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La Grande Mademoiselle

Why does Nadia Boulanger merit a full-length, popular-style biography when she was neither a composer of significance nor, after her youth, a virtuoso performer? The reasons for her continuing interest to both musicians and lay persons are her preeminence as a teacher and her place as the first female pioneer in the propagation of modern music. In the present period of women’s liberation, she has won a high place in the pantheon.

Mlle Boulanger’s fame is due first of all to her own phenomenal musicianship, to which there is much testimony. One witness, the late conductor Arthur Mendel, wrote of her sight reading at the piano of a modern string quartet: “For reliability of ear and a quick and accurate mind, she leaves [Vincent d’Indy] far behind.” Her reputation as a pedagogue derives from such of her students as Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, as well as from the thousands who sat at her feet at the American School of Music at Fontainebleau, the École Normale, the Paris Conservatory, Wellesley College, Radcliffe, the Longy School, and privately. Nor were aspiring composers her only pupils: hardly less impressive is the roster of instrumentalists and singers whom she instructed. The assimilation of her concepts and tastes in most of her pupils is so great as to have branded them members of the so-called Boulangerie.

Her teaching goals were unimpeachable: the development of self-knowledge, technical expertise, memory training, and a sense of quality. As an educator she believed in the early awakening of musical abilities—for example, in distinguishing tonalities. Like Schoenberg and Hindemith, she insisted on a general knowledge of music with thorough grounding in classical harmony and counterpoint before permitting departures from tradition. More than these two non-pianists, she sought to develop rapid reading and transposition at the keyboard, while cultivating a discriminating ear. The uniqueness of her approach was in requiring her students to declare and justify their preferences; she had no sympathy with anyone unable to do this, contending that a mistaken opinion is better than none. Although she worked unstintingly with her pupils, she also candidly discouraged the unpromising ones.

The essence of her teaching was in the analysis of classics and student work for methods, aims, and achievements, as well as for technical details. Mlle Boulanger’s belief that “music depends on line, not on chord, for its meaning” may help to account for her primary interest in the contemporary, which she discussed in terms of extensions of tonality and harmony, innovations in rhythm and timbre, and new characteristics of “diction.” She thought that “form,” in the new music, had changed less than these other elements, though one wonders how any of them can be circumscribed. All of this seems to imply the exclusion of atonality, yet this was not always true. Stravinsky’s Octet (1923) apparently had a decisive effect on her, and her Rice Institute lecture (1925) reveals that by this date her commitment to him as the composer of the age had become total. Obviously, Nadia Boulanger’s significance is not as a teacher of academic musical language—those. Americans did not migrate to Paris to learn textbook modulation—but as the high priestess of modern music à la Stravinsky.

Parallel to this, if less consequential, were her efforts in promoting the performance and appreciation of “old” music, though she was not a trained musicologist and was obliged to depend on her innate, but not always reliable, sense of style. Nevertheless, her performances of Schutz and other masters of the Renaissance and Baroque won many audiences to this music, and it is no exaggeration to say that her recordings of Monteverdi sparked the revival that continues to grow to this day. In her music history courses at the École Normale, she taught stylistic principles instead of focusing on individual composers, and in this, too, was ahead of her time. Scholars were outraged by her orchestrations of seventeenth-century masterpieces, to which she also added parts composed by herself. Fortunately, that which offends musicologists (except for the existence of their colleagues) often leads to progress.

Nadia Boulanger was born in Montmartre in September 1887, the oldest child of Ernest Boulanger, seventy-two, and Rosa (Raïssa) Ivanovna Myschetsky, thirty-one. The effect of these vast age differences on Nadia should not be minimized; they must have given rise to embarrassments and complications in and out of the family which are at the root of Nadia’s personality. To mention only one difficulty, a father of a great-grandfather’s age was surely too old to communicate emotionally with his child.

Though descended from “simple shopkeepers…members of the lowest acceptable stratum of bourgeois Parisian society,” Ernest Boulanger was a professor of singing and violin at the Paris Conservatory—his wife was one of his students—a winner of the Prix de Rome, a successful minor composer, and a friend of Massenet, Ambroise Thomas, Saint-Saëns, and Gounod, who visited the Boulanger home and with whom Ernest was on tu-toyer terms. Less is known of his St. Petersburg-born wife, who, unlike her septuagenarian husband, had already been married, and who claimed descent from Russian aristocracy. Raïssa must be held responsible for Nadia’s class-consciousness and her lifelong boast that her mother was a princess. Raïssa, a strict taskmistress and disciplinarian whose pattern Nadia seems to have emulated, dominated the household until her death in 1935.

