Boulanger, Lili

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The first woman to win the Prix de Rome, the short-lived Lili Boulanger left many questions tantalisingly unanswered, says Anna Beer

Who was Lili Boulanger

When was Lili Boulanger born?

Lilii Boulanger is born into a musical family on 21 August 1893. With Maurice Ravel serenading at the piano; dinner with Gabriel Fauré; a note of encouragement from Charles Widor: Boulanger was born into an astonishingly privileged Parisian musical world. An aspiring composer could not fail to thrive in this environment, even with only a fraction of her talent, but that talent – allied to hard work and a canny professionalism – ensured she became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, France’s most prestigious music prize.

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Who was Lili Boulanger?

To reduce Boulanger’s story to her Prix de Rome triumph and her tragic early death at 24, as so often happens, distracts from a serious consideration of her at times groundbreaking music, and an honest appreciation of her professional ambition. Boulanger suffered, horribly, from Crohn’s Disease but the dreamy invalid – an image cultivated by Lili, her mother and sister and lapped up by the press at the time – is nowhere to be seen in her ruthless determination first to win the Prix de Rome, then to complete a series of major works before her death.

When did Lili Boulanger decide to become a composer?

Aged five, Boulanger joins her ten-year-old sister Nadia at the Paris Conservatoire, and soon attends Louis Vierne’s organ lessons.

In 1909  she takes harmony lessons with composer Georges Caussade, teacher of many of France’s most outstanding young musicians. It was when she also announced her intention to become a composer, and from here she found ways to overcome or to work round the limits imposed by her fragile body – and by society’s expectations of women. By 1911, she was hitting her stride, developing a recognisable musical style characterised by complex modulations and the incorporation of modal elements within a primarily tonal musical language. 

Lili Boulanger and the Prix de Rome

She attempted the Prix de Rome in 1912, after only just over a year of composition lessons, but pushed herself too hard, ‘working a lot, progressing more. In the night Monday-Tuesday I copy the fugue until I go to sleep and do the orchestration.’ She withdrew, but the next year she was back, even more focused, and got through to the final round: a semi-public performance of a cantata at  the Académie des Beaux-Arts.

Boulanger knew how the music business worked. Throughout her short life she ruthlessly called in favours and assiduously courted powerful men while remaining, on the surface at least, an ingénue. And, in 1913, she knew what she had to do. She chose her singers, rehearsing them thoroughly, seeking advice from experienced musicians as to what would work, what wouldn’t. Big sister Nadia would be her pianist. But perhaps most importantly, she understood, somehow, that on the day, her own behaviour and appearance would be the keys to success in a society which was still profoundly uncomfortable with the sight of a woman in authority.

In the final round, contestants rehearsed, performed and, crucially, conducted their own work. Boulanger pitched it perfectly. She conducted but she did not conduct. Her bearing was modest and simple, she kept her eyes cast down, she did not allow herself even once to beat time. Add Nadia’s presence on the platform and Lili’s frail physique, and the audience went wild, or wildly sentimental. Boulanger, ‘standing near the piano, a slim shadow in a white dress, so simple, calm, serious and smiling, such an unforgettable image’ revealed ‘the superiority of the eternal feminine’. So it was that Lili, ‘the eternal feminine,’ won her prize. She was not yet 20 years old.

What did Lili Boulanger do after winning Prix de Rome?

A well-trodden path beckoned to the winner of the Prix de Rome: performances, commissions, contracts and four years at the Villa Medici in Rome to focus on one’s art. What happened next reveals that Boulanger was never – quite – going to play by the musical establishment’s rules. She did go to the Villa Medici (eventually) and had a thoroughly good time there – late night ice-cream, cinema visits – and she certainly composed. But in the summer of 1914 she made an unauthorised return to Paris. A month later, war was declared. World War One would, as much as her illness, now dominate Boulanger’s life, but neither would stop her composing.

What kind of music did Lili Boulanger write?

