Program Notes


BORN: August 21, 1893, in Paris, France

DIED: March 15, 1918, in Mézy-sur-Seine, northwest of Paris

COMPOSED: Completed in early 1918, when Boulanger expanded it from a work for violin and piano written the year before

WORLD PREMIERE: March 13, 1921, in the concert hall of the Paris Conservatory, with Rhené-Baton conducting the orchestra of the Concerts Pasdeloup


INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, sarrusophone (a metal reed instrument, its part optionally played by contrabassoon, as it is here), 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, triangle, suspended cymbal, small snare drum (alternatively castanets), harp, celesta, and strings.

DURATION: About 6 mins

THE BACKSTORY Music lovers lament the many great composers who died far too young: Schubert at thirty-one, Mozart at thirty-five, Mendelssohn at thirty-eight, Chopin at thirty-nine, and so on. At least they had enough time, talent, and energy to produce large bodies of work that secured their places in the top ranks of musical veneration. But consider the composers whose lives were cut off earlier still, at a point where they had produced sometimes a single masterwork, sometimes a small handful, sometimes quite a few, and yet are remembered less for what they achieved than for what might have been. The list is long, and it includes some striking talents from the past three centuries, such as Giovanni Battista Pergolesi (Italian), Juan Crisóstomo Arriaga (Basque), Julius Reubke (German), Guillaume Lekeu (Belgian), Rudi Stephan (German), and Jehan Alain (French).

High within their ranks stands Lili Boulanger, who died in 1918 at the age of twenty-four, well on her way to becoming one of the notable French composers of the twentieth century. To musicians, the surname Boulanger most immediately evokes Nadia Boulanger, the eminent organist, conductor, and teacher who instructed a Who’s Who of twentieth-century composers, most prominently Americans like Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, and Elliott Carter. Nadia was Lili’s sister, older by six years. They grew up in a musical family; their elderly father, the composer Ernest Boulanger, had won the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1835, and their mother, Raïssa Mischetzky, was a contralto who had been his pupil. Both parents being active musicians, they were in a position to recognize Lili’s musical proclivities, which became evident when she was two. (In fact, it was their friend Gabriel Fauré who first noticed that Lili had perfect pitch.) But at about that time she was struck with bronchial pneumonia, which had lasting effects on her constitution. Always frail, she rarely enjoyed good health. Her most serious medical issue was intestinal tuberculosis (now known as Crohn’s Disease), a chronic condition that ultimately led to her early death.

Being often home-bound, she was physically unable to pursue that standard training of French musicians, which typically involved following the full curriculum of either the Paris Conservatory or the Schola Cantorum. She received private instruction instead, although she did take the composition class of Paul Vidal at the Conservatory from 1911 to 1913. The seal of approval for all aspiring French composers in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was the Prix de Rome, a highly competitive residency and study grant given by the Académie des Beaux-Arts—the very award Ernest Boulanger had won many decades earlier. Nadia had tried for it without success; and after she declared that she would not compete for it further, Lili set her sights on it. Her first attempt, in 1912, was unsuccessful, but in 1913 she triumphed, her winning composition being the cantata Faust et Hélène. She was the first woman ever to receive the top prize, an achievement that earned headlines in the international press.

Her health was improving. She was able to embark on her prize-winner’s residency at the Villa Medici in Rome, but her stay there was cut short by the outbreak of World War I, during which she formed a committee to provide financial and moral support to musicians fighting in the war. When peace was restored, she returned for another stay in Rome, but again her visit was curtailed, this time by collapsing health. Back in Paris, she devoted what energy she could muster to her “big project,” an opera titled La Princesse Maleine, and to writing some short

new works. She was running out of time. In July 1917 she underwent an appendectomy, which proved essentially fruitless. Not long thereafter, she completed a pair of related works, D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) and D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning). As her strength ebbed away, her sister Nadia helped write down Lili’s music. By the time she created the motet Pie Jesu (for voice, string quartet, harp, and organ)—her last composition and probably the most frequently performed of her works today—she dictated it entirely to Nadia. La Princesse Maleine remained unfinished when she died, on March 15, 1918.

THE MUSIC D’un matin de printemps had a complicated history. She began work on it in the spring of 1917 as a piece for violin and piano (or optionally flute and piano), then made another setting for piano trio, and finally created the version for orchestra performed in this concert. The various versions do not align exactly. Lili did not intend for any of these settings to supersede the others; instead, she viewed them as parallel, slightly different takes on the same basic conception. All of the surviving manuscripts are in the hand of Nadia, who effected some refinements particularly on the orchestral version, which seems to have been completed in January 1918.

This does not sound at all like a deathbed piece. The piece is a work of vibrant energy and surpassing delicacy, strikingly in mode of the French “Impressionist” composers—or, at places, of Spanish composers (like Falla) who were similarly inspired by them. Boulanger makes colorful use of her wind sections, typically a strength of French composers. It captures the listener from the very outset, where the good-spirited principal theme is introduced by solo flute playing in its low register against lightly rustling strings and shimmering touches of triangle and celesta. The theme is passed around from instrument to instrument, as is the accompanying figure, and the music soon sinks to the orchestra’s lower reaches, losing its propulsive energy and taking on a gauzy quality, almost as if it were underwater. From there, the music again rises in a crescendo for the full orchestra. Suddenly the texture thins to chamber-like combinations—a passage not unreminiscent of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, a work with which Nadia was familiar, and probably Lili along with her. The work’s ending is stunning: a buildup of volume and energy, a precipitously descending harp glissando, and a final pop from the orchestra. —James M. Keller

LISTEN AGAIN: Yan Pascal Tortelier with the BBC Philharmonic (Chandos)

(October 2019)

Please wait...