„If there is one thing of which I am certain, it is that my music is worthless.“
…Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) told her teacher Gabriel Fauré when he said he believed it was a mistake for her to stop composing.
Her parents, both professional musicians were aged 30 and 72 when Nadia was born. Her sister Lily was born six years later, and a few years after that the father asked little Nadia to promise to take care of her baby sister for the rest of her life.
At the age of ten Boulanger started at the conservatoire, studying with Vidal, Widor and Fauré. When she was thirteen her father died, leaving her to provide for her family by working as a pianist and privately teaching harmony and counterpoint.
She won the conservatoire‘s top prices in harmony, counterpoint, fugue, organ and piano accompaniment, but failed twice to win the prestigious „Prix de Rome“, although she was on both occasions generally acknowledged to have written the best work. A few years later her sister Lily, taught by Nadia, was the first woman ever to win this price. Nadia didn‘t write much music after this, and stopped more or less altogether when her sister tragically died only five years later.
Boulanger made her conducting début in 1912 and had a substantial career working with the very best international orchestras. But she is by far more know for her work as an excellent and very strict teacher, where she has had an enormous influence on a whole generation of composers and musicians. (Think Copland, Honegger, Barenboim, Bernstein, Quincy Jones, Menotti, Legrand, Gardiner, Glass, Thomson, Bacharach (and some 600 others.)
In this way her musical spirit surely lives on through all these other composers, but I can‘t shake the feeling that, given better circumstances, maybe she could have wanted to create more of her own exquisite music.
(…and yes, that is Leonard Bernstein kissing her hand.)