Mar 9th 2018

Nadia Boulanger: ‘between intimidating and terrifying’

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”

 here.

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. 

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 …” 

Nadia Boulanger, as seen by the author, Michael Johnson

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.

Copland’s piece seems tame by today’s standards.

 

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.

 

END

 


This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.

 

 

Browse articles by author

More Music Reviews

Aug 6th 2020
EXTRACT: "For 60 minutes, my mind was clear, the air was clean and the sound heavenly. It was my honor and privilege to have been there."
Jul 25th 2020
EXTRACT: "Scarlatti sonatas are enjoying a popular surge in recent years, tempting pianists –Europeans, Americans, Asians -- to try to master their broad range. Margherita has some advice: “Don’t be afraid to slow down, to speed up, to play the truly singable melodies with a quasi-Romantic feeling.” "
Jul 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The dizzying output of John Cage the musician, the poet, the writer, the thinker, the artist, was so prolific that one of his sidelines – his interests in wild mushrooms -- has been almost overlooked. A new a two-volume set of books, beautifully designed by Capucine Labarthe, packaged in an elegant slipcover, seeks to fill this gap."
Jul 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "In our chat by telephone, Paley spoke from his Paris apartment and asserted his belief that Rameau was “the greatest French composer ever. Pure genius and very special colors.” He acknowledges his extensive research into the period of Rameau’s life (1683-1764) in order to recreate the spirit of the time."
Jul 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "In A Fistful of Dollars (1964) and subsequent films, Morricone opted for an unprecedented fusion of archaic-sounding lines in the melody, reminiscent of medieval modal music. He intermixed this sound with contemporary pop touches (the Fender electric guitar), wordless choirs, unusual instruments (Jew’s harp, ocarinas, mariachi trumpets…) and ambient sounds (whip cracks, whistles, gunshot, coyote’s howls). He also infused scores with his trademark humour. This can be heard in the comedy western Il Mio Nome è Nessuno (My Name is Nobody, Tonino Valerii, 1973) where a toy trumpet toots bits of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries."
Jul 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: Are you collaborating with living composers? Answer: Yes, Scott Wollschleger sends me unfinished new works every month. Keeril Makan is working on a piano concerto. Melaine Dalibert has dedicated several recent works to me. There are more names on the horizon. But these are the three where I feel I can have a big impact on their careers, and all three write music that I feel born to play. That combination of things is important to me."
Jun 1st 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: How do you see your musical mission today? Answer: My real passion in music is to resist popularity rankings and market forces. In my view, these currents impoverish our cultural richness........."
May 1st 2020
EXTRACT: Alessandro Deljavan: "I bought a former convent 40 kilometers from Pescara, in Villamagna. It's very important for me to breathe clean air and live as simply as possible. Life in a giant city full of cars and smog is hard for me to imagine. My perspective is always to live fully. My aspirations for the best musical experiences guides my decisions and over the past several years I have had the pleasure of meeting and working with some wonderful musicians—these experiences have brought me a sense of optimism for what might lie ahead.”
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Federico Mompou, the reclusive Catalonian composer whose calm, spare piano writing is currently enjoying a rebirth, might well look askance at any effort to pull him forward into modern mode. Such was never his genre but that’s precisely what one of his ardent admirers, pianist Maria Canyigueral, proposed to do. The result is her intriguing new CD, Avant-guarding Mompou."
Mar 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "In our interview, Prof. Réach says he cautions his students in Barcelona to approach the Variations with care, warning them “the path will be long and will require great patience”. He has personally overcome his fear of this “masterpiece of masterpieces”, having recorded them three times and performed them in about 15 countries a total of about 150 times."
