Lili Boulanger: D’un Matin de Printemps

With March 2018 being the centenary of Lili Boulanger’s premature death, it is enlightening to look back at her life and her contribution to classical music. The legacy she has left behind is undeniable, and the works she composed in her short life pushed the boundaries of classical music. As a pivotal 20th Century composer, it is with great excitement that I share this blog.

Born on 21st August 1893 in Paris, Lili Boulanger was considered at a young age as a musical child prodigy. This was perhaps not too surprising for the Boulanger family, with her mother and grandmother being singers, her elder sister, Nadia, being a composer and educator, and her father, Ernest, also working as a composer. It became apparent as early as two years old, that Lili had perfect pitch, therefore her parents supported her musical studies. Boulanger very close to her father, who passed away when she was six years old. It is suggested that many of her works touch on themes of grief, as she was greatly affected by his passing. Music was thus a central part of the Boulanger household, and Lili Boulanger thrived in this sort of setting.

After battling poor health from the age of two (which stayed with her the rest of her life), the young aspiring composer attended music classes with her sister at the Paris Music Academy when she was well enough. From there, Boulanger began taking classes in music theory (from as young as five years old), and she also began studying organ performance with Louis Vierne. Boulanger also became proficient at playing the piano, violin, cello, harp, as well as being a good singer, and she subsequently was educated by the likes of Marcel Tournier and Alphonse Hasselmans. She became so absorbed in music, having lessons 7 days a week, that she rapidly improved and gained entry into the prestigious Paris Conservatoire in 1912, to study composition.

In 1912, Boulanger competed for the prestigious Prix de Rome prize, but halfway through her performance she collapsed. A year later she entered again and won the composition prize for her cantata Faust et Hélène, making her the first woman composer to win this prize. Winning the Prix de Rome gained Boulanger a five-year international scholarship, which put her at the centre of the French music scene at this time. Boulanger became a student under her sister Nadia Boulanger, and French composer, Gabriel Fauré. Soon after winning the composition prize, Boulanger was offered a contract with the publishing company, Ricordi, which gave her a fixed salary, as well as the publication safety so she could distribute her works abroad.

Boulanger’s life and work were consistently troubled by her chronic illness, which began as bronchial pneumonia, and formed into crohn’s disease – which ended her life in March 1918. Although she enjoyed travelling, Boulanger was often forced to cut trips short. For example, soon after going to Rome in 1914 to compose, she returned home to help her sister support French soldiers after WWI had broken out. In 1916, she was told she had two years to live, and in this time Lili was incredibly creative, as she rushed to complete the works she had already started. Compositions such as Pie Jesu (1918), Vieille prière bouddhique (1917) and D’un matin de printemps (1918) were completed by the time she passed, however her opera La Princesse Maleine remained uncompleted.

The last orchestral work completed by Boulanger before her untimely death in 1918 was D’un Matin de Printemps (‘One Spring Morning’). Originally composed as a duet for violin and piano, in the spring of 1917, this work has been adapted into various versions, including an orchestral version (1918), a trio version with piano and violin (1917), and a duet for flute and piano (1917). This work is only short, clocking in at around 4-5 minutes, however it is full of playful twists and turns, as well as exhibiting a fine art for both storytelling and complex musical cohesion. For the purposes of this blog, I shall now be referring to the orchestral version. If you’d like to find out more about the original duet version, see my article for Illuminate here.

Unlike many of her other works, which are darker in character and harmony, D’un Matin de Printemps is full of a fresh and joyful character. Adhering to the ‘rules’ of impressionism in the early twentieth century, Boulanger begins this piece with three sets of minor seconds played by the strings (A, B – E, F – A, B). This creates a certain frivolity to the work, as the tonality of the work is unsure at this point. The flute enters in b. 3 and this melody is then syncopated with the accompaniment, creating a slight uneasiness between the two sections, however, due to the sheer sweetness of the character of this piece, it comes across as fun and exciting.

The ostinato that is heard for quite some time underpins the first section of the work. This repeating motif is passed around between the strings and woodwind, each taking a turn in taking the melody and accompaniment. The joyful character soon turns into a slightly darker middle section, where the strings play some ominous trills. The use of compound time here gives a certain uneasiness. This, doubled with complex accompaniment given by the strings, makes this middle section a stark contrast to the first and last sections. The tempo begins to get faster again, and this leads into an uncertain interlude with the strings playing a repeating accompaniment, and the winds interjecting. A solo violin then takes the solo lines, and this segues back into the last section, which resonates with that of the opening. 

Boulanger’s use of subtle dissonance is unnerving, exciting, and certainly keeps you hooked to this work. The climax of this piece sees the brass and winds flourish, which leads to a plethora of trills all aiming towards the final glissando from the harp. The orchestra then unite as one for the final, dissonant last note, which is short and sharp, and not quite in style with the rest of the work. The constant time and mood changes in this work keeps you on your toes.

Boulanger’s style of composition can certainly be read from different stand points. The first is her obvious nod to impressionism, and the likes of Claude Debussy. D’un Matin de Printemps is a prime example of this kind of musical expression, with the flourishes in melodies and solo lines, as well as the complicated rhythmic accompaniments. Secondly, her style can be likened to that of Gabriel Fauré, who, as well as being her teacher, was also a close family friend, and taught Boulanger much of what she knew about composition. Lastly, Boulanger’s compositional style was progressive for her time, which is largely due to her extensive music education from such a young age.

Boulanger’s short life journey is not to be forgotten in haste. Her music is rich and colourful melodies, with orchestrations that will blow your mind. Her premature death was a tragedy, but her legacy lives on, and so does her music. If you like what you hear now, do try and take a look into her archive of compositions – they are absolutely fantastic.

Happy Reading!

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