The women of the Boulanger family
by Anja Weinberger
The women of the Boulanger family
by Anja Weinberger
There were three particularly musical women in the Boulanger family. One was named Marie-Julie, a Halligner by birth, and the grandmother of the other two, much better known, named Nadia and Lili.
Marie-Julie was the first artist in the female line and certainly passed on musically and artistically favorable things to her two granddaughters. She was also a celebrity in her time. Therefore, her story shall begin here.
Marie-Julie Halligner was born in Paris in 1786, the daughter of merchants, and was accepted as a Solfège student at the conservatory there in 1806. Very little is known about her; and her own career is clearly outshone by those of her two highly gifted granddaughters. More on that later.
What is known, however, is that Marie-Julie had an unusually beautiful voice and good teachers who cherished it. In 1811, Paris audiences finally cheered her debut at the Opéra-Comique. She took on many roles in the years to come, living as she did in that period when France, with André-Modest Grétry, François-Adrien Boieldieu, Daniel Auber and many others, was going its own very successful way in the field of the Opéra comique within what in retrospect is called the classical era.
Marie-Julie’s mezzo-soprano is described as light, brilliant and bright, her acting as very sensitive and pleasant, although she could also be quite witty and shone in extremely diverse roles. In 1845, at almost 60 years of age, she retired from the stage, having been able to participate not long before in the first performance of a work by her son, the composer Ernest Boulanger. The latter, Ernest, married years later the singer Raïssa Mytchetzky , who would subsequently give him two daughters. The two girls, Nadia and Lili, unfortunately did not have the chance to meet their grandmother, who died in 1850 at the age of 64, long before their wedding and the birth of their granddaughters.
The Parisian public kept Marie-Julie Boulanger in very favorable memory for a long time after her death.
Finally, in 1877, Ernest, then already in his early sixties, married Raïssa Mytchetzky, an aristocrat from Russia. The young singer had come to France to study music in Paris. In 1887, their second child together, Nadia, was born after their first baby daughter, Ernestine, died when she was only a few months old. The small family lived in Montmartre, and their spacious apartment attracted musicians, literary figures, and other artists. Music played a major role in the lives of all the Boulangers, partly because their father Ernest was always teaching at home. The parents were all the more astonished when they discovered that Nadia did not like music at all. The little girl cried, covered both her ears or ran into a hiding place where she hid for a long time.
At some point, it was during Raïssa’s third pregnancy, Nadia’s behavior changed from one day to the next. Suddenly she tries to imitate everyday sounds such as the fire bell on the piano and shortly thereafter begins to practice the piano with great seriousness and extraordinary diligence, to sing and to listen to singing lessons, which her father still gave at home.
Finally, in August 1893, Lili was born, when Nadia was barely six years old.
This pair of sisters would conquer and change the world of music together for 24 years. Then Lili dies after a lifelong illness and has achieved much in her short existence that no woman had ever achieved before. And Nadia becomes the composition teacher of the 20th century, who also kept her sister’s work alive and caused a sensation as a conductor, organist and pianist.
Nadia first studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and received first prizes for composition, harmony, and organ accompaniment in 1903 and 1904. Immediately thereafter, she began teaching. Lili was different: not only because she was considerably younger, but also because of her changeable health, she did not study at first, but merely accompanied her older sister as soon as her age and strength permitted. She learned the piano, violoncello, violin and harp privately and often talked with her father about music.
He died in 1900, leaving behind a young widow and two daughters, one just twelve years old, the other six. This must have been one of the reasons why Nadia started teaching so early – someone had to earn money.
In 1908, Nadia won a 2nd prize in the Grand Prix de Rome, not bad, but just not the top prize. Lili, on the other hand, was the epitome of a child prodigy. After her father’s death, she received composition lessons from Gabriel Fauré, whom she impressed with her good ear. It was clear to all of the musicians coming in and out of the Boulanger household early on that here was an unpolished gem with delicate girlish fingers producing amazing sounds on the piano.
In 1909, Lili was finally officially admitted to the Conservatory, although she rarely appeared there because of her illness. And from 1912 she prepared specifically for the Prix de Rome, which she was determined to win.
To reach the final round, among other things, she had to suspend a fugue and set a given text to music as a choral movement. In the final round itself, all candidates submit a cantata with piano and orchestral accompaniment. Lili could not help but interrupt the work again and again due to serious bouts of illness, so that only 1913 became the great year. At the age of 19, Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the main prize of the Prix de Rome. The musical world turned upside down. With this award, she was officially considered a composer in France and immediately signed a contract with the publisher Ricordi, which made her financially independent. She probably suspected that she would not have much time left and composed ceaselessly. And really – already in 1918 Lili Boulanger succumbed to her serious illness. 
Nadia, 30 years old at the time of her sister’s death, was now committed to the dissemination of Lili’s works. She also played and conducted the music of Igor Stravinsky, whom she had met as early as 1913 and with whom she had a lifelong friendship, as often as possible. Between the two world wars, the patronage of the Princess de Polignac  in Paris in particular ensured regular concerts, and Nadia Boulanger was one of the artists who benefited from this. She was probably the first woman to publicly conduct a professional orchestra.
Above all, Nadia’s career as a pedagogue now began. Hardly anyone would leave such a mark on the music world as she did in the years that followed. She had a particularly great influence on developments in American musical life. For over 60 years, her apartment in Paris was a meeting place for countless composers from all over the world. Nadia’s boundless knowledge, her interest in early music and her intensive way of teaching were unparalleled. People interested in music came in droves to listen to the woman with the monocle (later with thick glasses), the updo and the strong, beautiful pianist’s hands.
Showered with countless honors, Nadia taught until her death in 1979 – every Wednesday at her home in Rue Ballu and at various schools such as the Royal Academy of Music, during World War 2 in the USA and then from 1946 as a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris. Her summer residence in Gargenville also became a focal point of the musical scene.
Nadia Boulanger did not advocate teaching in the proper sense, but tried to find and draw out what was special in each student. In the “Boulangerie” , as the circle around Nadia was called, musical personalities as diverse as Aaron Copland, Maurice Ravel, Arthur Honegger, Leonard Bernstein, Priaulx Rainier, Grażyna Bacewicz, Vilayat Inayat, Khan Noor-un-Nisa, Inayat Khan, Thea Musgrave, Daniel Barenboim, Elliott Carter, Pierre Schaeffer, Jean Francaix, Astor Piazolla, and Virgil Thomson to grow and flourish.
Nadia Boulanger did not leave an extensive compositional oeuvre, nor did she write a theory of harmony or composition. Rather, her art was to awaken the best in her students through conversation and shared exploration of music theory and practice; she was revered and held in extraordinary esteem by more than 1000 students.
Much has been thought and written about this fact. Eva Rieger did it most succinctly once again in one of her texts about Nadia Boulanger:
“The situation before World War 1 was even more oppressive for women composers than it is today. Thus Nadia found in music education a field that benefited from her immense knowledge and charisma. Nevertheless, it is unfortunate that her skill lives on only in the work of others. While refusing to be a mother, she behaved in a “feminine” way by serving others throughout her life.”
Mehr Geschichten aus der Welt der Musik gibt es in Anja Weinbergers Büchern, etwa in den »Kulturgeschichten – nicht nur für Flötisten«.
Literature and footnotes
1 … Lili suffered from Crohn’s disease, a chronic inflammatory bowel disease, and also had frequent severe pneumonia.
2 … Born Winaretta Singer, co-heiress of the sewing machine empire.
3 … An untranslatable pun – a boulangerie is a bakery.