Nadia Boulanger, piano teacher, composer and musical visionary
Educated as a pianist and composer, she focused on her life’s calling—that of being a musical visionary, teacher and pedagogue.
Her father Ernest Boulanger, was a respected composer and professor at the Paris Conservatory, her Russian mother, Raissa Myschetsky, was a remarkable singer. Nadia’s attitude towards music took an about-face when she was five years old. She payed more attention to the music around her and by the time she was twelve she had memorized Bach’s entire Well-Tempered Clavier.
Boulanger became a student at the Paris Conservatory in 1897, where she studied composition with the renowned composer Gabriel Fauré.
Boulanger’s Rue Ballu Paris apartment was her teaching studio, crammed full of furniture, pianos, photos, and memorabilia, much of it from her grandmother’s era. Although she dressed conservatively in black or grey, seemingly suspended in time, she was open-minded, ready to accept new ideas and concepts. Her home became a Mecca for students and musical luminaries. Weekly Wednesday afternoon Soirées offered her students the opportunity to mingle—Stravinsky, Paul Valéry, Igor Markevich, Eliot Carter, Walter Piston and others.
Intense focus was always on the music itself—“I have always preferred the word ‘transmit’ to ‘interpret’. It seems to take better account of the attitude necessary to those whose job it is to shed light on a work…A sublime interpretation is essentially one which makes me forget the composer, forget the interpreter, forget myself, forget everything except the masterpiece…I think the highest praise is to say that the supreme interpreter becomes invisible.”
Although Nadia focused most on her teaching, as a conductor she led many world premieres including of the works of Stravinsky, and Copland and featured the music of Monteverdi.
She became the first woman to conduct both the London Symphony and Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra. In 1938, she embarked on a long tour to the United States making her debut with the Boston Symphony, the first woman to do so, and to present over 100 lectures at prestigious colleges including Harvard, Radcliffe, Wellesley.