Learning to Listen: Nadia Boulanger

by Emily Reese, Minnesota Public Radio
September 16, 2013

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Who says it has to be a nice round number to celebrate the anniversary of someone's birth? Today we celebrate the 126th birthday of Nadia Boulanger.

Boulanger was born in the late 19th century and lived to the ripe old age of 92, passing away in 1979. As one of the most famous composition teachers in music history, this French woman was responsible for training hundreds of composers.

We'll hear from Boulanger's students in a bit, but first, let's listen to one of Boulanger's compositions. This piece, Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, sounds very French, which means it's very ambient and flowing.

Boulanger was a composition teacher, a lecturer, a conductor and a soloist.

One of her first American students was Aaron Copland. He started studying with her in 1921, and in order to demonstrate his ability, he played this original piano piece, Three Pieces for Piano, so that she could assess whether or not to accept him as a student.

She did accept him, and Copland learned a lot from her. He gained respect for master composers such as Monteverdi and Bach, and for newer composers like Ravel.

Boulanger helped Copland gain a greater understanding of orchestration, score-reading, analysis and arrangement.

To honor Nadia Boulanger's first visit to America in 1924, a conductor commissioned a work from Copland. The resulting work was Copland's Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.

Interestingly enough, Boulanger taught many American composers. This was due in large part to her teaching post at an American music school in France, appropriately called the American School.

Boulanger was incredibly knowledgeable about the history of music. This proved to be highly beneficial for her students — particularly Virgil Thomson, another American composer.

Thomson was a neoclassicist, which means that he liked to experiment with older styles of music. He also enjoyed mixing styles, or even alluding to older forms in newer music.

Symphony on a Hymn Tune is a piece by Virgil Thomson, another famous student of legendary pedagogue Nadia Boulanger. Although the radio program includes that piece, here is another example of Thomson's composition, his String Quartet No.2, written in 1932:

Boulanger worked with many students from around the globe, and we'll hear from some of those famous students in a bit. But before we move on, let's hear from another American composer you may recognize.

Philip Glass studied with Boulanger in the 1960s — remember, Boulanger lived to be 92 years old, so she had many students. Philip Glass won a Fulbright scholarship in 1964 and went straight to Paris to study with Boulanger.

Glass is best known as a minimalist, and the first minimalist piece he wrote in Paris was for Samuel Beckett's Play. He also wrote his first string quartet in Paris. It's crunchy music, and you will hear how minimalist it is — it is filled with repetition of rhythms and patterns.

Here is a sample of the second movement of Glass's String Quartet No. 1, written while he was studying with Nadia Boulanger in Paris.

Roy Harris was another one of Boulanger's many American students.

Harris didn't really have any formal training until he was in his late 20s. He learned a lot from Nadia Boulanger, in particular an appreciation for music by Bach and Mozart.

Nadia called him her "autodidact" because he refused to study anything he didn't want to learn.

In fact, Harris loved studying chant music — really ancient music — and his Symphony No. 3 is a reflection of that.

Boulanger always tried to get Harris to write with structure, but he thought formality didn't allow for creativity.

Boulanger influenced others as well — like French composer Jean Françaix.

She taught Françaix piano lessons and composition, and she often premiered many of his early works at social events that she hosted.

In the 1950s, Boulanger helped Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla hone his craft; at the time, Piazzolla wanted to be a traditional classical composer. After playing several of his original pieces for Boulanger — including some of his tango music — Boulanger told him that his tangos were were amazing, and that he should stick with them! So he did.

Nadia Boulanger was a force in classical music, and when word got out that Piazzolla had studied with her, the tango quickly became more than just a dance. In Piazzolla's homeland of Argentina, it quickly became a serious musical form.

Learning to Listen — a new series from Classical MPR, hosted by Emily Reese — is an hour of music devoted to exploring classical music for learning and appreciation. Each week we'll take a topic, a composer, an era, a genre or a single piece and learn more about it — and then we'll listen.

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