Boulanger completed her haunting song cycle Clairières dans le ciel – 13 songs recounting a lover’s response to the disappearance of a mysterious young woman – then took the first steps towards writing an opera. All her ambition and confidence are visible in her approach to the literary giant, Maurice Maeterlinck (who had provided the text for, among other works, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande). Only one of his plays remained untouched, a grotesque and violent fairy-tale: La princesse Maleine. Others, including Debussy, had begged to set it, but he had always said no. Until Boulanger.

Most, but not all, scholars believe that the composer did not get far with La princesse Maleine because only a few fragments and motifs survive. Lili herself writes, desperately, in her notebook: ‘Copied in December 1917. Everything must be finished before 1 January. It MUST!!! Will I be able to do it?’ Is it a coincidence, asks one scholar, that this appears alongside both the motif for Princess Maleine and Boulanger’s trademark bells? Was Boulanger acknowledging war and her own mortality?  For Lili’s sister Nadia, Maleine was indeed personal, Lili identifying with the title character. In the libretto, Maleine dies, animal-like, incoherent, child-like with only her faithful dog howling in the in the face of death. If this is a glimpse into Lili’s psyche it does not make comfortable reading – nor do her diaries from this time.

Maleine and other works including a sonata for violin and piano may have remained unfinished, but Boulanger worked tirelessly during these years to complete the companion orchestral pieces D’un soir triste (described as ‘eloquently sombre’) and D’un matin du printemps (‘suitably light and optimistic’); Vieille prière bouddhique: Prière quotidienne pour tout l’Univers, a work from 1917 which prays for the end of suffering for all human beings, no matter their beliefs; and her powerful settings of Psalms 24, 129 and 130, all for large forces. Boulanger originally conceived of Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme, with its echo of the famous ‘Libera me’ section of Fauré’s Requiem in its heartbeat accompaniment, as a requiem. Some see it as the composer’s requiem for herself, begun when she was at last given a terminal diagnosis. Boulanger completed her Pie Jesu for soprano, string quartet, harp and organ (again showing a debt to Fauré) on her death bed. Unable to hold a pen, she was forced to dictate her music to Nadia. From the opening bars, the listener is compelled by the music’s anguished intensity which moves inexorably towards the tentative peace of the closing Amen.

Knowing the end was near, Boulanger asked her sister to complete two of her works, her sonata and La princesse Maleine. If only she had completed Maleine, if only it had been performed, it would have broken boldly into traditionally male territory, and one of its most powerful institutions, the Paris Opéra. If only. This kind of thinking, however, does Boulanger no favours as a composer. Nor does her status as tragic celebrity, which ensured she was eulogised as a woman first (her grace, her melancholy, her sensibility), as composer a poor second.

Of course, she was, to a degree, complicit with this – it was the price she paid for success, but also her way to succeed. For there were two apparently very different Lili Boulangers. The composer signed herself ‘bébé,’ and represented herself as a child-woman, suggesting that, if her family infantilised her because of her illness, Lili (usually) embraced that identity. This has made it easy for commentators, then and now, to reduce her life to her illness, the composer concealed by the image of the always-dying child-woman ‘petite Lili’.

At the same time, Boulanger appears to exploit her status as a femme fragile to win the Prix de Rome, to gain Maeterlinck’s support, to play the Villa Medici system. She displays toughness, artfulness, joie de vivre and, above all, ambition. This determined, professional, adult Boulanger, breaking new ground as a woman and composer, co-existed with petite Lili, whether consciously or unconsciously. To be a woman and composer always entails some doubleness, as Boulanger worked assiduously towards her often incompatible goals: to be accepted by the patriarchal musical establishment, and to find her own voice as a composer.

When did Lili Boulanger die?

By the time of her death in March 1918, she had already made the crucial move from the semi-public, bourgeois realm of the salon to the professional, public space exemplified by victory in the Prix de Rome. We cannot know if she would have survived in that space, but Boulanger (if not bébé) believed she was capable of it, and to listen to her music now suggests that she was right.

Read our reviews of the latest Lili Boulanger recordings here

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Top image by Matt Herring