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Nadia Boulanger: ‘between intimidating and terrifying’

By MICHAEL JOHNSON – Perhaps enough time has passed since the death of the famous French pedagogue Nadia Boulanger to step back and question her musical sainthood. After all, she was only human.

Nadia Boulanger, as seen by the author, Michael Johnson

My elder musician friends recall her as a brilliant analyst of composition yet as a person tyrannical, impatient and cantankerous. Composer Philip Glass, who studied with her for two years, wrote that she tried to be kind but “stayed pretty much in the range between intimidating and terrifying”.

She was like a lot of piano teachers, one might add. Fanny Waterman used to crack the knuckles of her young students with a ruler if they missed a note or slowed a tempo.

Nadia, who died in Paris in 1979, moved in the best circles of 20th century music. Leonard Bernstein never studied with her but often visited her in Paris. On one occasion, when he was already established as a composer and conductor, he recalled being made to feel small when he played one of his compositions for her. She objected to a certain b-flat. “I am 58,” he recalled later, but suddenly “it was like I was a child …”

One musician friend of mine in Paris who studied with several of her students goes further, accuses her of “castrating” them (especially the males) by constant criticism and tedious exercises that had them “jumping through technical hoops for hours, years, on end”. Some of the exercises she wrote for her charges were “soul-destroying”, he says.

Nadia knew she had a mixed reputation and was comfortable with that. She maintained that musical training without rigor cannot be of value. Virgil Thomson wrote that she had a “no-nonsense approach to musical skills and a no-fooling-around treatment of anyone’s talent or vocation”. She once turned down a young girl applicant, exasperated, saying she would never find the patience to work with her. Fortunately, she added, her father was soon transferred to another country and the family left France.

I have just read an extraordinary collection of Nadia’s opinions and memories as assembled by Bruno Monsaingeon and published in 1980 as “Mademoiselle” (Editions Van de Valde). Long out of print, I found a dog-eared, mildewed French copy in a bookstall and have studied it minutely. It is a portrait of a complex lady who describes herself as “pitiless” in her treatment of students, adding that she was just as rough on herself.

Originally a composer, she said that “if there is one thing I am sure of … it is that my music is useless”. Some listeners today would agree while others don’t. In this clip, her blandness and lack of originality seem evident to me. She admitted that she realized early on that she “had absolutely nothing to say.” I think she had a point:

A student of Gabriel Fauré, Nadia gave up composition after the death of her beloved sister Lili, a more talented composer by all accounts. Lili died of an affliction now known as Crohn’s disease, at 22, exactly 100 years ago next week (March 15). Broken by Lili’s death, Nadia threw herself into teaching, inviting students from throughout the world to come to her Paris apartment. There she taught conducting, analysis, harmony, counterpoint and composition as well as piano performance.

Some of the most important musicians of the 20th century worked under her harsh regime: Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Pierre Schaffer, Igor Markevitch, John-Eliot Gardiner, Daniel Barenboïm, Dinu Lipatti and others. Her list of students has never been completed but I should add the jazz composers Quincy Jones and Donald Byrd. The list goes on – Jean Francaix, Roy Harris, Peter Hill, Ralph Kirkpatrick, Michel Legrand, Gian Carlo Menotti, Jeremy Menuhin, Emile Naoumoff, Soulima Stravinsky.

One of her discoveries, the Turkish-born Idil Biret, initially developed her prodigious talents under Nadia. A video of her playing Beethoven as a young girl survives:

Nadia was particularly critical of her American students who queued up to suffer under her rigorous demands. About 600 Americans took lessons from her in the 1920s to the 1970s. She found some of them brilliant but many, she said, lacked fundamentals or even a good ear. “The truth is that the study of the basics makes you understand that to be a good musician you must be a good grammarian.”

Conductor Igor Markevitch, who studied with her, recalled that she went out of her way to assert herself, even wearing a pince-nez to appear professorial. This, he said, helped her advance in a world then dominated by men.

She could be so harsh as to leave students stunned. Glass recalled in his recent autobiography “Words Without Music” that while recuperating after a group class studying Bach chorales, the students would sit down at a café for coffee or beer. The Boulanger experience, he remembered, “invariably left us shaken and silent”.

Confused by the contradictory opinions in the air today, I turned to one of my main interests, portraiture, to try to get a better feel for the person behind the mask. Portraits can afford the artist a good opportunity to study a subject up close. In her case, I found nothing but severity — a strong jaw, narrowed eyes, arched eyebrows, a hard, thin mouth, and body language that students such as Glass found intimidating. Watching her come to life on the page, I had to turn away. I felt fear. As a student, I would not have lasted an hour with her.

The Monsaingeon book is the most comprehensive account of Nadia’s views on music. He directed a television documentary on her 90th birthday and produced a book-length compilation of some fives years of meetings and conversations with her. For easy reading, he reordered the material as an interview – inserting questions among her monologues.

I have produced this edited and translated version of Monsaingeon’s work, capturing the most pertinent extracts for a modern audience.

Question: Aaron Copland described you as the most famous professor of composition alive…

Answer: Allow me to doubt the veracity of that statement. I believe a professor is dependent on the quality of the students. The professor’s role is less grand, less omnipotent, than one might think.

