Nadia Boulanger remains a legendary figure in the history of twentieth-century music, and articles on her career pop up online with some regularity. Unfortunately, many of these repeat or contribute to the hagiography of Boulanger, who in reality was far from a saint.
I’ve written extensively about Boulanger–called “Mademoiselle” by her students–and the problems inherent in the cult that surrounded her during her life and which even now is fostered by her former students and unknowing hero-worshipers in an attempt to erase the truth about Boulanger’s behavior and beliefs and, in the case of her students, to promote themselves as having been anointed by her as singularly worthy of teaching music to others. It is clear that people still believe a number of myths about Boulanger. The perpetuation of these myths not only celebrates a woman whose actions were often despicable, but negates the experiences of her students, who suffered abuse at the hands of the pedagogue. Here I want to address some of the most pervasive and pernicious myths about Nadia Boulanger. The material here is drawn from my previously published scholarly work; a source list follows.
One common Boulanger myth is that Nadia, herself a talented composer, was so devastated by grief when her sister Lili died that Nadia gave up composing in favor of promoting Lili’s own works and teaching. Boulanger’s own compositions were never going to secure her a career solely as a composer. Although she claimed that her gender was the sole reason she didn’t win the Prix de Rome in any of her several attempts to do so, critics simply didn’t find her work very original. Amadée Boutarel, critic of Le Ménéstrel wrote that while Nadia was a finely trained musician, her works were insipid and banal. When Boulanger, having published very few pieces and known primarily for subverting the rules of the Prix de Rome competition, was denied a teaching position at the Paris Conservatoire in 1910, she placed the blame on Debussy, who responded to her accusations with a letter that makes clear his view that she was brash, assumptive, and arrogant in addition to being unqualified.
Boulanger aspired to the forefront of the French musical world, and began a conducting career in addition to composing. Her plans were dealt a practical and psychological blow with the sudden decision of her equally musical and more compositionally talented sister Lili to devote herself to composition full time. Lili had always been fragile in health and appearance and was the cosseted baby of the family, which lent to her the preternatural halo of the youthful and gifted, predestined for the short but prolific life, much as Keats had been viewed in poetic circles. With Lili’s choice of a career in composition, Nadia had to face the fact that her own gifts would be completely overshadowed by those of her sister, whom Le Ménéstrel, in contrast with its opinion of Nadia, had described as a composer of “great brilliance.” There was a single face-saving solution: Nadia became Lili’s tutor, giving up her own composition for the sake of Lili’s future. In doing so, Nadia spared herself most of the comparisons that might have been made had she remained devoted to composition. Lili Boulanger achieved what her less talented, more irascible sister had been unable to do, and became the first woman to win the Grand Prix de Rome, stunning the judges with her cantata Faust et Hélène in 1913. In 1918, Lili died, aged twenty-four. Interest in Lili’s works continued to grow, and Nadia, perhaps knowing that if she couldn’t compete with a living sister, she could compete even less with one who had died tragically young, focused on a mission to memorialize her sister, in part through teaching.
Boulanger as a Master Teacher
Boulanger taught hundreds of music students during her career, but she was not always the beloved master teacher that her hand-picked favorite students knew. While some, like Aaron Copland, publicly stated that they benefitted from her tutelage, many others, such as Virgil Thomson, David Diamond, and countless women, have testified to Boulanger’s abusive and often irrational teaching practices. Boulanger demanded complete obeisance from her students; she directed not only their formal studies, but also told them where to live, where and what to eat, with whom they could socialize, what they were permitted to wear for her lessons and classes, and what kind of body language she expected them to display. In the early 1930s, Virgil Thomson was writing to fellow Boulanger students that their former teacher was too controlling and not allowing students to develop individually. Don’t send your students to her, he wrote: “Nadia is not the same as when we were there. The flattery and guidance was precious to us and inspiring and the counterpoint lessons were competent enough and that’s all there was.” Thomson goes on to relate Boulanger’s later approach: “The counterpoint was still fair [ . . . ] but the main thing was all changed. The guidance wasn’t worth a damn. On the contrary, quite troublesome. Once the habit of composition was established, she used every art of sympathy and generosity to make it grow in her own pet channels.” He was equally revolted by the aura of infallibility that surrounded the pedagogue, writing that “she lives in a temple of adulation and knee-bending that is disgusting.” Copland conceded that Boulanger’s “pet ideas” and the “maternal means” of communicating them were forced on students but commented that students should “throw them overboard” after thorough internalization and reflection. However, as Boulanger aged, there became less and less from which to choose. Students who worked with Boulanger in the late 1950s and 1960s found her to be less of a teacher and more of a dictator. Students who took part in lessons and classes led by anyone other than Boulanger found themselves condemned by the pedagogue for the audacity to follow their own interests. One woman wrote of having to apologize to Boulanger for wanting to study with instructors other than Boulanger and repertoire outside of Boulanger’s approved selection. Her other teachers advised her:
I should not tell [Boulanger] that I was studying what I wanted. Rather I should apologize for not choosing to become one of her students as I felt unworthy of her honored instruction. While Mlle. Boulanger may be very famous and very inspiring to certain students, [….] her fame has not improved her character but created a god-like sense of being capable of no error.
