Nadia & Lili Boulanger, pioneers of the early 20th Century

Nadia & Lili Boulanger, pioneers of the early 20th Century

Photo : Nadia and Lili Boulanger in 1913 © Centre international Nadia et Lili Boulanger

The year 2019 is the 40th anniversary of the death of Nadia Boulanger; 2018 was the centenary of the death of her sister, Lili Boulanger. Nadia Boulanger is known as one of the most influential pedagogues of the 20th century, having taught Copland, Carter, Glass, and many more. The young Lili Boulanger acquired recognition as a composer before she died prematurely at the age of 24. We spoke with Alexandra Laederich, General Delegate of the Centre International Nadia et Lili Boulanger, about the extraordinary Boulanger sisters.

Nadia and Lili Boulanger were pioneers in the early 20th century – each one of them in different areas. How would you describe their individual achievements?

Nadia and Lili Boulanger did indeed occupy a unique and remarkable place in early 20th-century French music. Sisters, musicians, child prodigies, extremely talented, both sisters were raised with a strong musical and artistic upbringing. They followed an extremely demanding musical education, and studied under the tutelage of the professors at the Conservatoire de Paris. As both sisters wished to become composers, they both set their sights upon the ultimate achievement, the Prix de Rome for composition. Nadia Boulanger, a young and busy artist, was already in demand as a pianist, an organist, and a composer, teaching an increasing number of students and organising concerts in the family living room of 36 rue Ballu, giving once a week what is known today as a masterclass. She performed across much of Europe alongside the virtuoso pianist Raoul Pugno, decided to purchase (following Pugno’s advice) a country house near Paris, and even composed with him the opera La Ville morte.

As for Lili, she appeared to learn without any effort, acquiring her musical skills with astounding ease, as if by sheer intuition. She declared one day, at the age of 16, that she would become a composer. 18 months later, to everyone’s surprise, she won the first prize for composition. Having now entered into a primarily male-dominated profession, the young woman acquired an immediate recognition, whereas her sister was forced to compete with a strong masculine competition. This victory afforded Lili a unique status, one gradually solidified by her talents as a composer.

The sisterly relationship between Nadia and Lili was deeply influential for both in their respective artistic paths. What was so special about this connection?

This sisterly relationship has lasted to this day, and one rarely speaks of one sister without mentioning the other, and vice versa, though this does not remove in any way their unique identities. Following the sudden death of their father in 1900, the sisters reacted differently. Six years the elder, Nadia was therefore entrusted with the heavy responsibility of becoming the head of the family. She fully assumed her new role and become her little sister’s protector. Lili was devastated by the sudden loss of her father and deeply weakened. Furthermore, she suffered from an illness that attacked her immune system, forcing her to often stay at home. She became an extremely pensive, deep and serious person. The sisters’ correspondence, kept at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, reveals the intensity and the strength of their unique bond, in particular during the long periods of separation where Lili went to rest at a sanatorium in Berck, on the northern coast of France, or in Arcachon, on the western coast. The words used for one another are proof of the deep emotion they both felt for each other: « Ma petite Lili adorée » [“My beloved little Lili”], « Mon petit Lili » [“My little Lili”], « Ma petite Nadia » [“My little Nadia”], « Je pense sans cesse à toi » [“I am constantly thinking about you”], « Je t’embrasse de tout mon cœur » [“With all my love”], etc.

In many ways, Nadia was both a substitute mother and father! Following the death of Lili, she never stopped promoting her sister’s music, even becoming its principal performer, as if to keep alive the warmth of this precious, important, and vital being.

Nadia Boulanger – composer, conductor, but also an important pedagogue – has influenced generations of composers. What is her impact on the world of classical music today?

As a representative of the teaching traditions of the Conservatoire de Paris since the 19th century, Nadia Boulanger always gave great importance to the study of music, notably theory, harmony, counterpoint, music history, and musical aesthetics. 

This was the key to her success with her young American students in the 1920s – they were unable to find such an education in the United States. It is interesting to read on this subject the writings of Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, and even more recently Philip Glass. The impact of her teaching is still felt today: the recent passing of Michel Legrand, for example, is yet another reminder that, without Nadia, he would never have become the great musician he came to be... Even Daniel Barenboïm acknowledged the strong influence of his dear professor, Nadia Boulanger, during his speech after receiving the medal of the Grand Officier de la Légion d’Honneur at the Palais de l’Élysée in Paris.

Described by Stravinsky as one that could “hear everything”, and by Paul Valéry as “Music incarnate”, Nadia Boulanger was a pedagogue whose profound influence upon the course of music history is only to be compared to that of other great 20th-century pedagogues such as Schoenberg or Messiaen.

Lili Boulanger died 100 years ago, at the age of 24: Why is her music still played in concert halls?

One need only listen to her music to know that the death of Lili Boulanger at barely the age of 24 was a great loss. The Psaume 130, her most magistral work, possesses both a captivating breath and strength. Her style is unique and recognisable, notably in her Vieille prière bouddhique, or her premonitory work composed in 1912, Pour les funérailles d’un soldat [For the funeral of a soldier].

It is important to remember the conditions under which she was forced to work: a constant illness bringing about long periods of weakness during which she was unable to compose, and the terrible years during the war which marked her profoundly: Lili Boulanger was extremely receptive and sensitive to the suffering of others. As for her volume of melodies, Clairières dans le ciel, it is unique in its kind since it is rare to have such an organic ensemble, whose thirteen melodies are indissociable and inseparable, forming a complete cycle.

You are General Delegate of the Centre International Nadia et Lili Boulanger. Can you tell us a little bit about your organization?

The CNLB is the moral and patrimonial heir of the two musical sisters, neither of whom had any children. With its rich history (from the creation of the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund in Boston in 1939, and the Association des Amis de Lili Boulanger in Paris in 1965), the CNLB is an association with the state decree Reconnue d’Utilité Publique [Recognised for Public Utility] with a dual mission, Heritage and Young talents:

  • To showcase the works and continue the legacy of Nadia et Lili Boulanger
  • To raise awareness of the Voice-Piano musical genre
  • To encourage and support young talents by awarding scholarships
  • To organise the Nadia and Lili Boulanger international Voice-Piano Competition

The international network of “La Boulangerie” is very wide, and the CNLB is the virtual and physical meeting point for all of its contacts.

The year 2019 marks a double anniversary: the 20th anniversary of the Concours de Chant-Piano and the 40th anniversary of the death of Nadia Boulanger, an occasion marked by a prestigious recital by the baritone Christian Immler and the pianist Anne Le Bozec. (

Alexandra Laederich

Traduction : Léopold Tobisch