La Grande Mademoiselle

Nadia Boulanger
Nadia Boulanger; drawing by David Levine

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…

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