators. While they were on tour together in Moscow in 1914, Pugno fell ill and died; alone in a foreign country, Boulanger had to request that money be wired from home to return with his body. Without his encouragement, her performing career faltered. Then Lili died. To support herself and her mother, Boulanger turned to teaching, most famously at the newly established Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau.
It is widely assumed that Boulanger consciously renounced composition after her sister died in order to champion Lili’s music and focus on teaching. But the biographical reality is more complicated.
“She couldn’t battle to get her works performed on her own when she lost Pugno, who absolutely provided material and also an enormous amount of emotional support, and who really thought she was amazing,” said Brooks, the Bard scholar in residence. “And I think she needed somebody to think she was amazing.”
Her students thought she was amazing. By the mid-1920s, she had taught more than 100 Americans, and gained a reputation for a fierce intellect and total devotion to her pupils. Her teaching space became a musical salon, and she led a chorus of students in revelatory performances of Bach cantatas. Her recordings of Monteverdi’s madrigals were a landmark in the early music movement.
Boulanger’s work as a performer picked up again, and she began to tour internationally, mounting innovative concerts that sprawled across historical eras; she once described the ideal program as one that “permits the most audacious juxtapositions without destroying unity.” A Bard concert on Aug. 14 will reconstruct these epic programs, bringing together composers from Palestrina and Monteverdi to Stravinsky and Hindemith.
Guided by her deep-set Catholic faith, Boulanger saw her interpretations as service to the musical masters. The “greatest accomplishment” of performers, she once wrote, was “to disappear in favor of the music.” This modernist approach, shared by her lodestar and friend Stravinsky, was also a canny strategy for a woman in a man’s world. The “affaire fugue” had taught her that she could succeed if she didn’t draw too much attention to herself, so she acted as a transparent mediator of the canon rather than an ambitious personality in her own right. In the late 1930s, she became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
“She knew how to enter into these spheres where she was an outlier, and to do so in a way that people would be comfortable,” said Francis, the musicologist. “She was incredibly aware of exactly what needed to be done.”
And thus, even as she broke musical glass ceilings, Boulanger gave interviews in which she described the “true role” of women as being mothers and wives. She once told a critic that “when I think of the lives of the mothers of great men I feel that that is perhaps the greatest career of all.” As her time as a composer faded into the past, she referred to her early music as “useless.”
Her students, too, thought of her in a gendered, supportive role; Thomson once called her a “musical midwife.” In a 1960 tribute, Copland fondly reminisced about “the most famous of living composition teachers.” But he also noted that he was unsure whether Boulanger ever had “serious ambitions as composer,” remarking that she once told him that she had helped orchestrate an opera by Pugno — not that she was a co-creator of the work, “La Ville Morte.”
“Is it possible that there is a mysterious element in the nature of musical creativity that runs counter to the nature of the feminine mind?” Copland wondered.
Many composers, over many centuries, have made emphatically clear that that question can be answered in the negative. But the conception of Boulanger as musical midwife still endures in the popular imagination, and has helped facilitate such false and damaging speculations. As scholars rediscover a different Boulanger — a capacious musical personality, whose creative agency and influence extended far beyond her teaching — institutions and performers should follow suit.
When Lili was dying in 1918, Nadia wrote her a final letter — from one composer to another.
“We know in ourselves and in our art such hours that so many others don’t know,” she wrote. “These feelings open so many doors — give, even when we aren’t aware of it, such meaning to our lives.”