As part of our programme “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, we’ll be performing two works by the early 20th Century French composer Lili Boulanger: Renouvaeu and Hymne au Soleil. Though she composed little, dogged by ill health that cut her life short at the age of only 24, her output remains uniquely expressive, and she was the first woman ever awarded the prestigious Grand Prix de Rome for composition. This article briefly explores her early life up to her prizewinning year, as well as the history and struggle of women to be recognised for France’s highest musical honour.
The Boulangers: A Musical Family
The Boulanger family had been part of the French musical establishment for nearly a hundred years before Lili was born. In 1797, her grandfather Frederic won a prize for cello performance from the recently-opened Conservatoire National. He went on to become a cellist in the King’s Chapel for the next 20 or so years, as well as a professor at L’Ecole Royale de Musique. Her grandmother likewise attended the Conservatoire, winning prizes for singing.
Her father, Ernest, grew up surrounded by writers, artists, and musicians, and, after entering the Conservatoire, won the Grand Prix de Rome in 1835 – that same prize the chasing of which would be a long-standing dream for both Lili and her older sister Nadia. He spent much of his later life as a voice professor at the Conservatoire, and received a Legion d’honneur for services to music aged 54 in 1869, but never fulfilled his great ambition of being elected to the academy.
Rosa Ivonova Myschetsky was supposedly born into the Russian nobility in 1856, though despite her claim throughout her life to the title “Princess Myschetsky”, there is no evidence that such a family ever existed. She met Ernest Boualnger while he was teaching in Russia in 1874, and subsequently moved to Paris to persuade him to allow her to join her voice class in September 1876. They married only a year later. He was 62 – she, just 19.
The couple’s first surviving daughter, Nadia, was born on September 16th, 1887; Lili followed on August 21st 1893. Like their parents, the young Boulanger sisters grew up in a fantastically musical environment: frequent visitors and family friends included Fauré, Gounod, Massanet, and Saint-Saens. At age two, Lili sang songs by ear while Fauré accompanied. By five, she attended Nadia’s organ lessons with Louis Vierne; by seven she was attending Paul Vidal’s accompaniment class at the conservatoire.
Challenges and Change
Signs appeared early on that Lili’s life was to be plagued by ill-health. She was diagnosed with “intestinal tuberculosis” – what we would now recognise as Crohn’s disease – when she was just three. While it remains incurable to this day, even symptomatic relief at the turn of the 20th century was extremely limited, and her illness would impact her life until the day it finally killed her. Her health was such that he was unable to study music systematically until she was nearly 16, and even then she was never able to work for long spells – stress caused symptomatic flare-ups.
While he was by no means a young man, the Boulanger sisters’ father was in good health, and his death in 1900 in the middle of a conversation with Nadia came as a deep shock to the family, and effected a drastic change in their fortunes. It would have been considered unseemly for their mother – ostensibly a member of the aristocracy – to work, and so Nadia’s burgeoning musical education took on a different tone. She was enrolled, and an immensely talented student at, the Conservatoire, and by the mid-1900s had to turn to private instrumental teaching in order to make ends meet.
By 1908 she had begun to teach composition, a career that would span a further 70 years until her death in 1979 at the age of 92. The life and work of Nadia Boulanger could (and has) fill books in and of itself. By any account she stands as one of the most important and influential teachers of the century. Among her many hundreds of students can be counted Lennox Berkeley, Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, John Eliot Gardiner, Quincy Jones, and Astor Piazzolla, to name but a few
Lili was one of her first pupils, and it was towards the end of the decade that Lili turned her attention seriously towards composition. After burning everything she had written up to that date, she began filling notebooks with homework and compositions on December 10th, 1909, and by March 1911 had filled eight books with exercises in four parts, cantata settings – even opera scenes. Many of these early sketches would find their way into her published compositional output, and Renouveau, one of the pieces we’re performing in our programme “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”, is one of them. By this stage in her life, however, it was already apparent that she had no realistic hope of marriage due to her health problems, and so she flung herself fully into composition, and to the recognition that had so far been excluded to all women: the Grand Prix de Rome.
The Prix de Rome and the Académie Royale
The Prix de Rome, established in 1663, was a scholarship awarded by the Académie Royale for students of the arts, that allowed winners to study in Rome for a number of years. Initially just for painters and sculptors, it was expanded to include musical composition in 1803. Despite the fact that female artists such as Elisabethe Vigéé Lebrun and Adelaide Labille were full members of the Académie during the Ancien Regime, it was ironically the French Revolution and its “universal rights of man” that deprived women of the ability to compete on an equal footing for the highest artistic prize the state offered. The concept of “Republican Motherhood” created a gendered dichotomy between public and private sphere, with the home, the private, “la royaume de la femme”.
