Nadia Boulanger — Teacher of the Century

Picture of Nadia Boulanger In the forty years that have passed since I first met Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau in the summer of 1960, I have continued to be astonished at her penetrating and far reaching influence on music today. Our styles in pedagogy, our techniques in composition and the computer as a notation master have all changed and modified the way we connect composition with performance. Nadia Boulanger and her remarkable lifetime of 93 years still can direct students of future generations to the remarkable pedagogy necessary for skill development and brilliance in this century.

"One can never train a child carefully enough. If you take general education, one learns to recognize color, to recognize words, but not to recognize sound. So the eyes are trained, but the ears very little. This is not because someone taught me that red is not blue that I pretended to become a painter. But most people hear nothing because their ears have never been trained and many musicians hear very badly and very little."

Boulanger wrote this during an interview for the music journal in 1970. Based on the well-known quotation of Debussy, "The dissonance of today is the consonance of tomorrow." Boulanger was a slave master of sonic precision. She insisted the muscles of the ear and the focus of the mind be so acutely developed that intervals, rhythmic patterns and harmonic progressions be ingrained deeply, not only within the conscious mind, but within deep memories of music heard for throughout a lifetime.

Born into family of musicians, Nadia, as well as her sister Lili, were the flowers of four generations in the French Conservatory. Born on September 16, 1887, her father’s seventy-second birthday, she became a musical phenomenon. Sound was far too potent for her young ears and it was not until she was five years old that she was able to withstand most musical experiences. One day, while a fire engine passed her apartment in Paris, screaming under the piano with her hands covering her ears, she suddenly got up and touched the same note on the piano keyboard. From that day forward, she stayed at the piano and recognized unison sounds that came from life that she could put into music. By the time she was in her early twenties, she had one most of the first prizes at the Paris Conservatory and the grand second prize of the Grande Prix de Rome.

Her younger sister, Lili, a brilliant visionary within the impressionist style, became the first woman to ever receive the Grande Prix de Rome. Lili died on March 15, 1918 at the age of twenty-four. Nadia declared at that time she would never compose again and began her extraordinary journey as mentor to young composers and performers until 1979 when she died at age 93 in Fontainebleau.

It was at the first session of the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau in 1921 that Boulanger began to become an astonishing teacher who began to remember every chord progression in Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and how they relate to modern music. In her long career, her musical examples were so vast, it was as if a whole concordance of western harmonics and tonality was at her fingertips. In preparing my book, Master Teacher Nadia Boulanger, (Pastoral Press 1983) I remember one student telling me the amazing story of how, in her own compositions, after Nadia looked at the score for a few seconds, said "My dear, these measures have the same harmonic progression as Bach’s F Major Prelude and Chopin’s F Major Ballad. Can you not come up with something new and interesting?"

As a thirteen year-old, I entered a world of solfege, counterpoint and keyboard harmony and it was all brilliantly advanced and I knew no better than to dive into the remarkable world of attentive listening, rigor and focus. At one of our first lessons, I recall her telling me, "Don, you are so young and now everything will be so easy for you. Can you memorize one measure a day?" I responded "Yes, of course." She said "Good, you can be my student. Today we begin with this first measure" and she opened the Well Tempered Clavier, Book one. I played the simple C Major prelude. I thought "Oh, music will be a cinch!" Needless to say, every thirty days or so, my mind was racked with challenge. I did not pass her high expectations, yet in two years, I realized how much one could learn with just a measure a day.

Don Campbell, 2002

©2009 Boulanger America.
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