History Hunt: Lili Boulanger

Apologies for missing last week’s History Hunt post, everyone! It was my last week of lessons and I had a fair bit of work to wrap up. Because of that, I hope to post two History Hunt biographies this week–fingers crossed!

For my first post this week, then, we’re moving back in time thirty years and off to France to learn about a composer who shone brightly for a far too short period of time.

Juliette-Marie Olga Boulanger (nicknamed “Lili”) was born in Paris, France, on August 21, 1893. Her family was an extremely musical one, with composers, teachers, and artists in her family tree. Her mother, who claimed to be a Russian princess (although whether she was,  or if she was a countess or something else entirely is unclear), was a singer who had met Boulanger’s father when she took lessons from him later in life.

Unfortunately, when Boulanger was only two years old, she caught pneumonia. Like many illnesses, this wasn’t nearly as easy to treat as it is today, and so she nearly died. Though she survived, her illness left her much more susceptible to sickness, and she spent a lot of her life ill.

However, even as a little girl, Boulanger was determined to get the most out of life that she could. Her first teacher was her older sister Nadia (who will be a future History Hunt feature!), and she also learned from the famous composers that often visited the Boulanger household. She started tagging along to her older sister’s classes at the Paris Conservatory when she was five; by the time she was six, she was sight-reading music written by the famous French composer Gabriel Fauré! She learned not only how to sing, but how to play the piano, the harp, and the violin. Her first public performance on the violin was when she was eight, and she was eleven when she participated in her first piano recital.

When Boulanger was sixteen, she was at last able to properly join the Paris Conservatory. There, she took multiple composition classes. As a teenager, while Boulanger was of course dedicated to music and composition, she was also, like many her age, dedicated to having fun. She would often write in her diaries about who went to the various musical events and dinners she attended and how many people were there, with clear pleasure.

In 1911, Boulanger’s older sister, Nadia, once again became one of her teachers, this time for composition. A year later, Boulanger made an important decision: she was going to win the Prix de Rome (“Roman Prize”). In order to do so, she would need to work very hard indeed–in over one hundred years since the musical category of the Prix de Rome had been created, not one woman had won first prize. Boulanger, however, was convinced that she would be the first.

For the next year, she worked as hard as she could. In her diary, she wrote about being sick very often and even missing sleep as she worked on her composition. She studied for and passed the exam to the class that would allow her to enter the Prix de Rome. At the same time, though, she made sure to take breaks and enjoy herself, going out dancing, to concerts (where, for the first time, her compositions were performed), and to dinner.

Sadly, while Boulanger entered the Prix de Rome competition in 1912, she became too ill to participate and had to drop out. Still, Boulanger didn’t give up. She entered the contest again the next year, in 1913–and won! For the first time since the musical contest began 1803, a woman had placed first in the Prix de Rome. And, not only that, she was (and still is!) one of the youngest composers of any gender to win, at only 19 years old.

As part of her prize, Boulanger was awarded a publishing contract and she and her family were allowed to stay at the Villa Medici in Rome, Italy. Unfortunately, her visit was cut short when, in 1914, World War I began. She returned to France and instead stayed in Nice for a while to compose, before going home to Paris. She and her sister wanted very much to help out their fellow musicians off fighting in the war. So together they helped create a committee of French and American volunteers to send care packages to their friends on the front lines and money to both soldiers and their relatives back home. Boulanger also helped care for wounded soldiers who had been sent away from the war front to recover, and she even edited a publication on recent composition lessons taught at the Paris Conservatory to send out to musicians so they could keep up their studies.

Though her wartime work kept her very busy and she was often sick, Boulanger kept on composing. In 1916, she started work on an opera called La princesse Maleine (“Princess Maleine”), and she visited the Villa Medici again for a time. She even started to experiment with new composition techniques.

Sadly, Boulanger died in 1918, when she was only twenty-four. Even still, she kept composing to the very end: her last work was dictated to Nadia when Boulanger was too ill to write herself.

For the rest of her life, Nadia did her best to make sure her younger sister wasn’t forgotten. She founded The Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, which awards money to help talented composers and musicians. There’s now a Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Centre, created from the merger between the Friends of Lili Boulanger Association and the Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Foundation. And, in 1927, nine years after Boulanger’s death, she had an asteroid named in her honour, 1181 Lilith. Lili Boulanger may be gone, but as long as we keep working hard, she won’t be forgotten.

Listen below to Boulanger’s Hymne au soleil (Hymn to the Sun), an extremely powerful vocal work she wrote when she was 19.

If you’re enjoying the History Hunt series, why not drop me a tip or subscribe to me at Patreon? History Hunt will always be free–this is just an option for my readers to show their appreciation.

To Learn More (Sources):
Nadia and Lili Boulanger by Dr. Caroline Potter
Lili Boulanger at Naxos.com
Lili Boulanger at BBC Music
Boulanger Lili [Juliette-Marie Olga] at Musicologie.org (French)
Lili Boulanger at Sinfini Music
Lili Boulanger at Hyperion Records
Lili Boulanger at France Musique (French)
History at Centre International Nadia et Lili Boulanger (English and French)
The Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund at the University of Massachusetts Boston
Lili Boulanger at Wikipedia.org
Prix de Rome at Wikipedia.org
Villa Medici at Wikipedia.org



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