Nadia Boulanger   (Leonie Rosenstiel)   (0-393-01495-9)
Item# B1046
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Nadia Boulanger   (Leonie Rosenstiel)   (0-393-01495-9)
B1046. LEONIE ROSENSTIEL. Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. New York, Norton, 1982. 427pp. Index; Photos; DJ. First Edition. - 0-393-01495-9

CRITIC REVIEW:

"At 10 Boulanger entered the Paris Conservatory, where for a decade she won first prizes in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, organ and accompagnement (a term covering all aspects of score reading), and studied composition with Gabriel Fauré. In 1908 she was granted Second Grand Prix de Rome for her cantata LA SIRÈNE. (The First Grand Prix came five years later to Nadia's fragile younger sister, Lili, the first woman composer ever to be so honored.) From 1908 to 1918 Nadia taught harmony at the Conservatory. But not until 1948 would she be named full professor, that position in France being thought unsuited to a woman, even her country's most sought-after pedagogue. Meanwhile, Nadia entertained a very public rapport with Raoul Pugno, a famous and fat pianist old enough to be - and who in a sense was - her father. With Pugno she not only gave concert tours but also composed an opera, never produced, on a libretto by the poet Gabriele D'Annunzio. After the deaths in 1914 of Pugno and in 1918 of Lili, Nadia Boulanger stopped composing to become a full-time teacher and occasional performer.

When the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau was founded in 1921, Boulanger was its chief draw, at which she remained, except for the war years, every summer for the rest of her life. Tours of the United States resulted in her becoming the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony and then the New York Philharmonic.

Second only to Bach in the Boulanger pantheon came her friend Igor Stravinsky, who habitually supplied his new manuscripts for her perusal. Stravinsky could do no wrong. Indeed, after Stravinsky's espousal of post-Schbergian methods, Boulanger, who despised serial music, attempted to find some truth in his erring. In the autumn of 1964 I visited her just after her return from Berlin, where she had heard Stravinsky's newest excursion into 12-tone terrain, ABRAHAM AND ISAAC. Asked how long the piece lasted, Mademoiselle Boulanger replied, 'Does one speak of temporal data where Stravinsky is concerned?' I later understood: The piece, 13 minutes by the clock, seemed like a numbing hour.

All her life she was newsworthy even to philistines, enigmatic even to intimates. Boulanger's fame lay in her femaleness, thus in her firstness. She excelled at what no other woman ever had, musical pedagogy at its highest, but she also gave up what no woman ever had, a composing career. Was this sacrifice, as she later so hotly claimed, because her compositions were 'useless', or because she wished to cede the field to her dead sister? She was never an outright feminist, always giving the benefit of the doubt to her male students while overtaxing the females; yet she was acquisitive of the females, ostracizing them should they contemplate marriage.

Her old-maidish aspect notwithstanding, Boulanger was a creature of high temperament. The open infatuations with old Raoul Pugno, later with young Igor Markevitch, now seem rife with pre-Freudian innocence, as do intimations of latent lesbianism. She visibly preferred men because they were not in competition with her, that is, with Lili, for beside Lili there was no room for other female composers. Nadia Boulanger's uniqueness (unlike, for example, teacher Martha Graham's) was that she not only dominated what had hitherto been a solely male domain - the instruction of young composers - but in so doing had quenched, once and for all, her creative fires.

Malleable toward her musical past, how rigidly Boulanger held to the social givens of her aristocratic forbears! If there was a contradiction between the anti-Semitism stylish since the early 19th century and the acceptance of homosexuality in Parisian upper echelons, it was lost on Boulanger. That a good many of her pupils were Jewish was a condition she overlooked only when they were gifted or rich, whereas homosexuality was 'bad' only if it interfered with work.

Indefatigable, she might teach her first lesson of the day at 7am, her last at midnight, meals absorbed with phone crooked under her chin. Music came before all else, certainly before gastronomy or love, and she demanded no less of each student. In the final years, sightless, toothless, half-deaf, hands curled with arthritis, she kept at the routine. Boulanger felt her life as an event was boring; her energies were aimed strictly toward the education of others, and the tone of such energies by definition could not be notated.

Two decades ago, however, she did a dazzling series of television broadcasts; some years later, as anxious about Lili's posterity as about her own, she finally accorded Leonie Rosenstiel access to previously unavailable papers, thus making this American researcher the sole official chronicler of Nadia Boulanger.

When the information is a gradual building of needed facts, as in the tense telling of the 1908 Prix de Rome competition from Boulanger's entry to her final high placement (accompanied by the revulsions of misogynist Camille Saint-Saëns and the ecstasies of the suffragist press), we root for the heroine. When we learn that during their first meeting in 1910, Stravinsky replies to Boulanger's congratulations for his FIREBIRD with: 'that's not very important. What is, is that my name becomes a household word', we smile at the comeuppance of the no-nonsense demoiselle. We know that she too will soon seek to debunk the still-held notion of the artist as decoration. And when on her 25th birthday, still single (thanks to her enslavement as family breadwinner), Boulanger joins the St. Catherine's fate for unmarried girls, declaring that 'when a woman wants to fulfill her true role of mother and spouse, it is impossible for her also to fulfill her role as artist, writer or musician', we cringe at the conflicts she will suffer for the next six decades. Still, since scarcely a month of those six decades is unaccounted for, nor any viewpoint, especially an unpleasant one, unrecorded, we grow weary of the dogged inventory.

Long before those decades closed, Boulanger grew out of fashion. In 1946, returning to Paris after a six-year stay in the United States, she found Pierre Boulez's clique booing Stravinsky; as Stravinsky's staunchest appendage, the outmoded Boulanger also came under fire. As recently as 1972 Boulez recalled with customary charity: 'after the war, Messiaen and Leibowitz were the important figures and no one had any use for Boulanger'. Like Boulanger, Boulez in his early years was a prophet mainly in foreign lands. Unlike her, he returned in triumph to France where to this day, for better or worse, he reigns supreme.

As influence waned, honors accumulated. By 1977 her mesmerism had deteriorated into dogmatism, but international admirers kept up the fan club. Pompidou pinned on her the highest of his Government's civilian awards, that of the grand officier of the Légion d'honneur, and the little square at 36, rue Ballu, where she had lived and taught since 1904 was renamed Place Lili-Boulanger.

Nadia Boulanger is mainly remembered as a mentor of composers, although she was the guiding light for every breed of musician, not least of all the female musician, and her public career as organist, conductor, musicologist, lecturer and even for a time newspaper critic was unprecedented. If Boulanger did not change the planet's shape, she shaped some who did."

- Ned Rorem, THE NEW YORK TIMES, 13 May, 1982