Gradually it became clear that, for students to be completely indoctrinated into Boulanger’s world and thus receive her full attention, they would have to begin working with her at a very young age. She began taking on younger and younger students and focusing on them exclusively. Because of this favoritism and because of Boulanger’s tendency to explode at and berate older students, attrition from Boulanger’s classes was considerable: 30-50% of all students stopped attending, often after one of Boulanger’s infamous displays of “fireworks.”
Boulanger’s beliefs about what was good in music limited the repertoire her pupils were allowed to study and perform. French composers through Fauré were acceptable, as were Monteverdi, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven. But for young composers or performers wishing to study more modern works, Boulanger was intractable. Conservatoire Américain administrator Marie Brodeur wrote about the relationship between Boulanger’s refusal to address current music and declining enrollment in Boulanger’s lessons and classes, and Boulanger’s practice of shunning former students who engaged in methods of composition that Boulanger rejected:
The thing I do not understand is the way [Boulanger] sticks her head in the sand and ignores Boulez, etc., instead of having them out for lectures or concerts. She should not ignore them. She feels that if nothing is said, they will go away and everyone will forget the tone row. [ . . . ] Nadia has a way of walking over some people. She condemned Louise [Talma]’s opera, all but a few measures. After the performance in Frankfort, Nadia refused to mention it. Also, when Grant Johannessen played her new piano work with the Buffalo Symphony, Louise sent a recording to Nadia. She never even acknowledged it . . . just ignored it.
Boulanger was also quick to assess musicians who studied with her or whom she heard in performance, and just as she was known to hand pick some for special attention; she also told numerous music teachers and those already embarked on successful professional careers that they should change their career goals or to consider music only as an avocation. She held that teaching other teachers, in particular, was below her, and she made it clear to potential students that she was not interested in instructing those not focused on a concert career or a career in composition. Harpist Lillian Phillips studied with Boulanger in 1963, and documented Boulanger’s problematic teaching practices:
Boulanger’s Master Classes: are they to exploit her one or two most talented [students] and make complete fools of the others? I saw too many people made fools of and ridiculed by her—adults and even college professors. Maybe this is European teaching, but I went to all of those classes of hers and they were a waste of time. . . . Yes, I learned a tremendous amount: How not to teach.
Numerous accounts state that while yes, Boulanger was antisemitic, it wasn’t much of an issue because she didn’t actively discuss her beliefs or obviously treat Jewish students differently. This is incorrect. Early students were not aware of Boulanger’s convictions because she was so able to suppress her prejudices in their presence, but as she gained power in the musical world, and when she became director of the Conservatoire Américain in Fontainebleau, she made her views more clear. As Léonie Rosenstiel, Boulanger’s biographer, has written, Boulanger’s exceptionally devout Catholicism included the belief that “each individual Jew was morally responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.” Although she taught a number of Jewish students, among them Copland, the number of Jewish students she accepted in her studio and at the Conservatoire Américain was strictly limited; she made it clear that she would not take on “too many” at once. She saw to it that Jewish students in Fontainebleau were partially socially segregated from the general population by being placed together as roommates. She became noticeably less enthusiastic about Copland’s music and stopped endorsing him to many of her patrons (who often commissioned her students) when he started to explore Jewish themes and the use of Jewish folk materials, and she pointedly refused to play his 1929 work Vitebsk (Study on a Jewish Theme).