Nadia’s father tutored her in piano and solfeggio until she was old enough, at age nine, to be admitted to the Conservatory. The outstanding event of the next seven years was her acceptance in the composition class of Gabriel Fauré, beginning her close association with him, to the point where he trusted her to substitute for him at the organ of La Madeleine. Believing that Nadia possessed a composer’s talent, Fauré was disappointed when she forsook this pursuit. At sixteen, after graduation and winning all of the first prizes, she became the protégée of the fifty-two-year-old Raoul Pugno, pianist and composer, with whom she gave concerts and whom she assisted for the remaining decade of his life. He helped her to enter the professional world, where she encountered formidable opposition in long-established traditions against women. Pugno lived in Montmartre, but spent his summers in Gargenville, where the Boulangers followed him. They did not return to Montmartre, however, but moved instead to 36, rue Ballu, Nadia’s home for the remainder of her life.

When her father died, Nadia, age twelve, was obliged to contribute to the support of her mother and six-year-old sister Lili, who soon became the central figure in Nadia’s life. Lili’s musical endowments had manifested themselves in infancy, through her remarkable ear, and she soon outshone Nadia in every way, “learning in months what had taken her older sister years to master.” Lili’s gift for composition, unlike Nadia’s, was immediately acclaimed and she was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, for which Nadia had competed unsuccessfully year after year. The sisters were inseparable, and the press treated them as a family phenomenon, but their temperaments were wholly dissimilar, Nadia being haughty, aggressive, and masculine, and Lili charming, passive, and feminine. A more important contrast was that Nadia had a robust constitution, living to age ninety-two, while the frail and sickly Lili died at twenty-five after years of semi-invalidism. (Recent research seems to indicate that physical weakness is frequently found in the children of aged fathers: a still younger Boulanger child died in infancy.)

No rivalry between the sisters was ever apparent, and Nadia quickly adopted a protective attitude toward her sibling. The story of Lili’s life in music, and of the perpetuation of her name by Nadia, is the subject of another book by the same author.* Nevertheless, the relationship must be examined here from Nadia’s standpoint, since her raison d’être became the promotion of the legend of Lili’s genius. Nadia reminded the world of the tragedy, observing it on each anniversary of her sister’s death, and establishing the Lili Boulanger Fund. This was supported by concerts and publicized by the awarding of composition prizes in her name for music supposedly judged by Stravinsky but in truth merely rubber-stamped following Nadia’s decisions. The question remains: is the received picture of Nadia’s feelings about Lili the true one? Wouldn’t the older sister naturally have resented the very existence of the younger and have envied her successes? What assumptions can rightly be made from the remarks of observers about Nadia’s frequent absences from the bedside of her dying sister? In keeping Lili’s name alive, Nadia was also helping her own, though the motive may not have been conscious, and who would accuse Nadia of self-interest, instead of praising her undying devotion? Yet the extent of her torchbearing is slightly suspect. Lili’s immortality was as much a part of Nadia’s career as teaching and spreading the gospel according to Stravinsky.

Léonie Rosenstiel supplies some but not all of the keys to Nadia Boulanger’s complex character. As with most people, each of her positive qualities is matched by a negative one. Moreover, readers with personal experience will draw widely differing conclusions. The present reviewer, who knew Nadia as an acquaintance, not as a student, offers impressions that are sometimes at variance with the book and are admittedly influenced by Stravinsky, whose letters to Nadia in the later years do not conceal his disapproval of her less admirable traits.

One of these is snobbery. She was disingenuous even about her father’s side, implying that she was related to General Georges Boulanger. Moreover, she courted the rich and titled. Her morning musicales were attended by prominent figures from the banking world and by potentates, both deposed (Queen Marie José of Italy) and still reigning (Pierre de Polignac of Monaco). True, the Princess Edmond de Polignac and her niece, the Countess Jean (née Lanvin), were musicians, which made Nadia’s appointment as maître de chapelle to the court on the Grimaldi gambling rock practically inevitable (if not her queen motherhood to Rainier and Grace). In America Nadia tended to stay with the Blisses at Dumbarton Oaks, the Forbeses at Gerry’s Landing, and the Sachses at Santa Barbara. During the Camelot era, Nadia’s friends wangled a White House luncheon invitation for her, French culture presumably providing the meeting ground.

