Nadia Boulanger


Portrait of Nadia Boulanger © Livingston Gearhart Collection,
Music Library University of Buffalo

Nadia Boulanger (1887 – 1979) was a French composer, conductor, and teacher who taught many of the leading composers and musicians of the 20th century. Her musical aesthetic was strongly influenced by her admiration for Igor Stravinsky. She is most remembered for her work as a teacher, which has influenced generations of young composers, especially those from the United States and other English-speaking countries. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct many major orchestras in America and Europe, including the BBC Symphony, Boston Symphony, Hallé, New York Philharmonic and Philadelphia orchestras. She conducted several world premieres, including works by Copland and Stravinsky.

Boulanger accepted pupils from any background; her only criteria was that they wanted to learn. She always claimed that she could not inspire creativity in her students and that she could only help them to become intelligent musicians who understood the craft of composition. She believed that the desire to learn, to better oneself, was all that was required to achieve – always provided the right amount of work was put in. She would refer people to Rameau (who wrote his first opera at fifty), Wojtowicz (who became a concert pianist at thirty-one), and Roussel (who had no professional access to music till he was twenty-five), to prove her point.

Many of her students went on to receive commissions from Louisville. They included Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and Elliott Carter.


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I was lucky to study with Mademoiselle Boulanger from 1975 to 1978.  She said so many things to me that have been etched indelibly in my memory for nearly 40 years.  In this time, when so many artists feel almost panicked to find their "originality," Mlle. Boulanger's words seem wiser than ever.  She said: "True personality in music (meaning, I believe, 'a composer's personal voice') is revealed through the deep knowledge of the personality of others."  This was her way of instructing young composers to know as deeply as possible the work of the great composers of both the distant and immediate past.  For her, knowing the work of a composer meant ideally the ability to play pieces from memory at the piano, just as she by the age of ten could play all 48 Preludes and Fugues from Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier from memory.