Lili Boulanger on Musica Sacra

Lili (l) and Nadia Boulanger(Photo: icareifyoulisten.com)
Lili (l) and Nadia Boulanger(Photo: icareifyoulisten.com)

French composer Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) died young.

Her sister Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) lived a long life and worked as a musical pedagogue up until to her last gasp. For 50 years, Nadia mourned her sister’s death, sent out hundreds of mass cards every March 15, often to people, as the years passed who had never heard of the woman Nadia always called “La petite”

This week’s Musica Sacra, which airs Sundays at 8 pm on Classical 101, looks a recent recording with the Monteverdi Choir conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. I had previously heard of Lili Boulanger, but didn’t know her music. From the look of her, and from knowing she was tubercular and ill all of her short, sheltered life, I assumed her liturgical music to be sweet and pretty in saecula saeculorum.

The more fool I. I’m captivated by the two Psalm setting Lili wrote in 1913, when living in Rome as the winner of the world’s most prestigious prize for young composers. Her year at the Villa Medici, a high-rent musical think tank, was financed by the Prix de Rome. Mendelssohn, Berlioz and Bizet were former prize winners.

Lili had thus been admitted to the boys club that was music as a very young woman. Her settings of Psalm 24 and Psalm 129 are muscular pieces for large orchestra and choir. This is not your grandmother’s five o’clock mass. This music, influenced by Wagner in its texture, is demanding and original. Lili’s scores were praised in the press by Debussy.  Lili’s influence can be hard in Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms, written years after she died. Had she lived past 25-years-old, the world of music might have opened to women 50 years earlier:

The sisters died 60 years apart. They are buried side by side in the Cimtiere de Montmartre in Paris.

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