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<<  -- 5 --  Jenna Orkin    THE LAST CLASS


The following week Boulanger held the class for conductors in her apartment. In the interim Emile Naoumoff, her latest protegee who had been allowed out of his native Bulgaria to study with her when he was eight, told us the answer to the question: 'How many notes are there?' There are seven, all other notes being variants of the original scale. Sixteen that summer, Emile served as de facto teacher to the rest of us who were mostly in our twenties. Boulanger had once observed that Emile could perform musical feats that had stumped Stravinsky.

We were a group of nine, waiting outside the palace with the excitement of young people going for the first time to see the Old Country about which they've heard stories all their lives. Our ardor had not been allayed by the sorry spectacle of our first class with Boulanger. As some line in some movie pithily has it, we knew who she was.

Mlle A lowered the palace key in a basket from the second floor window. We let ourselves in and went upstairs where she led us into the living-room.

It was 4pm and the high-ceilinged room, with long windows that looked onto the palace garden, was already steeped in shadow. My memory, into whose gaps cliché has flowed, has furnished it with tables and walls that are cluttered with pictures of friends from another era; even older pictures of family. Signed 'With Admiration' or 'Affectionately' were intense publicity shots of pianists; conductors in an ecstatic swirl of hair; photos of Boulanger receiving an honorary doctorate or being received by de Gaulle.

These served as reminders that thirty years before Boulanger had been a woman of the world as well as of the Spirit. When a student became too nerdy, losing herself in music, Boulanger would provide an antidote: an invitation to a tea at which would be Bernstein with his librettist or lover; or writers whose names the student knew only from newspaper accounts to which she now wished she'd paid more attention. The conductor Andrew Litton once said that when, at the age of thirteen, he played for Boulanger she asked him to recite any poetry he knew. He couldn't and understood that he should broaden his cultural horizons. When he told this story I thought, 'I would have asked you to climb a tree or throw a ball.'

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


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