This is not to suggest that women could not, or did not, participate in the thriving musical life of 19th Century France; if anything they were instrumental in its inception. The entire culture of the “salon” as the century’s dominant aesthetic trend (that ultimately influenced “public” music as much as “private”) owes itself in no small part to the training of women at the Conservatoire in these “private” genres, and their freedom of leisure allowed the cultivation of the dynamic musical circles such as that in which Lili Boulanger grew up.
Women’s official compositional participation in the “public” sphere, however – the institutions of the Académie, the symphony hall, the opera house, and the lucrative publishing industry – was still heavily censured. As late as March 1912, the influential critic Emile Vuillermoz could publish an article entitled “The Pink Peril” in which he warned:
“The Conservatoire, where [women] already hold the majority, will end by becoming their personal property, and the classes that are called “mixed” will be those where the presence of two or three moustache-wearers will be tolerated…. In the director’s office, Gabriel Faure will be chased from his position by Helene Fleury or Nadia Boulanger”
Vuillermoz was reacting in no small part to this new encroachment of women on the public sphere. After a century of the compositional Prix de Rome being closed to women, the radical left-wing minister Chaumié (to whom the Académie ultimately answered) suddenly announced at a press dinner in 1903 that the Prix was to be open to women from that year. The Académie, who first heard of this change through the press and not an official channel, were not best pleased, to say the least, and did their best to thwart Juliette Toutain’s efforts to become the first entrant.
Women’s Participation in the Prix de Rome up to 1912
Toutain, a member of the Parisian bourgeoisie, was a talented young composer, but her social class placed restrictions on her behaviour that the Académie would use to derail her prize attempt. The competition took place in a secure lodge in the countryside, so that participants would be unable to have outside help. Toutain’s father took umbrage with the idea of his daughter alone and unsupervised with nine men (as the potential for press chatter and scandal was significant) and requested that she be allowed a chaperone. The Académie stubbornly insisted that the change imposed on them was only that women be allowed to compete on equal terms as men, and insisted that no special allowances could be made. Toutain accordingly withdrew from the competition for reasons of propriety.
While the whole story doesn’t end there – a scandal did develop after Toutain’s father revealed that he had subsequently received a letter from the Académie granting his request, but sent only after the competition was already underway – Toutain’s does. In order to compete, entrants had to be unmarried. Toutain (possibly forbidden by her father from entering again) was engaged in 1904 and dropped off the musical radar altogether after that.
The next decade saw two other women enter and successfully compete for partial recognition. Helene Fleury won Deuxieme Second Grand Prix in 1904, and her chances looked good for a shot at the Grand Prix the next year (convention dictated that previous prize-winners either had to win a superior prize or no prize at all). However, the 1905 competition was marred by Charles-Ferdinand Lenepveu, who was not enthusiastic about the prospect of women composers, to say the least. Since dropping teaching the women’s harmony class at the Conservatoire in 1894, he had refused to teach another woman. Lenepveu contrived to rig the jury so that only his pupils would be admitted to the final round. Fleury, along with the rising darling of the French progressives, Maurice Ravel, were eliminated, and Fleury never entered again.
Nadia Boulanger had set her heart on winning the Prix after the death of her father. She entered in 1906 and 1907 but didn’t make it very far. Discussing her submission for the 1907 her teacher, Charles-Marie Widor opined that her piece was the best, but her performers (for the candidates also had to supply their own singers and instrumentalists to perform the piece before the Grand Jury) were not as good as the winner’s.
In the 1908 competition, however, events once again conspired against her. The first round involved the composition of a choral fugue for four voices (in four clefs) written on a subject provided by one of the jury. Struck by the lively, instrumental headmotif supplied by Camille Saint-Saens for the competitors, she scored her entry instead for string quartet. Saint-Saens was furious and demanded that she be eliminated for her insolence. The other jurors insisted on hearing the piece anyway, and collectively decided that, despite the unorthodoxy, it was so good that she deserved to enter the second round. But when the final round compositions were judged, she came unstuck. While it was clear that Nadia’s cantata was by far the most competent, the jurors were still unable to bring themselves to award this headstrong, professional young woman her just due. Although she won the most votes in the first round of voting, the majority of jurors abstained, meaning that, after several more rounds she ended up with only the Deuxieme Second Grand Prix. No Premier Grand Prix was awarded that year.
Lili Boulanger: toward the Prix de Rome
Lili Boulanger first entered the Prix de Rome in 1912, and began the first round on May 7th, but she became increasingly ill and withdrew before waiting to hear if she had been admitted into the final. During the time leading up to her first entry, and before she entered again, much of her compositional work was geared around preparing for the pieces she would have to craft for the competition – in particular, setting poetry in a similar manner to the cantata that was required of finalists. This was the genesis of the two pieces we’ll be performing as part of our programme “Brother Sun, Sister Moon”: Renouveau, and Hymne au Soleil.
