Nadia Boulanger: 3 Pieces for Cello & Piano

Context

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) is fondly remembered as being a leading French composer, conductor and pedagogue of the 20th century. Her pupil list over her teaching years include the likes of Daniel Barenboim, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones and Astor Piazzolla. Across her huge career, Boulanger worked in a number of the top teaching institutions such as the Royal Academy of Music, Juilliard School, Yehudi Menuhin School and the Royal College of Music, but her base was always in Paris, France. As well as being a sought-after teacher, Boulanger was also the first woman to conduct some of the major orchestras across the world including The Hallé, BBC Symphony and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 

Especially during her younger years, Boulanger was a keen composer and many of her works were premiered by top musicians around the world. Her 3 Pieces for Cello & Piano was originally written for organ in 1911, but was transcribed for cello in 1914 by the composer. Now, the cello version is much more widely-performed. 

 

The Music

Set into three short, stand-alone pieces, this work is often described as ‘post impressionist’.

 

Piece I – Modere

The mysterious opening movement starts with a trickling effect from the piano, before a softly muted cello enters. The delicate nature of this movement shows fragility in Boulanger’s writing, that many of her contemporaries longed for. The use of the cello’s higher range create sufficient tension, as the piano presses on with the sparkling effect. The syncopated sections between the two instruments shows the influence of Debussy and Fauré on a young Boulanger. 

 

Piece II – Sans vitesse et a l’aise

The peaceful lament of the second movement is slightly more hopeful in character than the opening movement. The lullaby-like melody sees the pair intermingle once more as the cello plays a bold melody. The rich middle range of the instrument is exploited through this movement, with the warm timbres practically melting off of the instrument. This movement ends quietly. 

 

Piece III – Vite et nerveusement

The frantic finale is the most energetic of the three pieces. Boulanger’s bold use of the piano in its supporting role of the cello shines through in this movement. The big leaps from the cello paired with the largely chordal accompaniment from the piano creates waves of sound. The lyrical central section plays on the cello’s timbre once more, as all of its range is explored in a short space of time. The vigorous opening sequence returns and leads this piece to its epic conclusion. 

 

Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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You might also enjoy… Lili Boulanger: D’un Matin de Printemps

 

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