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celebrating three hundred years of music by women

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) and Lili Boulanger (1893-1918)

These two sisters made an extraordinary impact not just on French musical life, but also the international musical world. Lili was the first woman to win the much coveted Prix de Rome, and Nadia became probably the most influencial musical teacher of the 20th century.

Nadia entered the Paris Conservatoire aged ten, and later studied with Fauré. Her cantata La Sirène won her second prize in the Prix de Rome in 1908. She was deeply affected by the death of her sister in 1918, and from 1919 was no longer active as a composer. She devoted her life to conducting and teaching; her pupils included Lennox Berkeley, Elliott Carter, Aaron Copland, Jean Francais, Thea Musgrave and Walter Piston.

Lili's precocious musical career was guided to begin with by Nadia. At the age of 19 her cantata Faust et Hélène won her the First Prize in the Prix de Rome in 1913 (the first woman to win this), after which her achievements became headline news. Ill from the age of twelve, and fragile for the rest of her brief life, she composed a surprising amount of music in her short life. Above all her sensitive handling of large choral and orchestral forces continues to compel admiration.

Nadia Boulanger, A Life in Music by Léonie Rosenstiel, Norton, 2013
Nadia and Lili Boulanger by Caroline Potter, Routledge, 2006

Click on these works for more details below: You can download and hear the start of Nadia's third Cello Piece by clicking here, and the first minute of the Lili's orchestral piece D'un Soir Triste by clicking here. For general information about playing our sound clips, click here and return via your browser's Back button.

If you want more information on the Boulanger sisters from the web, try these links: Nadia and Lili

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Three Pieces for Cello & Piano, 1915 (Nadia)
1. Modere, E flat minor. 2. Sans vitesse et a l'aise, A minor. 3. Vite et nerveusement rythme, C sharp minor. 8 mins
These three characterful pieces were originally transcribed from three short virtuosic organ pieces, commissioned by another publisher; they have associations to Debussy and Messian, and pack a lot into a short span. The first is a muted and gently rocking work with syncopations remeniscent of "The Snow is dancing". It is a transcription of the Improvisation from the collection "Maitres contemporains de l'Orgue". The second is one long canon at a quaver's distance, with a reference to pre-Baroque music. And the last uses an oriental scale with a flattened second in a gypsy atmosphere. It's a bravura piece with a wry playfulness and wit.
We performed them in March 2001. The set made an excellent concert item.
Published by Heugel (Alphonse Leduc & Co, Paris)

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Nocturne for Violin & Piano, 1911 (Lili)
Assez lent, 5 mins
This is a magical little piece. It starts with a long pedal C over which hauntingly beautiful impressionist harmonies move. They lead to a central powerful climax, which then fades back to its earlier gentle atmosphere.
Published by Ricordi
Juritz/Ambache CD recording on Liberté, Egalité, Sororité. it can be bought on Ambache Recordings Liberté, Egalité, Sororité.

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D'un Matin de Printemps, 1918 (Lili)
2 fl, 2 ob, cor a, 2 cl, bass cl, bn, contra, 4 hn, 3 tpt, 3 tbn, ta, timp, 3 perc, cel, hp, stgs. (5 mins)
Showers of sparks fly in the morning sunlight in this short piece descriptive of an animated, joyful spring morning. The outer sections are full of bright sensuous sounds. The twinkling celeste and percussion, which shimmer in the light, contrast with a broader, yearning central section. Due to her early death from chronic illness, these two orchestral pieces were the last works written in Lili's hand; she dictated her actual last work Pie Jesu to Nadia.
Score & parts on hire from United Music Publishers (UK)

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D'un Soir Triste, 1918 (Lili)
2 fl, 2 ob, cor a, 2 cl, bass cl, 2 bn, contra, 4 hn, 2 tpt, 3 tbn, ta, 2 perc, cel, hp, stgs (12 mins)
This is a beautifully atmospheric piece on a grand scale. The large scale orchestration is used to generous effect, and the whole has a deep resonance. This impressionist picture of sorrow includes ancient references, with slow parallel fifths and dark instrumental colours. It ranges from a tender sadness, which hangs in the air like an evening mist, to grandiose, and at other times sinister moods. She makes imaginative use of brass and percussion to create edgy effects, and leaves you in no doubt she is a master of her art.
Score & parts on hire from United Music Publishers (UK)

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'Faust et Hélène' 1913 (Lili)
Soprano, tenor, bass; 2 fl, pic, 2 ob, cor a, 2 cl, bass cl, 2 bn, contra, 4 hn, 3 tpt, 3 tbn, ta, 2 perc, cel, 2 hp, stgs (30 mins)
This Cantata won Lili the most coveted composition prize in France - the Prix de Rome. According to the competition rules, she composed the work in four weeks. It is a ravishingly beautiful score, ranging from a delicate impressionistic opening to grand Wagnerian climaxes, from a radiant love scene to evocations of chillingly sombre ghosts. This is a masterpiece from a composer aged 20, who perhaps composed her extraordinary music from the knowledge she hadn't long to live.
There is a fine recording of this on Chandos 9745, with Yan Pascal Tortelier conducting the BBC Philharmonic

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'Nadia and Lili Boulanger' by Caroline Potter (published by Ashgate, 2008)
A welcome description of two of the best-remembered women in 20th century music, this book was deemed essential reading for anyone interested in French music of that time.

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'Nadia Boulanger, A Life in Music' by Leonie Rosenstiel (published by Norton, 1982; out of print, second hand copies available)
Boulanger chose Rosenstiel to write her biography, providing Rosenstiel with her personal papers. This is a vivid account of Boulanger's life and music and her role as mentor to some of the greatest musicians of the 20th century.

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'Nadia Boulanger, Mademoiselle' DVD by Bruno Monsaingeon (published by Ideale Audience, 1958)
Conversations and classes with Boulanger in her old age, including comments from Igor Markevitch and Leonard Bernstein.

Editions Durand publish Lili's Psalm 24; D'un Matin de Printemps; D'un Soir Trist; Clairieres dans le ciel; Sous bois; & Pie Jesu. G Schirmer Inc publish various piano, and violin pieces.
Nadia's songs are published by Hamelle & Cie (AH.HA9725).

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