Not surprisingly, Nadia placed great store by academic and other honors, avidly collecting degrees, prizes, scrolls, and medals. When by 1932 she had not been awarded the Légion d’honneur, she campaigned until receiving it. Ms. Rosenstiel observes that Nadia’s “inner ambition clashed with her outward humility,” an insight that may conflict with the 100 percent piety of this devout Roman Catholic, as does her tolerance of sexual relationships of a kind forbidden by the Church. Nadia’s faith is not in question, but in proselytizing and in actually converting non-Catholics she exceeded her role as a music teacher. Her pupils included nuns, monks, and priests, and she regularly went to convents on retreats.

Ms. Rosenstiel quotes from a letter sent from the Fontainebleau School in 1948 to a board member in the United States, but she does not deal frankly with the contents:

Last summer there was an overlarge proportion of first-generation American Jews…. We are not adverse [sic] to Jews and negroes in a limited proportion, for they are often talented, but let this proportion be kept within bounds.

The sender’s name is not supplied, or any more of the background than that “some members [of the French faculty were] unhappy about the ethnic and racial composition of their classes.” Thus Nadia is absolved—until, three paragraphs later, we read that she “administered the Conservatoire like a total autocrat,” and is therefore unlikely to have been unaware of the contents of the letter. Ms. Rosenstiel also writes that “given a choice between a Jew and a Catholic of equal but unspectacular talent, Nadia would opt to teach the latter.” Nadia’s failure to program Copland’s Vitebsk in Paris is attributed to a wave of anti-Semitism, oddly described here as a “fashionable international prejudice of the era”—as if anti-Semitism were not far deeper than fashion, and as if any “era” since CE, AD, or even before (if the Bible is to be believed) were free of this prejudice.

Nadia was tyrannical with her students, and the most vulnerable brought out the despot in her. She developed a severe manner from the very beginning of her teaching career, sometimes reducing her female pupils to tears and even pulling their hair, thus instilling fear along with respect, a combination that she sought throughout her life. She was possessive of her charges to a psychologically dangerous degree and they worshiped her as a guru, except for the few who rebelled and departed. Though Nadia regarded Annette Dieudonné and Marcelle de Manziarly as among her “best friends,” these two seemed, at least to the present reviewer, more like slaves. Nadia was quick to take offense at supposed slights and was notoriously vindictive, as in the case of Ravel, who failed to answer a letter, and in that of Bartók, who did answer but too tersely to satisfy her. Both composers were stricken from her orbit.

Nadia’s famous thoughtfulness in remembering important dates in her friends’ lives, especially of family deaths, is also open to another interpretation than that of kindness. The condolences to Stravinsky on the anniversaries of the death of his first wife and daughter, for instance, seemed both morbid and intrusively moralistic (reminding the recipient of his duty to mourn).

Ms. Rosenstiel is at her best when describing the sexist bias of French institutions and social observances of the time, and of Nadia’s struggle to overcome the obstacles they presented. Unmarried French women were officially declared old maids on their twenty-fifth birthdays, and on Saint Catherine’s Day were entitled to parade through Paris wearing high, starched, lace headdress. Nadia’s decision to participate in this primitive ritual may have been her way of announcing her espousal of music rather than of man. Less quaint discrimination was practiced in the universities, where some courses, even in music, were sexually segregated if not actually closed to women. Female music teachers received only half as much money as males. When Nadia first conducted symphony orchestras, she was treated rudely simply because of her sex. Even so, after participating in concerts in 1921 for the Union des Femmes Professeurs et Compositeurs de Musique and for the Ligue Française pour les Droits des Femmes, she took no part in feminist movements, actually declaring that women were too unsophisticated to have been given the franchise. Asked if a man could conduct Petrushka better than a woman, she replied affirmatively, yet she thought that women were quicker than men to perceive talent in others.

Those who read this book for enlightenment on the subject of Mile Boulanger’s sex life will find out little more than what was already obvious: that she was a very mannish woman, and that her students included disproportionately large numbers of both male and female homosexuals. The scraps of gossip about her alleged affairs with men prove nothing. An attraction to Camille Mauclair is touched upon, but the poet, out of loyalty to his mistress (rather than to his wife), did not reciprocate. A student remembered having overheard Alfred Cortot exclaim, “Look, Nadia, I love my wife!” but is this evidence of an involvement with Nadia?