Q. When did you discover music?
A. As a child, I could not stand the sound of music. It almost made me sick. I screamed. My sobbing could be heard in the street. The piano was a monster that terrorized me. Then one day I heard a fire truck passing by, siren blaring, and I sat down and found those notes on the keyboard. Suddenly I had discovered music with a passion. I can still hear my father saying, “What a strange little girl we have here.”

Q. Your father was a French music professor and you mother was Russian?
A. Yes, my father was totally French and my mother Russian (Princess Michesky). We never spoke Russian in the home because she did not want the family language to be one that my father did not understand.

Q. Do you believe your Russian ancestry has been important for you?
A. It has been very important … but I do not like to talk about personal background. There is no point talking about me all day long because it would interest no one and certainly not me!

Q. Is it true that at the age of twelve you knew Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier by heart?
A. It was an obligation. I was instructed to learn one prelude and one fugue per week. But you know, let’s not exaggerate. One prelude and one fugue per week is not so much… After this kind of training, though, one has a good basis in mind

Q. It is said that you already had an encyclopedic knowledge of music when you began teaching.
A. You know, people say all kinds of things, few of which are true.

Q. How did you end up at the American Conservatory of Fontainebleau?
Walter Damrosch founded the school and Francis Casadesus was the first director. I was brought in to join the faculty. I spoke two words of English, “Hello” and “Goodbye”. My first student was Aaron Copland. After Casadesus, other directors followed, including Maurice Ravel, Charles-Marie Widor, and Robert Casasdesus whom I succeeded in 1946.

Q. I understand that the conservatory was founded after World War I for American troops but after the war, what happened?
A. The Fontainebleau school became very important for the Americans. They had brilliant schooling and were very gifted but they lacked fundamentals in many cases; their musical ear was underdeveloped and they had bypassed the everyday details of music education. Why? Because (it was believed) one must not overwork the children.

Q. What were your basics in the curriculum?
A.I had to insist on the fundamentals – hearing, looking, listening and seeing.

Q. You trained a large number of Americans. There must be hardly a city in North America that doesn’t have one of your students.
A. Yes indeed, I had a great number of American students. One must remember that fifty years ago there was no such thing as American music. An immense change has happened since – Monsieur Copland, Monsieur Bernstein – their works are performed all over the world. The term “American musician” is no longer something unusual.

Q. Didn’t you bring Aaron Copland to the attention of the American public?
A. Yes, in September 1938 I encouraged Walter Damrosch and Serge Koussevitzky to program his Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. Damrosch conducted it in Boston (in 1938) and was probably disturbed by the modernity of it. He turned to the audience as said, “Ladies and gentlemen, if a man of 23 can compose such a work, he will be capable by the age of 30 of murdering his own parents.” He was laughing but he was serious too. Naturally there was a reaction and agitation among the public but Copland’s reputation was made.

Q. Music goes through phases of popularity. Is this a problem?
A. I am tormented by the phenomenon of fashion in music. Since I am an old fusspot, I don’t much like change. Of course change for reasons of necessity can be marvelous but change because one does not know where to go next is fatal and destructive.

Q. What about new voices in music?
A. Rather than deepening one’s understanding, we see too many people chasing discoveries as an end in itself — finding that unknown masterpiece at any cost. The less these people understand, the more enthusiastic they are. I recently heard a piece that made me wonder if the composer was ill, on drugs, or victim or a serous mental disorder.

Q. How important is music in your life?
A. I am an absolutely mad consumer of music. I call it a sickness because even when I am exhausted after eight or nine hours of teaching my first move – to the annoyance of the household – is to switch on the radio and listen. I am insatiable. I love listening (to music).

Q. You say you can appreciate the good and bad elements of a work. What are your criteria for a masterpiece?
A. I have no idea. I don’t say they don’t exist but I have no idea.

Q. And yet listening to a masterpiece you seem to be certain of your judgment.
A. It comes down to faith, to belief. Just as I accept the existence of God, I accept beauty, I accept emotion and I accept a masterpiece… Exactly what makes up a masterpiece escapes me… I can analyze anything. But a page, a line, a measure of Schubert, I have no idea.

Q. How much training is necessary to appreciate great music?
A. One can be totally without training and yet feel the senses penetrated by melodic emotion – this is perfectly respectable.

Q. How do you balance rigor and creative freedom?
A. I hope my teaching has influenced students to appreciate the need for rigor, for order. But in the area of style, I have never intended to exert any influence. If I am working with a foreigner and I try to make him or her into a French person I am sure to fail.

Q. Why does the concept of rubato seem such a danger to you?
A. There are some faults one should never commit – such as changing tempos. For what gives a piece of music its unity, its essential character, its common denominator? It’s the general pulsation. Rubato as applied by a serious musician does not interrupt the unity of pulsation.

Q. Isn’t it possible to list composers in a hierarchy of importance?
A. The seems very difficult to me.

Q. Still, one could rank Beethoven against Max Bruch, for example…
A. There you are falling into the abyss. You compare the Himalayas with Butte Montmartre. Really, I must say that I honestly almost never think about Max Bruch whereas hardly a day passes that I don’t think about Beethoven.

Q. How would you sum up your role as a professor?
A. I know my job. I am someone who can help students acquire a basic technique, to listen, to hear, to transpose, to practice, to memorize. The role of the professor seems to me to be modest.

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Find all Michael Johnson’s articles at www.Factsandarts.com 

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