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Prelude in F minor

About the Work

Quick Look Composer: Nadia Boulanger
Program note originally written for the following performance:
Organ Recital: Paul Jacobs, organ: presented by the National Symphony Orchestra Wed., Feb. 5, 2014, 8:00 PM
© Dr. Richard E. Rodda

The Montmartre household of Ernest Boulanger was one of the most musically sophisticated in late-19th-century Paris. Ernest's father, Frédéric, taught cello at the Paris Conservatoire; his mother was the celebrated soprano Marie-Julie Boulanger. Ernest won the Prix de Rome in 1835, became a successful opera composer in Paris and a teacher of singing at the Conservatoire, and was awarded the Légion d'Honneur in 1870. In 1877, he married Raïssa Mychetsky, one of his most talented voice students, when he was sixty and she nineteen. Among the family's friends and regular visitors were Charles Gounod, Gabriel Fauré, Jules Massenet and Camille Saint-Saëns. It was into this privileged musical environment that Nadia Boulanger was born in 1887; Marie-Juliette Olga (Lili) came along six years later.

Nadia entered the Paris Conservatoire when she was ten to study harmony with Paul Vidal and composition with Widor and Fauré; upon her graduation, in 1904, she won first prizes in harmony, counterpoint, organ, fugue and piano accompaniment. She also studied organ privately with Vierne and Guilmant. Boulanger composed industriously during those years, mostly songs and choral pieces, and in 1908, she placed second in the Prix de Rome competition with her cantata La sirène. Her parallel career as pianist and organist was promoted by the noted piano virtuoso and composer Raoul Pugno, who not only helped her become assistant organist at the Madeleine Church in 1906, but also appeared frequently with her in duo-recitals and even collaborated with her in composing a song cycle (Les heures claires, 1909) and an opera, La ville morte, based on a libretto by d'Annunzio; the opera was completed and scheduled for its premiere in 1914, but Pugno's death and the start of World War I prevented its performance. Little Lili Boulanger had begun to demonstrate a real talent for composition by that time, however, and Nadia concluded that her younger sister had inherited the family genius in that field. Nadia wrote a few more songs and chamber pieces, but soon after Lili's death, in 1918, she abandoned composition completely. "Not bad, but useless," Nadia said dismissively of her own works.

Nadia's genius lay elsewhere, in teaching. She began teaching privately as a teenager- Lili's earliest counterpoint lessons were with her sister-and got her first formal post teaching piano at the Conservatoire Femina-Musica in 1907. From 1908 to 1918, she taught harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, and from 1920 until the outbreak of war in 1939, she served on the faculty of the École Normale de Musique. She spent the years of World War II in America, lecturing at Wellesley, Radcliffe, Juilliard and the Longy School in Boston, and returned in 1946 to the Paris, where she taught piano accompaniment at the Conservatoire until 1957.

The core of Boulanger's pedagogical career, however, was at the American Conservatory at Fontainebleau, an outgrowth of an investigation of the state of music in the American army undertaken during World War I by the renowned conductor Walter Damrosch at the behest of General Pershing. Intensive training in performance and composition at Fontainebleau was carried out under the guidance of noted French musicians, and Ravel, Widor and Robert Casadesus were among the school's early directors. Boulanger became a founding faculty member of the American Conservatory in 1921, and she remained affiliated with the school for the rest of her life; she was named its director in 1950. The students started showing up at Fontainbleau (and, for additional private instruction, at her apartment in the Rue Ballu) as soon as the school opened its doors-Copland and Thomson in 1921, and then literally hundreds more for the next half-century, from Piston, Carter and Harris to Diamond, Bernstein, Piazzolla and Glass. Boulanger's method was direct, demanding and effective: she insisted that her students master the craft of musical composition through the intensive study of past masters, and then apply that learning to developing an appropriate style of their own. In addition to the seismic impact that her teaching had on the music of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger also made noteworthy contributions as an organist (she was soloist in the premiere in New York of the Symphony for Organ and Orchestra that Copland wrote for her in 1924; Walter Damrosch conducted) and as a conductor (she was the first woman to lead both a complete orchestra concert in London and subscription programs in Boston and New York; she made pioneering recordings of Monteverdi's madrigals in the late 1930s; she conducted the premiere of Stravinsky's Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in Washington, D.C. in 1938). Among the many honors that Boulanger received before her death, in Paris on October 22, 1979, were the Order of St. Charles of Monaco, the Order of the Crown of Belgium, honorary doctorates from Oxford and Harvard, an honorary fellowship in the Royal College of Music, membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and nomination as a Grand Officier de la Légion d'Honneur.

Boulanger wrote the Prelude in F minor, Little Canon and Improvisation, half of her total output for her own instrument, for the first of eight volumes titled Maîtres contemporains de l'orgue published in Paris beginning in 1912 by Maurice Senart. The Prelude, somewhat melancholy in character, is constructed around a recurring motive expressively harmonized that breaks off only for a brief, lyrical central episode.

Did You Know? The first woman conductor engaged by the National Symphony Orchestra was Nadia Boulanger, who appeared with the NSO on February 26, 1939.