Boulanger’s own goddaughter, American composer Louise Talma, had a serious falling-out with Boulanger because of Boulanger’s antisemitism. In May 1941, a rift developed between Talma (who had converted to Catholicism under Boulanger’s guidance) and Boulanger and escalated swiftly. Initially the problem began with antisemitic statements made in Boulanger’s letters to Talma and in regard to the functions of the American offices of the Conservatoire Américain. Both Boulanger and Conservatoire administrators in New York worked to keep the number of minority students, including blacks and Jews, low. Talma was truly distressed by what Boulanger had written, including a letter Boulanger sent her about the possible admittance to Fontainebleau of “a Jewish girl.” Talma wrote to Boulanger: it is “very bewildering and sad,” she wrote of Boulanger’s bigotry. “Perhaps you can enlighten me on how an expression of hatred can mean its opposite.” Boulanger claimed not to understand what Talma’s problem was. This did little to assuage Talma, who replied that Boulanger had, through her antisemitism, denied the most important principle of Christianity. Boulanger responded that if Talma respected her, she would allow Boulanger to think what she liked, telling Talma, “do not try to reform me.” Jewish students continued to study with Boulanger, but Boulanger’s prejudices damaged her reputation, and later pupils knew to expect Boulanger’s Catholic outlook to flavor her demeanor toward them. Jewish students who tried to push back against Boulanger’s prejudices, including David Diamond, were dismissed as hypersensitive and went unsupported and unmentioned by Boulanger after their studies were finished.
Boulanger’s Female Students
Noted for breaking gender barriers as a professional musician herself, Boulanger nonetheless strongly believed that women were responsible for raising a family and focusing on that endeavor to the exclusion of other interests and often told her female students that they should marry male musicians and devote themselves to making and raising the next generation of male musicians. Boulanger advised her male students to take mistresses rather than to marry so that they would not be distracted from their serious musical work by concerns of family life. The very few female students she encouraged to become professional musicians–composers Marion Bauer and Louise Talma and a handful of pianists–were expected to devote their entire lives to making and teaching music, just as Boulanger had done. Unaware of her beliefs, a great number of female students who flocked to Boulanger—having viewed her from afar as a role model and potential mentor—were disappointed. In addition to offering what sounded to many women like a patronizing suggestion to go home and breed, Boulanger could also be irrationally belittling even to the best women in her studio and classes. Numerous female students switched to other teachers who were more supportive of their goals, and One woman was chastised to the point of tears in an overcrowded harmony class, and another student escaped from a particularly long lesson by exiting through a classroom window into the château’s gardens.
Musicologist Susan Weiss, who attended the Conservatoire in order to study with Boulanger, the Pasquier Trio, and members of the Casadesus family, wrote of her experiences that “the young women were not treated as serious candidates for professional careers in music, particularly by Mlle. Boulanger.” Composer Patricia Morehead has commented that after telling Boulanger that she was to be married to a fellow student, “my private lessons after our announcement were mostly about my duties as a good wife.”
Boulanger was a major figure in American music during much of the twentieth century, but her story is a complex one. We cannot ignore the fact that she was a problematic individual, and that her biases and beliefs were harmful for many of her students. Her legacy is a complicated one and should be acknowledged as such. While other scholars may make lists of Boulanger students and point to the famous names, the great success stories, we must also examine such lists for the students who gave up musical careers because of their experiences with her; those whose enjoyment of music and music-making was forever damaged because of their experiences with her; those who ignored her teachings and found other, better mentors and succeeded because of them, not Boulanger; those who pushed back against her or challenged her and suffered professionally or personally for it; those who their anger at her mistreatment of them for fuel for creating work in their own ways.
Leonard, Kendra Preston. Louise Talma: A Life in Composition, Ashgate Publishing, 2014.
——. The Conservatoire Américain: a History, Scarecrow Press, 2007.
Rosensteil, Léonie. Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. Norton, 1982.
——. “Towards a Works List for Louise Talma,” Fontes Artis Musicae, vol. 59, no. 2 (2012: 2).
——. “Style and Form in Louise Talma’s Early Songs,” Journal of Musicological Research, vol. 31, no. 4 (October 2012).
——. “A Great Desire: Autobiography in Louise Talma’s Early Vocal Works,” Current Musicology, Issue 94/Fall 2012.
——. “Louise Talma’s Christmas Carol,” Notes, June 2010.
——. “Secret Rooms and Borrowed Pianos: Two Women’s Roles in Preserving the Conservatoire Américain during the Occupation,” Women in French Studies: Selected Essays from the 2006 WIF conference, March, 2009.
——. “‘Excellence in Execution’ and ‘Fitness for Teaching’: Assessments of Women at the Conservatoire Américain,” Women and Music: A Journal of Gender and Culture, vol. 11, November 2007.
——. “‘Two Hard Etudes and a Schumann Number’: American Women, Repertoire and Mentoring in France, 1921-1951,” The Journal of the International Alliance for Women in Music, September 2006.