Mar 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "The 88-key piano looks headed for a major transformation in the coming decades. The mechanism under the lid is based on a 130-year-old design and many specialists believe it is time to dispense with those delicate moving parts.  As innovative Australian piano builder Wayne Stuart says, “The piano has been crying out for a rethink for over a hundred years.” "
Mar 8th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have a Paris background. What do you bring to Granados to ensure Spanish flavor? Delicacy? Momentum? Singing and dancing undertones? Rubato?........Answer: First, I am profoundly European........."
Feb 15th 2020
EXTRACT: "Question: You have said that you are plagued by doubts. Is this true?.........Answer: Of course I am plagued by doubts. This is part of the artist’s life. But I continue to work and perform. I have moments of depression but I try to transform these doubts into positives. Many artists have these doubts. Some don’t talk about it. But doubt is always there."
Jan 26th 2020
EXTRACT: "QUESTION: Wouldn’t young composers of today benefit from aligning themselves with a philosophical ethos in order to find their musical voice -- as opposed to trying merely to find their own voice by drawing on imagination or personal experience?.......... ANSWER: It’s an interesting question, but open to interpretation. My impulse is to answer yes. When young I did a tremendous amount of reading in the history of aesthetics, and as a result my sense of artist -- ethos, necessity, whatever -- is not limited to post-WWII influences. One result is that I’ve never had any patience for the late-20th-century idea that art is about “personal expression.” The ancient and more enduring view is that the artist expresses what is out there to be expressed. As T.S. Eliot admirably wrote, art is an escape from personality, not an expression of it. Likewise I’ve never warmed to the idea of “finding one’s voice,” which sounds to me too much like creating an instantly recognizable trademark style that will make your music easier to market commercially."
Jan 19th 2020
EXTRACT: "It has been a long journey I enjoy re-living as I take note this year of the great Ludwig van Beethoven’s 250th birthday. As a practicing music critic and journalist from American corn country, I call myself a hick hack but I experience meltdown at almost everything the great man wrote. How can one not love Beethoven?"
Jan 9th 2020
EXTRACT: "Judith Juaregui, based in Madrid but peripatetic in her concertizing around Europe, is gaining an international audience of admirers, boosted by the brilliant pianistic colors of her Debussy, Liszt, Falla, Chopin and Mompou in her fifth CD, “Pour le Tombeau de Claude Debussy”, just out. This album was recorded at a recital in Vienna last year, her first foray into live recording, and she is  rather pleased with the result, which, she says in our interview (below), captured a “moment of honesty”. She left everything in, including the vigorous applause from the audience."
Dec 11th 2019
EXTRACTS: "The young tousle-haired pianist from the distant Minnesota, Reed Tetzloff, is building a performance career in the U.S. and Europe by steering a course through rare repertoire that is both challenging and attractive for the listener........In our email question-and-answer discussion he explains his priorities as a musician and his attraction to a wide range of repertoire."
Dec 9th 2019
Extract: "Then the house lights came up and the rest of us rushed out, relieved that it was all over."
Nov 15th 2019
Extract: "Question: Mompou was modest, yet one of his famous comments is similar to Handel’s remark that he was writing down what God dictated. Mompou said he did not think up music, he simply transmitted it. Answer: The Mompou’s idea about God was interesting. God was a great force that also could destroy his own creation, like a child who in a moment of joy treads on an ant without noticing. Mompou explained that, in his case, the music was not coming from inside to outside, but the opposite way, from outside to the inside, with him being the intermediary of this flow, as a kind of medium. Mompou felt embarrassed to be called on stage after a performance of his music. He was convinced that if the work was really good, it was not entirely created by himself. 
Oct 27th 2019
Composer Kyle Gann’s new book ‘The Arithmetic of Listening’ analyzes microtonality and makes a plea for the music fraternity to open its ears to the new directions possible. After 22 years of teaching at Bard College in the eastern United States, Gann has become a guru or godfather of new music, and continues to produce captivating compositions, as in his new two-CD album ‘Hyperchromatica’. His latest book analyzes and explains tuning theory. In this interview he asserts that new music that gets the attention of publishers and producers today is mostly “derivative crap”. The golden age of “downtown” music from 1960 to 2000 assembled “a bunch of escapees from the twin hells of academia and corporate commercialism”.