Nadia Boulanger was born in 1887 on the date of today’s post, 16 September; she died in 1979 at the age of 92. She was a French pianist/organist and the first woman to conduct leading orchestras in Europe and America; she also composed. But she’s remembered chiefly as a teacher, who was responsible for the musical training of a generation of distinguished composers and musicians from Europe and America.
The list of those who came under her tutelage includes Aaron Copland, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Elliott Carter, Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, İdil Biret, Daniel Barenboim, Philip Glass and Astor Piazzolla, to name but thirteen—a truly distinguished Boulanger’s dozen.
Today we’ll home in the composers in that list and play some of the music they wrote not long after they had interfaced with Boulanger as teacher and student, when her words of wisdom were no doubt still fresh in the younger composers’ minds. First, however, let’s hear something by Boulanger herself. It’s the second of her 3 Pieces for Cello and Piano: Sans vitesse et à l’aise (8.572105).
Aaron Copland travelled to Paris in 1920 and became the first of Boulanger’s American pupils. During the next few years spent under her guidance, his characteristically American musical style took root. He returned to America in 1924 and his works soon began to attract interest. One of the first of these was his jazz-imbued Piano Concerto (8.571202), which he wrote in 1926, following a commission from Serge Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony. It wasn’t received well. The Boston Globe reviewer reported: “No music heard at these concerts in the past fifteen years has created so great a sensation. The audience forgot its manners, exchanging scathing verbal comments, and giggled nervously…creating so great a bustle that at times it was difficult to hear the music clearly.” Here’s the closing stretch of the work. How does it sound to you?
Aaron Copland met Roy Harris in the mid-1920’s and recommended that he, too, should go to study with Boulanger; which he did, from 1926 to 1929. Harris’s Piano Sonata (8.559664) was written during that time, in 1928. The composer, although thirty years old by then, deemed it his Opus 1. The piece has four movements. The third, Scherzo, brims with imitative counterpoint, which was no doubt inspired by what he assimilated during Boulanger’s counterpoint classes. Listen to the opening.
Igor Markevitch was an extraordinary young musician. Although much younger than Harris, he too went to study with Boulanger in 1926, at the age of only 14. He also studied piano with Alfred Cortot, at the time one of the foremost pianists in France. Both spheres of influence came together in Markevitch’s Piano Concerto (8.572157), completed in 1929 when he was seventeen. He gave the first performance that year at London’s Covent Garden. What talent. No wonder Bartók was later to write to him: “You are the most striking personality in contemporary music, and I am happy to thank you for the influence you have had on me.” Here’s part of the concerto’s opening movement. Note the counterpoint again.
The American composer, critic and conductor Virgil Thomson studied at Harvard but was subsequently able to spend an extended period of time (1925-40) living in Paris, where he had lessons with Nadia Boulanger. His Violin Sonata (8.559198) dates from that period, having been written in 1930. The third movement’s Tempo di Valzer oozes a light, carefree mood, possibly redolent of the Paris atmosphere of the time.
Elliott Carter, one of America’s most eminent composers, studied with Boulanger in the 1930s. His First Symphony (8.559151) appeared not too long after; it was completed in 1942. Carter remained an independent spirit within American music, so it’s interesting to consider what vestiges of Boulanger’s teaching might be perceived in the work. Here’s the symphony’s conclusion.
Philip Glass is the only composer under consideration here who is still alive. Having received a Fulbright Scholarship, he went to study with Boulanger from 1964 until 1966. Her influence was significant and lasting. Glass said in 1979: “The composers I studied with Boulanger are the people I still think about most—Bach and Mozart.” Here’s an extract from his String Quartet No. 1 (8.559636), written shortly after his return to America from his studies with her.
We’ll end on a vibrant note with the music of Astor Piazzolla, who travelled from Buenos Aires to Paris to study with Boulanger in 1954. It was a career-defining episode for the Argentine composer. He was in his thirties by now and had convinced himself that it was time to turn his back on the success that his tango and bandoneon compositions had brought him, and dedicate himself rigorously to writing classical music. Boulanger, however, advised him otherwise and persuaded him to return to tango, where his real talent lay. As with others before him, counterpoint played an important part of his studies with Boulanger, something that was to play a major role in his later works, as can be heard in this arrangement of Fuga y misterio (8.573166).
Stop press: a colleague has just flagged up one more of Boulanger’s protégés—Émile Naoumoff, who revealed himself as a musical prodigy at the age of five, taking up the piano and adding composition to his studies a year later. At the age of seven, he became the last disciple of Nadia Boulanger, who referred to him as “The gift of my old age”, and studied with her until her death in 1979. “I do not have to teach Émile, I only peel the orange…”, she said. Here’s Naoumoff playing music for four hands (GP676) by Louis Théodore Gouvy (1819–1898) who, like Naoumoff, displayed early prodigious talents; and here he can be seen with Nadia Boulanger herself, peeling the orange…