Renouveau was composed while she was staying at Gargenville in Summer 1911, to a text by Armand Silvestre (a poet frequently used in Conservatoire circles for composition), and clearly demonstrates the workings of a composer with specific goals in mind. She brings the voices in in carefully imitative entries; she exploits the “instrumental” possibilities of the voice with wordless sections accompanying soloists; she uses a variety of piano textures during the extensive solo passages (including a reference to Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune during the alto solo). The result is a coherent, technically accomplished, yet organic and charming work that perfectly encapsulates the hopeful, carefree text.
Hymne au Soleil was composed a year later, after she had withdrawn from the 1912 competition, and while it starts in an altogether different vein, with driving pedal notes that hammer home the power of the sun, its central solo section exhibits the same affinity for lush writing that defines Renouveau. The text by George Cassaud, nominally a depiction of a Hindu religious ceremony, exemplifies Boulanger’s love for exoticism, and provides plenty of material for effective word-painting – such as the reaching of the voices to the very top of their ranges on “il s’elance” (it soars). Again this can be read as “homework” for her future Prix de Rome entry, as it also includes a brief fugal section from “Sept coursiers” – another stipulation of the competition.
Despite her setback in 1912, Lili was determined to compete again the following year. In 1913, she was the youngest competitor by a wide margin – 6 years younger than the next youngest contestant. This time nothing stood in her way – after being admitted to the final round, her cantata won a 5/8 majority in the first round of voting, and an overwhelming majority in the wider Académie election. By any measure, her submission, Faust et Helene was by far the best of that year’s entries. But was it just this that contributed the Académie’s final decision to award a woman the highest honour they could confer?
Public Image in Gendered Spaces
Annegret Fauser argues that in an age when the press and visual media had an increasing influence on public affairs, and such competitions were no longer held behind closed doors but watched intensely by journalists and photographers, the image that Lili Boulanger and the other competitors before her had a significant impact on their success, or lack of it, in the Prix de Rome.
Juliette Toutain was undone by the social constraints of her bourgeois background. Helene Fleury got further by keeping her head down, but was ultimately refused by the cynical actions of the misogynist jury. Likewise Nadia Boulanger, well-known as a professional teacher even then, who dared not only to challenge some of the tents of the competition itself, but also to earn an independent living to support her family, could not be countenanced by the jury as worthy of recognition by the Republic’s chief artistic body.
Lili Boulanger, on the other hand, frail and dependent, appealed directly to that conception of Republican femininity that the conservatives strove to uphold. Photos published of her made her seem unthreatening, even child-like; here was not an aggressive suffragette to burn the old order down, but a prodigious woman who could negotiate with, and work within, the restrictive confines of conservative gender roles. This went so far as her performance of the winning cantata: while Nadia Boulanger would go on to become one of the first women to conduct the world’s major orchestras, and was renowned as a conducting tutor, Lili instead almost refused to be seen to conduct at all. Throughout the performance she remained almost motionless: as one contemporary report put it:
“Her modest and simple bearing, her gaze cast down on the score, her immobility during the performance, her absolute abandonment to the will of her excellent interpreters–she did not allow herself even once to beat time or indicate a nuance-all this contributed to her cause.”
This acquiescence to the expected norms of Second-Republican femininity was much appreciated in the press, and vaunted as evidence of French sophistication at a time when social upheaval was sweeping Europe:
‘”The suffragettes smash windows and burn houses. But a maiden of France has gained a better victory.”
An understanding of the history of women’s attempts to win the Prix de Rome reveals that Lili Boulanger’s victory was far from the be all and end all of the aim to end sexism in “high art music’s” highest echelons. Comments made by some of the world’s best known conductors even within the past few years – a century after Lili Boulanger’s supposedly seminal victory – prove that the belief that women need to conform to a certain image and persona in order to be accepted as composers or conductors still persists. Lili Boulanger was a fantastically talented artist who skilfully negotiated the Académie’s regressive views on women’s emancipation, and her achievement and music deserve to be celebrated. But her victory in the Prix de Rome should not be taken as the end of the fight for official recognition. It was only the beginning.
Brooks, Jeanice, “Nadia Boulanger and the Salon of the Princesse de Polignac”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 46, No. 3 (Autumn, 1993) pp. 415-468
Brooks, Jeanice, “Noble et grande servante de la musique: Telling the Story of Nadia Boulanger’s Conducting Career”, The Journal of Musicology, Vol. 14, No. 1 (Winter, 1996), pp. 92-116
Fauser, Annegret, “”La Guerre en dentelles”: Women and the “Prix de Rome” in French Cultural Politics”, Journal of the American Musicological Society, Vol. 51, No. 3 (Spring, 1998) pp. 83-129
Palmer, Christopher, “Lili Boulanger, 1893-1918”, The Musical Times, Vo. 109, No. 1501 (Mar, 1968), pp. 227-228
Potter, Caroline, “Nadia and Lili Boulanger: Sister Composers”, The Musical Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 4 (Winter, 1999) pp. 536-556
Smith-Gonzalez, April Renée, Lili Boulanger (1893-1918): Her Life and Works, (Phd Thesis) (Boca Raton: Flordia Atlantic University, 2001)