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Lili Boulanger (21 August 1893–15 March 1918)

The following is a guest post by Anya Holland-Barry

Marie-Juliette Olga (“Lili”) Boulanger (21 August 1893–15 March 1918) was a French composer whose musical compositions exemplified leading contemporary French musical styles of her day. She came from a long familial lineage of musicians, and her immediate family circulated in the most influential Parisian musical communities. Lili Boulanger’s mother, Raïssa Mischetzky (1858–1935), an alleged Russian princess, came to Paris to study voice with Ernest Boulanger (1815–1900), Boulanger’s father. Ernest Boulanger was an opera composer who won the Prix de Rome in composition in 1835. Lili Boulanger’s sister, Nadia (1887–1979), was a constant and formidable influence in Lili’s life, who championed her sister’s works during her life and after her death.

Lili Boulanger’s life was shaped by continuous illness. In 1895, at just two years old, she contracted bronchial pneumonia, from which her immune system never fully recovered. For the remainder of her short life, she battled episodes of intestinal tuberculosis, now known as Crohn’s Disease, and other infectious diseases. Her health made it nearly impossible to attend classes or activities on a regular basis. However, Lili accompanied Nadia to her classes at the Conservatoire from a young age and began auditing Auguste Chapuis’s harmony class at the Conservatoire in 1898 and Gabriel Fauré’s composition class in 1901. She then studied privately with Georges Caussade beginning in 1910 and officially entered the Conservatoire in 1912, studying composition with Paul Vidal as well. Following in the footsteps of her older sister, Lili entered the Prix de Rome competition in 1912, but ill health forced her to withdraw.

In 1913, she received notoriety as the first female winner of the Prix de Rome for her cantata, Faust et Hélène. The press, colleagues, and friends praised Boulanger’s cantata. On July 5, 1913, the Institut de France, Académie des Beaux-Arts, for example, issued a statement on their decision to grant Boulanger the Prix de Rome. They wrote that her cantata displayed “intelligence of subject, precision of declamation, sensibility and warmth, poetic sentiment, intelligent and colorful orchestration; [it is] a remarkable cantata.” [Note 1.] Another review from Le Monde Musical stated, “Mlle Lili Boulanger gave us one of the most beautiful cantatas that has been heard in many years. ... Her work is completely superior and captured everyone even at first hearing. ... We must congratulate Mlle Lili Boulanger for having, at her age, such an ability, such a sense of the stage, a touching musicality, turn by turn caressing and despairing, rude and supple, and the innate ability to see and attain exactly the right means of expression. Her cantata was the revelation of the day.” [Note 2.]

Boulanger’s success led to a contract from the publisher Tito Ricordi in 1913, which assured her a fixed yearly income and resulted in the publication of her prize-winning cantata. In 1916, Ricordi further published several of Boulanger’s other compositions, including Nocturne (1911), Reflets (1911), Attente (1912), Le Retour (1912), Clairières dans le ciel (1913–1914), Soir sur la plaine (1913), D’un vieux jardin (1914), D’un jardin clair (1914), and Cortège (1914).

As stipulated by her award, Boulanger began her tenure at Rome’s Villa Medici. The onset of the First World War, however, forced many of her male colleagues who were also at the Villa Medici to enlist, and Boulanger chose as well to leave the Villa Medici. In January 1915, the Académie des Beaux-Arts, who oversaw the Prix de Rome, gave Boulanger permission to return to the Villa Medici, but she had already decided to devote herself to the war effort. She created, organized, and edited La Gazette des classes du Conservatoire National, a newspaper distributed to hundreds of the Conservatoire’s mobilized students (1915–1918). The publication of the Gazette was one of the main activities of Comité Franco-Américain du Conservatoire, a large network of musicians including Gustave Charpentier, Théodore Dubois, Fauré, Émile Paladilhe, Camille Saint-Saëns, Vidal, and Charles Widor.

Although her wartime charity took up a great deal of her time, Boulanger continued to compose until her death. Compositions that Boulanger wrote during the war included Vieille prière bouddhique (1914–1917), Psaume 129 (1916), Psaume 130 (1914–1917), and Dans l’immense tristesse (1916). Several pieces she composed prior to the war were used in wartime benefit concerts, such as Pour les funérailles d’un soldat (1912–1913) and Clairières dans le ciel (1913–1914).

Boulanger died not knowing what was to become of France, when the war would be over, the future course of French music, and before many of her compositions received their premiere performances. In 1930, Boulanger was the first female composer to appear in a significant article in the American journal Musical Quarterly. While there were a few short articles on Boulanger during the 1960s and 1970s, there was no further noteworthy Boulanger scholarship until Léonie Rosenstiel’s biography in 1978. More recent monographs on Boulanger include Caroline Potter’s Nadia and Lili Boulanger (2006), Jérôme Spycket’s À la recherche de Lili Boulanger: Essai biographique (2004), and Carole Bertho Wooliams’s Lili Boulanger: Compositrice du XXe siècle (2009), as well as Annegret Fauser’s articles “‘La Guerre en dentelles’: Women and the ‘Prix de Rome’ in French Cultural Politics” (1998) and “Lili Boulanger’s La princesse Maleine: A Composer and her Heroine as Literary Icons” (1997).

Despite continued interest in Boulanger’s music, no one recorded her works until 1960, when Everest recorded Psaumes 24, 129, 130, Vieille prière bouddhique, and Pie Jesu, performed by the Lamoureux Orchestra and Chorale Elisabeth Brasseur under Igor Markevitch, Nadia’s student. The recording won the Arthur Honegger Prize for religious music by the Académie du Disque Français for the year 1960–61 [note 3]. In 1983, four years after Nadia’s death, Annette Dieudonné, Cécile Armagnac, Doda Conrad and François Dujarric de la Rivière founded the Fondation internationale Nadia et Lili Boulanger, which aimed to perpetuate the memory and music of the Boulanger sisters and provide scholarships to young musicians and composers. In 2001, this organization created and supported the biennial “Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Voice-Piano Competition,” a competition which seeks to financially help singers and pianists under thirty-two years of age who have completed their studies or who are at the beginning of their career. In 2009, the Fondation internationale Nadia et Lili Boulanger reconfigured its name and organization to its current status as the Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Centre.


Image: Agence de presse Meurisse: "Lili Boulanger, 1er Grand Prix de Rome de musique" (1913), Bibliothèque nationale de France, département Estampes et photographie, EI-13 (2502), via Gallica.



Note 1: “Procés-Verbal 1913-1914,” Institut de France, Académie des Beaux Arts 66 (July 5, 1913); quoted in Carole Bertho Woolliams, Lili Boulanger Compositrice du XXe siècle (Paris: Le Jardin d’Essai, 2009), 34. “Intelligence du sujet. Justesse de la declamation. De la sensibilité et de la chaleur. Sentiment poétique. Orchestre intelligent et coloré. Cantate remarquable.”

Note 2: Auguste Mangeot, “Mlle Lili Boulanger,” Le Monde musical 25 no. 13–14 (July 1913): 173; quoted in Rosenstiel, The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger (London: Associated University Press, 1978), 80.

Note 3: Rosenstiel, Life and Works of Lili Boulanger, 215.