<< -- 2 -- Jenna Orkin THE LAST CLASS
After we'd been waiting on the edge of our literal seats for fifteen minutes, Boulanger was wheeled in. Blind, unaware she'd arrived, she was lurched over to the left. Naturally she was dressed in black. Her hands lay in her lap, too large for it now that the rest of her had shrivelled. Gnarled and inert, they were nonetheless recognizable from the photographs we'd seen of Boulanger in her fifties pointing out to Stravinsky some passage in a fresh score. The plain nails were those of hard-working hands, a religious, perhaps.
In the first row Louise Talma, my former professor at Hunter College, watched the progress of the wheelchair down the aisle with a fixed stare as though to communicate to the body within it her will to get it through the hour. A Boulanger student fifty years earlier, she'd become the first woman composer admitted to the National Academy of Arts and Letters and had been sought after as a collaborator by Thornton Wilder, making her the envy of her contemporaries among American composers. Since her student days she'd returned to Fontainebleau every two years to consult with Boulanger on her latest commission.
She wore a light grey suit in the style of a younger Boulanger. 'Mademoiselle's' acolytes tended to acquire her habits which, in both senses of that word, were modelled on a nun's. Talma's hair was a variant of Boulanger's chignon and her eyes, like Boulanger's in years past, expressed nothing beyond a fervent (some might have said fanatical) discipline. Her other features, like her room back at the hotel, gave no clue into character. They were simply there to function as she had been put on this earth to work. Her sturdy hands, a peasant's, were folded in her lap.
At the entrance of the god of Musical Pedagogy, silence fell.
For Boulanger was a god to us. In the beginning was the Word but before the Word was the Sound whose mysteries she was closer to understanding than anyone alive. A pupil of Fauré at the age of eight, she was our link to d'Indy; through him to Rameau whose treatise on Harmony was the foundation of the principles of all Western music.
Strictly speaking, Boulanger didn't think of herself as God but she did have an unusually close relationship to Him. She went to Mass every day and into mourning annually for a week at the anniversary of the death of her sister, Lili, who had succumbed to T B at the age of twenty-four. And as often happens with nonagenarians (which she was that summer), the people of whom she spoke most affectionately -- Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, -- were all dead.
Copyright © 27 February 2005
Jenna Orkin, New York City, USA