Lili Boulanger: Nocturne


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 was 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 therefore 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 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 the 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 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 Music

Nocturne was composed in 1911, and was originally scored for solo violin and piano accompaniment. As the title suggests, the night time was the basis and inspiration for this short work for violin. Opening with a sparkle of notes from the piano, the violin enters with the primary melody. The sparse accompaniment leaves room for the rich violin to sit on top. As the violin becomes slightly more agitated in the climactic sections, the accompaniment becomes louder and to support the soloist. 

The melodies are charming, but also troubled in Nocturne. At one point the music is ambling along and the next the intensity has soared, and so has the violin. These nuggets of intensity and drama really shape the structure and voice of this piece. The opening piano statement lays at the core of the accompaniment, with the piano moving with the soloist when necessary. The end of Nocturne sees the two instruments become entangled as the music becomes quieter until it softly fades away. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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