MUSING: Voice of America

October 16 marks the 25th anniversary of the death of Nadia Boulanger. I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to the event, except that I happen to serve on the advisory board of the University of Colorado's American Music research center. The AMRC is presenting a memorial symposium on "Nadia Boulanger and American Music," October 7-9, in Boulder. When we began to put the conference schedule together. I as amazed at the loyalty and affection shown by members of the "Boulangerie," as the musicians who studied at her American Conservatory in Fontainebleau call themselves. Elliott Carter, Robert Levin, Ned Rorem, Gillian Weir and other notables were delighted, even eager, to serve on our honorary committee. Proposals for papers and performances came in from all over the world. David Conte, Jay Gottlieb, Noél Lee, Frances Nobert, Vivian Perlis, Daniel Pinkham, Thérésa Casadesus Rawson, and many others signed up to perform or speak without much compensation for their troubles.

It seems the disciples of "Mademoiselle" are everywhere. One of them, Virgil Thomson, said in 1960, with his usual droll wit, "She was a one-woman graduate school, so powerful and so permeating that legend credits every United States town with two things: a five-and-dime and a Boulanger pupil. The five-and-dimes are long gone, of course, but not so the "Boulangerie." How could one teacher exert such a hold on musicians an ocean away, even a quarter-century after her death?

We organists will get some answers from back-to-back panel discussions scheduled for Monday, July 5, at the 2004 AGO national Convention in Los Angeles. The moderator will be Don Campbell, a Denver AGO Chapter member who is honorary chairman of the Boulder symposium, as well as author of The Mozart Effect and a valuable little book called Master Teacher: Nadia Boulanger. Conte, Nobert, and Gerre Hancock will also participate. In addition, a commissioned Prelude and Fugue by Conte will be premiered by organist Ken Cowan. Conte, the San Francisco composer, who studied at Fontainebleau from 1975-1978, chose the form as a tribute to Boulanger, for whom The Well Tempered Clavier was the cornerstone of her teaching.

Choral and organ music will also be prominently featured at the AMRC symposium: Elizabeth Farr will perform Conte’s piece in an evening concert on the newly restored Austin-Morel organ at St. John's Episcopal Church in Boulder. (For more details and registration information, visit or e-mail AMRC Director Thomas Riis at Let's not forget that Boulanger was herself an organist. Aaron Copland wrote his breakthrough piece, an organ symphony, for her to perform on an American tour. Walter Damrosch, then conductor of the New York Philharmonic proclaimed to the audience, "If a young man, at the age of 23 can write a symphony like that, in five years he will be ready to commit murder!" The rest, as they say, is American music history.

As Rorem wrote in 1991, "Boulanger, herself French to the bone, singlehandedly inspired what has come to be the American Sound by, on the one hand, stressing dépouilelment-the shedding of extraneous Teutonic flab—and on the other, admonishing her Yankee flock to exploit home grown products." The list of her American composition students ranges from George Antheil, Marc Blitzstein, David Diamond, Philip Glass, Roy Harris, Quincy Jones to Walter Piston, Louise Talma, George Walker, and Roger Sessions, to name but a few. I challenge anyone to discern a uniform style among these composers, but try to imagine American music in the 20th century without them.

"She offered Americans a template for training composers," Conte believes. "She would say "Composer are born and then made." But her training was on such a rigorous and thorough level that you couldn't stay with her for long."

"Those students who could endure her laser focus," adds Campbell, "truly began to build new structures in American music. Also, remember all the students she had who were not great composers, but were great teachers. They're the invisible ones." "She imposed a certain level of musicianship on whatever you did after that," says Conte. But to Campbell, "Her abilities were beyond musicianship. She had a magnetic presence that insisted that you listen with much more rigor and acuity than anyone else could demand. It was not the quality of music, but the quality of mentorship."

The gift of this French woman to America, then, was the ability and the confidence to hear our own voice—not a way of composing, but in Campbell's words "a way of listening." Perhaps, the AMRC conference title is not strong enough. Instead of "Nadia Boulanger and American Music," maybe it should be "Nadia Boulanger was American Music."

DAVID VOGELS Copyright ©2004 by the American Guild of Organists.
Reprinted by permission of The American Organist Magazine.

©2009 Boulanger America.
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