Lili Boulanger

Spotlight on Lili Boulanger

Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger (Lili) grew up surrounded by composers and musicians. Her mother and grandmother were singers and her grandfather had been a noted cellist. Her father, Ernest, who was 77 when she was born, won the Prix de Rome composition prize at the Paris Conservatoire and his death, when Lili was only 6, was a cause of lasting sadness. Her sister, Nadia, who was 6 years older, was a formidably talented pianist.

Before she was even 5 years old, Lili accompanied her sister to classes at the Paris Conservatoire and sat quietly listening, and she soon began music theory and organ lessons herself. She also studied the piano, violin, cello, harp and singing, having lessons 7 days a week.

Taking composition lessons with her sister, Nadia, and with Gabriel Fauré, in 1913 Lili became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome composition prize. This was a significant achievement, not least because the rules of the competition stated that entrants were required to conduct their own work and at the time society frowned upon women directing male musicians.

Sadly, Lili suffered ill health all her life, following a case of bronchial pneumonia at age 2. She was in frequent pain from what is now called Crohn’s disease. In 1916, she was told she only had two years to live and she died in 1918, at the age of 24. She nevertheless wrote over 50 works, including choral, chamber and orchestral music.

D’un Matin de Printemps (A Spring Morning) and its companion piece, D’un Soir Triste (A Sad Evening), were written in 1917-18 in three different arrangements, for chamber groups and for orchestra. They are best described as symphonic tone poems. The two pieces share melodic lines and themes but the moods are completely different, and they are the last pieces Lili was able to write with her own hand. They are written in the impressionistic style and reveal the influence of Debussy and Fauré. The flute begins the main theme and it travels through different instruments with masterful orchestration. The happy, dancing movement is punctuated with moments of slowing down and with darker passages, suggesting a hidden sadness, but the piece is full of playful twists and turns and beautiful melodic lines. The strength of the ending indicates Lili’s vitality and zest for life, despite her physical frailty.

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