Women’s History Month: Nadia Boulanger, Composing Comprehension

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March 27th, 2014

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While honoring the contributions of women throughout history, it’s important to note that March is also “Music in Our Schools” month. In recognition of both, we want to celebrate one woman’s commitment to getting students in tune with their own rhythm.

Born into four generations of the French Conservatory, Nadia Boulanger was the first woman to conduct the Royal Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Boston and Philadelphia orchestras. But it’s not her musical conducting, nor composing, for which she is most remembered and respected. It’s the fact that some of her students became famous composers, conductors, and soloists: Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Marc Blitzstein, Elliott Carter, Virgil Thomson, and perhaps the most well-known, American composer Aaron Copland.

Initial Chords
Boulanger was born in Paris in 1887, into an environment full of musicians from the Paris Conservatory, where her father taught voice. A child musical prodigy, Nadia entered the Paris Conservatory at 10, and studied there for five years, taking classes on the organ with Charles-Marie Widor and composition with Gabriel Fauré.

Boulanger’s transition from student to teacher was the result of tragic circumstances. Keeping with family tradition, her younger sister, Lili, also became a musical phenomenon, as the first woman to receive the Prix de Rome (a scholarship for art students) at the Conservatoire. After Lili’s sudden and premature death in 1918, Nadia stopped composing and dedicated her life to teaching and promoting her sister’s music—a decision that crescendoed into her impact on so many successful musical careers.


Perfecting Her Pitch
Nadia’s impressive teaching career included several movements in Europe and stateside: assistant professor of harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, a position at the École Normale de Musique, professor of harmony and counterpoint, and instructor of composition at the American Conservatory of Music in Fontainebleau, where she taught until her death in 1979. Boulanger traveled to the U.S. for the first time in 1921 and made a name for herself in 1925, when she lectured on music at Rice University, published her Lectures on Modern Music, and took part in the first performance of Aaron Copland’s ‘Organ’ Symphony as soloist.

Nadia returned to France in 1946 and held various teaching positions, impacting thousands of students, but she enjoyed teaching privately most and accepted almost anyone who approached her with a desire to learn. However, Boulanger’s music lessons were far from traditional; she worked to develop each student’s “natural” comprehension of music so they could apply it to their own compositions.

“One can never train a child carefully enough. If you take general education, one learns to recognize color, to recognize words, but not to recognize sound. So the eyes are trained, but the ears very little,” Nadia said when describing her approach in a 1970 interview. “This is not because someone taught me that red is not blue that I pretended to become a painter. But most people hear nothing because their ears have never been trained and many musicians hear very badly and very little.”

The Instrumental Ear
To train the “ears” of her pupils, Boulanger used repetition of sonic precision. She believed in a strong connection between the muscles in the ear and the focus of the mind and that “intervals, rhythmic patterns, and harmonic progressions be ingrained deeply, not only within the conscious mind, but within deep memories of music heard throughout a lifetime.”

Nadia’s goal with each pupil was to enhance the student’s musical comprehension while using the individual’s unique talents. Her lessons were much more about personality than pedagogy, as she took on most of her students in a private setting. Until her death at age 92, she continued to decline offers to author textbooks on musical theory.

Boulanger the mélomane shares characteristics with Boulanger the music teacher. When asked about the difference between a well-made work and a masterpiece, she replied, “I can tell whether a piece is well-made or not, and I believe that there are conditions without which masterpieces cannot be achieved, but I also believe that what defines a masterpiece cannot be pinned down. I won’t say that the criterion for a masterpiece does not exist, but I don’t know what it is.”

Considering some of the work that came out of the students she taught, her ambiguity is music to our ears.

Interesting Facts About Nadia Boulanger 

  • The composer Ned Rorem described Nadia Boulanger as “the most influential teacher since Socrates.” She taught a very large number of students from Europe, Australia, and Canada, as well as over 600 American musicians. [i]
  • Nadia Boulanger was born on her father’s seventy-second birthday (September 16, 1887). [ii]
  • Boulanger lived in the U.S. between 1940 and 1946, and taught at many American music schools, including Juilliard, Radcliffe, Wellesley, Longy, Mills, and Yale. [iii]
  • Nadia Boulanger liked to be known as “Mademoiselle”. [iv]
  • Nadia’s young ears were sensitive. It wasn’t until she was five years old that she was able to tolerate music. One day, a fire engine passing her apartment sent her screaming under the piano with her hands over her ears. She suddenly got up and touched the same note on the piano keyboard. From that day, she played the piano and recognized sounds that came from life that she could put into music. [v]

[i] NadiaBoulanger.org. “Nadia Boulanger – Teacher of the Century.”
[ii] Bach-Cantatas.com. “Nadia Boulanger (Composer, Conductor).”
[iii] Naxos.com. “Nadia Boulanger.”
[iv] Bach-Cantatas.com. “Nadia Boulanger (Composer, Conductor).”
[v] NadiaBoulanger.org. “Nadia Boulanger – Teacher of the Century.”

Additional Sources
A+E Networks. “Nadia Boulanger Biography.” Bio.com. A&E Networks Television, 2014.

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