Six of the best… works by Lili Boulanger
A look back on some of the finest works by the French composing pioneer
Faust et Hélène (1913)
Based on a poem by Eugène Adenis – itself based on Goethe’s Faust – Boulanger crafted a thirty-minute cantata for choir and orchestra, featuring solo parts for mezzo-soprano, tenor and baritone. The work won her the 1913 Prix de Rome, the first time the prize had been awarded to a woman composer. She is said to have written it in just four weeks.
Du fond de l’abîme (1914-17)
This ambitious work, based on Psalm 130, was on Boulanger’s writing desk for a long while, largely thanks to the outbreak of war. During the war years, the composer volunteered for the Franco-American Committee; she also became quite ill during this period. The work is arranged for contralto, tenor, chorus, organ and orchestra.
Vieille Prière Bouddhique (1914-17)
Another work which Boulanger had to find time to return to during the war years was her take on a Buddhist prayer (indeed ‘a daily prayer for the whole universe’). An intensely spiritual work, it remains one of the composer’s greatest accomplishments and sits in quite stark contrast to the more nihilistic Du fond de l’abîme of the same period.
La princesse Maleine (1916-18)
The writer Maurice Maeterlinck was no stranger to his works being taken on by composers; the most famous example might be Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. Maeterlinck’s La princesse Maleine, however, was one piece he was quite protective of. The only composer he allowed to take it on was Lili Boulanger. It’s said she identified greatly with Maleine, but progress on the five-act opera was slow and she struggled to complete the work. Only fragments of it remain, which leads most scholars to believe it went unfinished.
D’un soir triste / D’un matin de printemps (1917-18)
This two-part work was completed just a couple of months before her death in 1918, the first half being the moving portrait D’un soir triste (Of a sad evening). Boulanger originally arranged the piece for cello and piano. The second half, D’un matin de printemps (Of a spring morning), is the sprightlier of the two works that make up this musical diptych, and was originally arranged for flute/violin and piano. Both halves were also arranged for piano trio and orchestra.
Pie Jesu (1918)
Her final work, the Pie Jesu is a deeply emotional and personal work that is in many ways her own Requiem. So unwell was she while working on the music, she actually finished it on her deathbed, dictating what was required to her sister. Nadia Boulanger is said to have been so distraught at Lili’s death, she turned her back on her own composing and decided to focus on teaching instead.
Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.