Timeline: Nadia and Lili Boulanger

Feb 6, 2017

Aaron Copland, Jean Franciax, Elliot Carter, Philipp Glass and Quincy Jones; what do all of these musicians have in common? They were all students of Nadia Boulanger. Nadia was a composer, conductor and teacher. For seven decades, out of her family’s flat in Paris, she taught some of the most influential composers of the 20th century.

Nadia’s father was a composer and a violin professor at the Paris Conservatory. Nadia’s memory was so proficient that by the time she was 12 she had Bach’s Well Tempered Clavier memorized. She attended the Paris Conservatory along with her younger sister, Lili. The sisters shared instructors and even prizes.

In 1908, Nadia received second place in the Prix de Rome for her composition La Sirene. A few years later, Lili became the first woman to win first place in that same competition. Nadia took it upon herself to oversee her sister’s education. Lili was a prolific and talented composer, by the time she was 20 she had an impressive catalogue of works. However, she suffered from chronic illness which took her life at the age of 24.

Nadia's sister, Lili Boulanger, was a talented composer. She suffered from chronic illness and died after the end of World War I.
Credit US-PD

After Lili’s death Nadia all but abandoned composition. She focused on conducting. Nadia broke new ground as a conductor. In many of the orchestras she visited, she was the first female to stand on the podium.

She helped rediscover the music of Claudio Monteverdi and championed works by contemporary composers, including her good friend, Igor Stravinsky. She conducted the premiere of his Dumbarton Oaks Concerto in 1938.

This photograph, taken in 1937, shows Nadia Boulanger with her good friend, Igor Stravinsky.
Credit US-PD

It is her influence as a teacher that has left the most indelible mark.

Nadia Boulanger held positions at many colleges and universities in France and the United States, including the Paris Conservatory, Wellesley College and Juilliard. She was in such high demand that students from around the world would come to her for instruction.

Nadia encouraged her students to take in as much music as possible. She was said to have every major work by every major composer at her fingertips. Her methods were difficult. The biographer, Alan Kendell called her “The Tender Tyrant”.

Yet her practice of counterpoint and score reading are still used in conservatories around the world. As one student recalled, Nadia would say, “[y]our music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.”

Nadia continued to promote the music of her sister throughout her life. She died in 1979, at the age of 92. She’s buried next to Lili, at Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.