Evocation of Nadia Boulanger

Delivered at the Symposium in Memory of her 25th Anniversary
October 8, 2004
The University of Colorado at Boulder
By the Reverend Edward J. McKenna


When I was earning my Master's Degree in Music Composition at the University of Chicago over three decades ago, I heard much from my teacher of Mlle Nadia Boulanger. He had been a student of hers in the early 1950's, and spoke of her abilities in music in an almost exalted way. She had helped him win the Koussevitzky Prize with his first symphony. I made my way to Paris in February, 1973, and was surprised to be received in her studio. She listened to the second movement of my Violin Concerto, just completed, and said dryly: "Mon Pere, your piece is well-crafted, but its harmony is irresolute. You are a priest of the Church, are you not? We look to you for answers, for resolve! There is enough inquietude in the world." You see her former student had wandered into the free fall off post-Schoenbergian confusion. Then Nadia invited me to study with her.

It took my Mothers' sudden death from cancer in June, 1975 to make the decision. I had written her earlier in that year about arrangements to come to Paris in the fall. I received a note of welcome from her dated June 15th, the day of my Mother's death. I knew it was a sign, and when I arrived at the opening soiree in October, another personal note was handed to me: "Your studies with me will be in memory of your Mother." That at the first lesson, a further intimation: "I will be your Mother for now." She then spoke the familiar words of her dedication to her Mother, and her sister, Lili.

One day much later in 1976, she asked if I were able to say the Mass for her in the apartment, as she could no longer make the trip to Trinite, and manage its steps on Sunday. So each Tuesday, I would be the last pupil of the day, and Annette Dieudonné, that God-given friend to Nadia and us, would guide me into the bedroom of the apartment and on a small table with two lit candle I would prepare the bread and wine, the Body and blood of Christ, for Nadia's Eucharist of thanks. Often there was barely enough illumination to read the French missal, but her face at communion was suffused with bright light. For her, priesthood and the art of music were one: she understood like few bishops, the meaning of the Incarnate God.

Paris was a lonely place; I lived with the Lazaristes, the poor followers of St. Vincent DePaul, on the Rue de Sevres, where I made my first entrée into the incredible culture of France. The Palais Garnier, quatrieme cote, the Theatre Champs-Elysée, and the countless musees! Amid the pronouncedly secular, even atheistic attitudes, there existed the Catholic Christian signs and symbols. I was enthralled by trips to Chartres cathedral, and renewed my prayers with all the myriad chapels and churches from the beloved chants of "moyen age" to the avant-garde liturgies of St. Severin and Pere Gelineau, the musical genie of Institut Catholique. And there were secret visits to Messiaen's cours de composition replete with expositions of his rare music, and incomprehensible lectures of Boulex and Xenakis. Yet it was Nadia alone who understood my inquietude, even youth. Like an anchor, she was pulling me away from the tidal waves of novelty into the clear waters of eternal harmony. And as we danced the rigor of music, even in her ninth decade, one noted how she loved the world, and was reluctant to embark from its shore. Once, I had to gently pull Yehudi away from her, as he lamented her aging. One day, a long pause at the end of the lesson: I heard the tiny clock ticking, next to Lili's deathbed photo on the piano. I remarked how Lili's pose reminded me of the last photo of St. Therese of Lisieux. "Had you known my sister, mon Pere," intoned Boulanger, you would have known a saint."

In 1979, two years since I had been with her, I returned for an October vacation. I had heard of her advancing weakness, and reluctant retirement from Mlle Dieudonné. I called at Place Lili-Boulanger to see her. Leonard Bernstein had been there just a week before and she had said that final phrase to him: "J'ecoute la musique sans commencement ni fine." For me, the greeting was wordless; she seemed to be already in the Kingdom. Her ears, though, were alert to my final Apostolic Blessing. Her sightless eyes smiled. "Did you give her the particle, the element?" asked the composer of "Mass" after a Chicago concert years later. "To Father McKenna, in memory of Nadia," L.B. signed on my program.

At Église Trinité a few days later, I concelebrated the Requiem Mass with the Cure and the distinguished Dominican, Pere Carré of the French Academie, eulogist. He mentioned her "esprit genial" and "universalite" and in that context, mentioned amongst the concelebrant priests, an American student. As we left the sanctuary with the incomparable music of her sister's and friend's, with the Parisian musicians in attendance or leaving bouquets in abundance, the names, Copland, Carter, Curzon, Menuhin, Barenboim, etc., it was one gloved hand in the first row that warmly reached out: "Thank you for coming from America, father. We loved her very much, "said Princess Grace de Monaco. It began a brief, unforgettable friendship.

The pastor was hard-pressed, so I alone among the clergy went to do the interment at cimitiere Montmartre. I rode in the elegant coach with Mlle Dieudonné and the closest friends. It seemed forever whisking her one last time through Parisian streets and Place de Clichy. When we alighted it was, of course, in a gentle rain. I had no ritual with me; so in a grand mélange of Latin, French and English, I committed her body to the tomb, and could see her Mother's casket, atop Lili's, and way down, Ernest's. The legacy is enormous: From crusty centenarians to your Emile Naumoff's tears, two generations of musicians lay in peace, stretching from 1815 to the end of the 20th century: they were altogether, at long last, awaiting the glorious promise of the coming of the Lord of Life, of Beauty ever ancient, and ever new.


©2004 Rev. Edward J. McKenna

©2009 Boulanger America.
Queries to info@NadiaBoulanger.org