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Thursday, September 15, 2011

First woman to direct many major orchestras in America and Europe

Nadia Boulanger (16 September 1887 – 22 October 1979) was a French composer, conductor and teacher who taught many composers and performers of the 20th century.From a musical family, she achieved early honours as a student at the Paris Conservatoire, but believing that her talent as a composer was inferior to that of her younger sister Lili, she gave up composing and became a teacher. In that capacity she influenced generations of young composers, including many from the U.S., beginning with Aaron Copland. Among her other students were those who became leading soloists and conductors, including Dinu Lipatti, Igor Markevitch and Ástor Piazzolla. She also taught Philip Glass.

Boulanger taught in the U.S. and in England, working with music academies including the Juilliard School, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Longy School, the Royal College of Music and the Royal Academy of Music, but her principal base for most of her life was her family's flat in Paris, where she taught for most of the seven decades from the start of her career until her death at the age of 92.As a conductor Boulanger was the first woman to direct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras. She conducted several world premieres including works by Copland and Stravinsky.

Boulanger was born to a musical family. Her grandmother, Marie-Julie Boulanger, was a celebrated singer at the Opéra Comique. Her grandfather, Frédéric Boulanger won first prize for the cello in his fifth year (1797) at the recently founded Paris Conservatoire. Her father, Ernest Boulanger (1815–1900), entered the Conservatoire at the age of 16, studying piano, violin, and composition. In 1835, he won the Conservatoire's top prize, the Prix de Rome, for a one-act opera, Le Diable à l'École (The Devil at School). He later taught singing at the Conservatoire. In 1874, while he was performing in Russia, he met a young, married Russian schoolteacher, Raissa Suvalov (née Myschetsky). She moved to Paris to attend his singing class at the Conservatoire, and in 1877 they married; she was aged 20 and he 62. Their first child, Juliette Nadia Boulanger was born in Paris ten years later. By her sixth birthday, she was studying music under her mother's tutelage. A second child, Lili, was born in 1893. The ageing father asked Nadia to promise to look after the newborn girl for the rest of her life.

Nadia Boulanger's compositions, published between 1901 and 1922, comprise 29 songs for solo singer and piano; nine larger-scale vocal works, some with orchestra; five works for instrumental solo (organ, cello, piano); two orchestral works, and an opera, La ville morte, and a song cycle, Les heures claires, both composed jointly with Raoul Pugno, for whom she composed a Fantaisie variée for piano and orchestra.

Boulanger, who liked to be known as "Mademoiselle", made her conducting debut in 1912. She was the first woman to conduct several major symphony orchestras, including the New York Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, and in England the Hallé Orchestra of Manchester and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. On her first American tour she premiered Aaron Copland's "Symphony for Organ and Orchestra."1937 she became the first woman to conduct a complete concert of the Royal Philharmonic Society in London. In 1938 she directed the first performance of Stravinsky’s Concerto, Dumbarton Oaks in Washington DC.
As a performer she made few recordings. In 1937 HMV issued three sets of discs featuring her: the Piano Concerto in D by Jean Françaix, which she conducted; the Brahms Liebeslieder Waltzes, in which she and Dinu Lipatti were the duo pianists with a vocal ensemble; and the first recordings of any music by Monteverdi: a selection of his madrigals, which she directed.

The composer Ned Rorem described Boulanger as "the most influential teacher since Socrates."She taught a very large number of students from Europe, Australia, and Canada, as well as over 600 American musicians. However, neither she nor Annette Dieudonné, her life-long friend and assistant, kept records of the students who studied with her. It is, moreover, virtually impossible to determine the nature and extent of many musicians' private study with Boulanger, ranging from prolonged and intensive tuition to brief, informal advice.Even though her eyesight and hearing began to fade towards the end of her life, Boulanger worked almost until her death in 1979.

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