Women's Activism NYC

Nadia Boulanger

1887 - 1979

By: Amy Stecher | Date Added:

Nadia Boulanger was a musician, composer, and conductor--but it is as a teacher that her influence reverberates far beyond her own impressive achievements. Nadia was born in Paris, France, in 1887. Her father was a singing instructor at the Paris Conservatoire and her mother, purportedly a Russian princess, was his former student. Nadia had a younger sister, Lili, who was born in 1893. As a child Nadia was a musical prodigy. At the age of nine Nadia began studying music at the Conservatoire where she excelled, winning prizes and learning from renowned musicians and composers such as Gabriel Fauré. Upon the death of her father in 1900, it became extremely important that Nadia focus on becoming a teacher so that she could help support her family after graduation. In 1904, at the age of 17, Boulanger began teaching and holding salons in her home, eventually attracting well-known figures such as Igor Stravinsky and poet Paul Valéry. Nadia also earned income by performing on piano and organ. In an effort to win a First in the Grand Prix de Rome--a composition prize that her father had won at the age of 20 and her sister, also a musical prodigy, would become the first woman to win--Nadia concentrated on composition. Although she never took a First in her four attempts, Nadia did win a Second in 1904 after causing controversy by boldly entering an instrumental composition instead of the mandated vocal piece. The fact that the piece was still allowed to compete and took a Second speaks to Nadia’s talent and self-possession. As she grew older, Nadia continued to teach, compose, perform on piano and organ, and conduct. Opportunities to perform became limited during World War I and Nadia spent the war years teaching and helping her sister with their charity which aided musicians turned soldiers by the war by providing them with comforts such as food, clothing, and messages from home. Lili had always suffered from health problems and the war years took a toll on her, and she died in 1918. The loss of her sister haunted Nadia for the rest of her life and she made it a priority to keep Lili’s legacy alive by performing and programming Lili’s compositions. In 1921, the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau was founded and Nadia was appointed it’s professor of harmony. She would remain an important influence at the Conservatory for the rest of her life. In 1924 the New York Symphony Society arranged for Nadia to perform a tour of the United States, a country she would tour several more times as a performer and conductor and would emigrate to during World War II. Nadia first conducted an orchestra in 1912 and went on to become the first woman to conduct the BBC Symphony, the London Philharmonic Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Boston Symphony. She conducted several world premieres, including works by her student Aaron Copland and her friend Igor Stravinsky. Even with all these accomplishments, it is as a teacher where Nadia’s influence really became manifest. Her many years as an instructor at the American Conservatory, in American institutions during the war years, at the Paris Conservatoire, and privately in her home sessions has influenced legions of composers, including many of the major American composers of the 20th Century such as Copland, Virgil Thompson, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, and Elliot Carter. Nadia Boulanger died in Paris in 1979. In her obituary, the New York Times wrote, “Miss Boulanger exerted extraordinary influence on the musical development of this country through her teaching of harmony, counterpoint, analysis, composition and other musical disciplines to hundreds of young Americans.” It is a remarkable legacy.

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