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Memories of Nadia Boulanger,


The last summer that Nadia Boulanger, the legendary musical pedagogue, taught at Fontainebleau, I went there to study choral conducting with her. Starting with Aaron Copland, generations of American composers, conductors and instrumentalists had made the pilgrimmage to Fontainebleau or Paris (her winter residence) where in between lessons Boulanger acted as guru to Stravinsky, Bernstein and virtually every composer who had dabbled in neoclassicism. Yet despite her Who's Who list of protegees, she wasn't particular about choosing students. Anyone could go; you'd just be placed in classes according to your ability. So a sejour with Boulanger became a necessary rite of passage for those of us who'd heard tell of her, usually from someone who'd gone before us. And of these there were many. The composer and critic Virgil Thompson once observed, 'Every town in America has a church, a firehouse and a pupil of Nadia Boulanger.'

The following account of Boulanger's last summer teaching is drawn from memory with the exception of a few details, such as names of most students, which have been filled in by imagination.

Because of illness she missed the first class of the session. We wondered if this was it: Was she finally taking to her bed for good? But as was her custom, she rallied in time for the second class.

So on a Wednesday afternoon in July, right after lunch, forty of us sat in a classroom in the palace at Fontainebleau (loaned for the purpose by the French government who had taken a notoriously long time to recognize their exalted citizen), excitedly awaiting our audience with the woman I thought of as the most influential teacher since Mohammed. (I later read that Ned Rorem had called her, 'the most influential teacher since Jesus Christ.')

Most of us were students of her disciples. So we knew the legends which pointed to an asceticism and singlemindedness we could barely grasp:

  • As a girl, she had kept herself awake one night out of three to memorize the entire canon of Western music starting with Gregorian chant. By all accounts, she succeeded.
  • For twenty years, she performed in the same black dress. Finally Princess Grace, who had given it to her, said, 'Don't you think it's time for a new dress?'
    'Yes,' replied Boulanger. 'Get me another exactly the same.'
  • A journalist asked her how it felt to be the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic.
    'I have been a woman for fifty years,' Boulanger replied, 'and long since overcome my initial astonishment.'
  • An aide told her she'd been invited to receive an award by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, then President of France. 'Who is that?' she asked.
  • After a dinner party at the home of Princess Grace, she reported, 'I sat next to the most interesting man. He knew Shakespeare by heart and spoke it so beautifully ... But I understand he has had a very scandalous life.'
    The man was Richard Burton, then party to one of the most famous divorce cases of the century.

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Copyright © 27 February 2005 Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA


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