Lili Boulanger, French classical music composer

Lili Boulanger: an introduction

Lili Boulanger was born into a musical family - her renowned elder sister Nadia Boulanger described how in their household "Everyone played music. Music was the beginning and the central part of our existence." Her mother and grandmother were singers, her elder sister  a musician, and her father a recognised composer.

Lili's father died when she was just six years old, and Nadia believed that this played a material role in Lili's desire to express herself through music by becoming a composer. Ongoing poor health prevented Lili attending the Paris Music Academy with her sister, but when she was well enough she would attend her sister's music lessons with her.

By the time she was 16, Lili had already told her family she wanted to be a composer, an unusual choice for a young lady, even in the Boulanger family. by the time she started studying composition Lili Boulanger had in fact already written several compositions - mostly sacred works, and piano works.

Her enthusiasm continued in 1910 when her lessons began, and made rapid progress, with lessons every day including weekends. Two years later she successfully gained admission to the Music Academy, where she studied composition until 1913.

This was followed by a cantata, the Faust et Hélène cantata, which won an important prize, the Prix de Rome, in 1913 and gained her a five year international scholarship and international fame. Lili Boulanger soon signed a contract which included a fixed annual salary, and publication of her works. Unfortunately just after arriving in Rome in March 1914, war broke out in August of that year. Lili then became too involved in charity work, with her sister, to find much time for composing.

Lili's health had never been very good, and by 1916 she was told she had just two years left to live. Rather than demotivating Lili, this period was one of enormous creativity as she rushed to complete the works that she had already started, including an opera La Princesse Maleine. Each period of improved health was filled with a rush to work, and when that was not possible she would dictate the music to Nadia.

Lili Boulanger

By 1917 she was very poorly, and dictated her last work, Pie Jesu, to Nadia. She died in March 1918 at the age of 24, without ever completing the opera.

Mozart and Schubert both had musical lives tragically cut short, but they reached 35 and 31 years old respectively. If Lili Boulanger had lived a further 10 years would she have made the mark that they did? Impossible to know, of course. But as you listen to the 'Three Psalms' ("Trois Psaumes"), above all the beautiful "Psalm 130", you can only wonder what might have been.

An interesting and poigant footnote: following the death of Lili Boulanger, her sister stopped composing music and turned instead to teaching. Her pupils were to include Elliott Carter and Aaron Copland, among others who were to become in themselves renowned composers.

Lili Boulanger - recommended listening

- Psaume 24, Psaume 129, Psaume 130 (Three Psalms)

- The Cantata 'Faust et Hélène

- D'un Soir Triste