Although sexual typecasting by appearance and mannerisms is hazardous, no one could deny that Nadia cultivated a masculine image. Her early adoption of tenebrous man-tailored clothes may be ascribed to a need for protective coloration, the young teacher’s need to appear older and serious. At one time, she sported a monocle and fell into “the habit of locking her thumbs in the vest pockets of her somber suits.” Ms. Rosenstiel believes that Nadia’s Catholicism would have made “overt lesbianism…unlikely, even if she had felt any such inclinations,” but to speculate on the covert is unwise, since survivors may yet come forward. Once, in class, Nadia blurted out that she was “just as much a woman as anyone [sic] else”—a cri de coeur, perhaps, but one that would scarcely certify her as hetero-, homo-, or even AC-DC.

The book’s account of the relationship between Nadia and Stravinsky is far from adequate, since her championship of him and his public recognition of it are her main claims to a niche in the history of modern music. Yet the book does not even mention their last reunions (in Paris, in November 1968) or any encounter after 1956, and that one only in connection with a curious story. After the premiere of the Canticum Sacrum that year, Nadia is said to have remarked to her class that “this serial music does not work.” But since her conclusions about the piece expressed to others contradict this, the reader deserves to be told who heard her say this. Ms. Rosenstiel thinks that Nadia may have felt some animus toward Stravinsky when on the death of Paul Dukas in 1935 she did not inherit his chair as professor of composition at the École Normale until Stravinsky was named her co-professor. She may have rankled when Monde musical reported that:

Further enhanced by the assistance of one of the greatest geniuses of our epoch, there is no doubt that Mlle Nadia Boulanger’s composition class will soon be one of the most famous in the world.

Yet Nadia herself had begged Stravinsky to “supervise” her classes, and a Geiger counter could not discover any trace of resentment in her correspondence with the composer concerning the matter, or, indeed, any other feeling than jubilation over what she clearly understood was a stupendous coup. (His letters are much less enthusiastic.)

The account of Stravinsky and Valéry at Nadia’s Gargenville home in September 1939 is also misleading. Ms. Rosenstiel says that Valéry regarded Stravinsky’s Norton lectures as “nothing less than philosophical plagiarism” and suspected Nadia of having helped him to write them. But the helping hand was that of Roland-Manuel, a messianic Jew whose philosophy was at the opposite extreme from that of the agnostic author of M. Teste. (Nadia was in America, March to June, when the lectures were composed.) Valéry refers to the matter in a notebook, as well as in a letter to Gide: “Stravinsky read us his future Cours de Poétique (he too!) Musicale, which contains analogies with mine—something very curious.” The allusion is to the emphasis on the artist as maker, a subject on which Valéry was then lecturing at the Collége de France, but also one very close to Stravinsky’s mind since his friendship with C.-F. Ramuza quarter of a century earlier.

Still another episode involving Stravinsky is told from a distorting angle, one worth correcting because it casts new light on Nadia. This is Ms. Rosenstiel’s account of the way in which Nadia secured the commission for him to compose the Dumbarton Oaks Concerto—accurately told here except for the omission of the composer’s annoyance with her for failing to press for his payments. The publisher of the piece, a friend of hers, advised Stravinsky to secure a contractual prerogative to conduct the premieres in the major American cities, lest “Nadia grab them for herself.” Whatever the truth, Stravinsky and Nadia were at their closest in the year that she spent near him in California during World War II.

The major defect of Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music is the lack of documentation and the failure to identify sources. Even direct quotes are unattributed, despite the nearly three hundred individuals and half as many more libraries and newspaper files named in the acknowledgments. Another shortcoming is that where Nadia or one of her pupils has overlooked an event, it does not appear in this record, which may explain why neither the Paris festival of May 1952 is mentioned, though it much impressed her, nor the 1964 Berlin trip. Still more surprising is the absence of a bibliography and discography of Nadia’s writings and recordings, and of an index to her Edition Boulanger transcriptions of Monteverdi.

Yet these lapses must be excused in gratitude for the very moving description of the later, tragic years when, well aware that all she stood for was being ridiculed by certain pupils of Messiaen, she continued, with indomitable courage, to teach the highest ideals of her art.

  1. *

    The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger (Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 1978).

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