Nadia Boulanger, or: Teaching as a Relationship
“I was accustomed to say that the composer must look far ahead into the future of his music. This seems to me to be the male train of thought: thinking at once of the whole future, of the entire fate of the idea, and preparing himself in advance for every possible eventuality. This is the manner in which a man builds his house, orders his affairs and arms himself for his wars. The other is the woman’s way of looking at the world, using good powers of judgement to address the immediate consequences of a problem, while failing to allow for more distant events. This is the approach of the seamstress, who could work with the most luxurious fabric, without thinking about how long it will last, provided it achieves the desired effect at the present moment. It need last no longer than the fashion. This is the approach of the kind of cook who prepares a salad without asking herself whether all the ingredients are right and go together well, whether they combine satisfactorily. A French sauce - or perhaps a Franco-Russian one - is poured over it and so everything is blended. Composing to such directions is consequently nothing but the production of a certain style.” (Der Segen der Sauce, p. 150)
Arnold Schoenberg directed his 1948 polemic against an unknown person of the feminine gender. He undoubtedly meant Nadia Boulanger. There were no other female teachers of composition at that time, her ancestry was Franco-Russian, and her work with Schoenberg’s polar opposite, Igor Stravinsky, was Franco-Russian too.
More than seventy years have passed since Schoenberg's chauvinist pronouncement, and the question of what can be considered innovative and what not, and by what standards, is differently worded today. And the assessment of the various forms of music associated with Nadia Boulanger will vary with one’s aesthetic standpoint.
The name of Nadia Boulanger is linked in the history of music with neoclassicism and in particular with Igor Stravinsky. A glance at her student lists will nevertheless be sufficient to show that in her sixty years and more as a teacher, she gave instruction to pupils of very different backgrounds. Her student body was decidedly international and covered a wide spectrum of styles, from the works of a champion of American modernism, Elliott Carter, by way of the “practical music” of Aaron Copland and his like to the tangos of Astor Piazzolla, from the musique concrète of Pierre Schaeffer by way of the neoclassicist style of Jean Francaix to the pop music of Quincy Jones and the film scores of Michel Legrand. She taught many women too, among them the Turkish composer Idil Biret, the Englishwoman Thea Musgrave, the American Marion Bauer and the Pole Grazyna Bacewicz. There is thus no justification for talking of a Boulanger school in the sense of a particular style. There was the term “Boulangerie”, an affectionately ironic play on words to describe pupils and friends of Nadia Boulanger, but it is a term that suggests a particular spirit, rather than a style.
The source material on her teaching is mostly drawn from a rich fund of reminiscences: numerous pupils, along with friends such as Leonard Bernstein or Yehudi Menuhin, have sought to describe what actually made Nadia Boulanger capable of pointing the way forward over many decades to young musicians from all over the world. This is both a question of her extensive knowledge, her incomparable ear for music (Yehudi Menuhin) and the way she “thought in notes” (Igor Markevich), and a matter of her enthousiasme and rigueur (Paul Valéry), a “special blend of energy and attention” (Antoine Terrasse) and “French intellect and Russian soul” (Yehudi Menuhin). Common to all who gave such testimony is the fact that they are describing the personality of their teacher rather than the conduct of her lessons, as noted by Lennox Berkeley, one of Nadia Boulanger’s first English pupils in the 1920s:
“I have often been asked how the fame of Nadia Boulanger as a teacher is to be explained, how she could have enjoyed so much success in leading young composers to their own musical language and what methods she used. I would say that she never used a particular method; other than the conventional instruction in harmony, counterpoint and instrumentation. She distrusted all musical systems. In fact it was the force of her personality and the example that she set with her life, which was totally concentrated on music, that exerted such an uplifting influence. She inspired us, she conveyed to us an awareness of the necessity to form a compositional technique of one’s own, for which no effort was too great. Apart from that, she insisted upon a knowledge of past composers, and on this basis she helped us to develop a sense of form. Her lessons in analysis were memorable […].” (Mademoiselle, p. 124)
Nadia Boulanger left behind no great number of compositions, nor did she write an introduction to harmony or composition, even though these are the publications that chiefly establish the authority of a composition teacher. Her oeuvre took shape during her lessons, in conversation, in animated exchange with her students:
“Nadia Boulanger impressed one with a quite special blend of energy and attention. Without any hidden meaning, the charm that she radiated was a mixture of male and female elements. She bore herself quite erect, her movements were full of elegance, her gaze exceptionally vivid. It was a look that was always ready to take an interest, whether it was a matter of amazement or delight. Yes, a rare mixture of power, intelligence and a controlled sensitivity. In all this she showed absolute self-control. [...] Even those who were not her pupils are well aware that her mode of teaching was also a dialogue, a sharing. She needed to create an encounter, provoke an awakening. That was not always to be achieved without difficulty; between such an intellect and students who were intimidated or daunted by such a challenge, embarrassing situations could easily develop. In those moments, Nadia Boulanger applied all the resources of her intelligence, open to all questions and alert for the deepest misgivings. Then, through an astonishing retreat, the mastery which she seemed destined to assert triggered an effort of will in her conversational partner and prompted that learner to give what was most true in himself or herself.” (Antoine Terrasse, p. 53)
Nadia Boulanger’s art of instruction was thus also the expression of an art of relationship anchored in the moment, unrepeatable and incapable of being fixed in writing. This offers a structural parallel to the function of the salon so crucial to the history of French culture. To ensure the desired intimacy, the number of participants was limited and made dependent on the satisfaction of certain criteria, such as a high level of education and membership of a higher social class. Exclusivity is very important in this connexion. The initiates knew each other, met regularly over the years, were driven by the same ideas. The Paris salons were centres of a highly developed urban culture and in many respects set the pattern upon which Nadia Boulanger consciously or unconsciously modelled her teaching and the environment in which it took place. Admission to her celebrated analysis classes, which took place every Wednesday afternoon in her apartment in the Rue Ballu in Montmartre, was by invitation only. No payment was requested or accepted for these lessons, although Nadia Boulanger made her living by teaching. After the group instruction, tea was served, and the students engaged in discussion with guests, composers among them, but often writers, philosophers, painters as well.
To return to Arnold Schoenberg’s polemical utterance quoted earlier: there can be no question of “directions”, nor of a “certain style”, still less of the “production” of a particular style in the case of Nadia Boulanger; but one can very well talk of a way of thinking and working that bears the cultural connotation of “feminine” - albeit, otherwise than supposed by Schoenberg, in a positive sense. What is more, developments since 1989 have shown that Nadia Boulanger looked very far into the future.