She might have been the most influential person in music of the 20th century, and few would argue with you. John Banther and Evan Keely explore her life, music, and incalculable influence, but also some of the criticism her legacy has faced in the 45 years since her passing. 

Show Notes

Further reading

Read a first-hand account of someone who studied with Nadia Boulanger 


Critical writing mentioned from Kendra Preston Leonard can be found here: Mademoiselle Myths

Documentary, Quincy Jones' experience with Nadia Boulanger, and a performance of her Fantaisie for piano and orchestra




John Banther: I'm John Banther, and this is Classical Breakdown. From WETA Classical in Washington, we are your guide to classical music. In this episode, I'm joined by WETA Classical's Evan Keely, and we're talking about one of the most influential people in music of the 20th century, Nadia Boulanger. She was a composer, a conductor, and a teacher, and her influence is still felt by musicians around the world today.

We explore her life, her music, her students, and how she dealt with tragic events, like death and war. Nadia Boulanger is a name that pretty much every musician knows, but maybe a few listeners might actually recognize. She was one of the most influential musicians and teachers of the entire 20th century, and if you said she was the most influential, I think few people would really argue with you.


Evan Keely: If you really had to pick one person who's the most influential music teacher and musician of the 20th century, she's a great candidate for that award.


John Banther: Yes. She's had a direct impact on pretty much everyone graduating from music school. One of my first teachers at New England Conservatory was one of her students, and that is a very common story.


Evan Keely: I can tell the same story about my experience at the Boston University School of Music.


John Banther: Some people might be really worried right now and saying, " Well, hold on a second. Why am I hearing Quincy Jones, Bye- Bye Birdie, and the theme to Sesame Street, huh? This doesn't sound right," but that's because all of those composers studied with her as well. We'll warrant, she had her musical hands in pretty much everything.


Evan Keely: All roads lead to Rome, or in this case, to Nadia Boulanger's apartment.


John Banther: I love that, and I think that's going to become crystal clear as we go on. Also, looking back, we'll see that she was a complicated person, so stay with us as we get into that as well. Okay, so Juliette Nadia Boulanger was born on September 16th, 1887 in Paris, and that's basically where she would spend her entire life. Her father, Ernest Boulanger, was a composer. He wrote comic operas, I believe, and he was also a voice teacher at the Paris Conservatory.

He married Raissa Myshetskaya in 1877 after they met in Russia. He was much older, about 40 or so years older than Raissa. We'll have to leave that there, because this is also the point, Evan, when we usually say the young child here, Nadia, was obsessed with music. You couldn't drag her away from the piano, or the violin, or she wouldn't stop singing, but that's not what was happening here.


Evan Keely: Not what happened at first. In fact, there's a story when she was very little, she hated music and she'd run away, run out of the room if somebody was playing an instrument or something. Then there's this story when she was about five years old, she heard a fire siren or some such thing, and she ran over to the piano and started banging on the keys to reproduce the sound. Then something clicked, maybe, in her mind, and she suddenly became fascinated by music. The rest is literally history.


John Banther: Yes. Something clicked, and she begins to study with her father. That's very common. When you see figures like this, Nadia Boulanger, they have someone very early on who is an expert and also guiding them. She was just a voracious practicer and consumer of music. Now, by the age of 10, she committed all of Bach's Well- Tempered Clavier to memory. Now, that's something that a lot of pianists do, just natural, you play it so much, but she's 10 years old, and she's already got that memorized and buttoned up.


Evan Keely: She's pretty serious from the start.


John Banther: Another milestone is when she's six years old in 1893, her sister is born, Lili Boulanger. You'll hear us mention her more as we go on, because it's hard to talk about one without the other in this biographical context. Nadia enters the Paris Conservatory in 1896. She is nine years old, and she has some great instructors like Gabriel Fauré right from the beginning, but also, Evan, just nine years old, and you're already having to go to school. There's no middle school, high school.


Evan Keely: Right, right. Yeah. This is yet another story of a child prodigy, and her genius just continues to flourish throughout her life, but even from a very young age, she's already achieving at high levels. At the Conservatory, she's winning first prize, which maybe has a little bit of a connotation that's hard to understand. It's really more like getting an A plus, or it means that you're among the top students in the class.

She got the first prize in solfege, in harmony. These are in her very first year. Even before she hits puberty, she's already achieving at the highest levels at the Paris Conservatory, one of the most prestigious music schools in Europe at that point.


John Banther: And with students around her that are much older than her.


Evan Keely: Much older, yeah, very accomplished. She is achieving at high levels among the best of the best.


John Banther: Talking about growing up fast, here is a story we talk about all the time on the podcast. Her father dies in 1900 of old age. I think he was very old at that point. This causes the family financial hardship. They go into financial chaos. The young children have to start doing things to help support this. She begins her career as an organist in 1901 at the age of 13. Also being the oldest child, I imagine this also is a very grow up fast kind of situation.


Evan Keely: At 13, she's not only very accomplished in harmony, and solfege, and music theory, but she's also a very skilled organist. People are noticing her extraordinary ability with that instrument. 13 years old, 1901, she's already giving concerts and getting attention.


John Banther: I've played and continue to play with organists regularly, and I've never played with one that is 13 years old with these kinds of abilities.


Evan Keely: She was very exceptional.


John Banther: That'd be a lot of fun. This is also around the time we find basically one of her earliest compositions, and it's a song, she wrote many, it's called Extase. It is, I don't know how to describe it. It's a nice song. It's beautiful, but more so, I love how she's kind of guiding us through all of these different kind of chords and progressions as we're walking along, almost like in a forest with beautiful flora and fauna around you.


Evan Keely: We mentioned earlier, she studied with Gabriel Fauré, Louis Vierne was another one of her teachers at the Conservatory. You definitely hear the influences of those kinds of composers and that kind of French music of this era. She, even as a child, has a distinctive voice.


John Banther: A couple of years later in 1904, remember it, she's still a teenager, she's like 16 or 17, and she begins to start teaching quite seriously. She was also determined at this time to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, which is an actual prize. This is something her father won. Unfortunately, she never got past second place, but she was very determined and she had a lot of entries.

She also made a splash sometime. In 1908, I think that's when she got second place. She did it with her Cantatac La Sirène. Beautiful piece. I'll put a link on the show notes page as well. There was a recent performance a year or two ago of that.


Evan Keely: Yeah, so Prix de Rome, very prestigious composition prize. You and I had a conversation last season, John, on the podcast. Claude Debussy was a winner years before, and as you mentioned, their father, Lili and Nadia's father, had won the prize many, many years earlier.


John Banther: She also went against the rules that year. One of the requirements was to write a four- part vocal fugue, and she wrote it for string quartet instead, so already kind of pushing back on things.


Evan Keely: Pushing back on the rules a bit. Yes.


John Banther: It was her sister Lili who would become the first woman to win the prize in 1913, when Lili was 19 years old.


Evan Keely: Yes, very gifted composer.


John Banther: Things continue. She is a teenager, she's actually now getting into her early twenties, and she gets an assistant. I would love to have had an assistant when I was in my early twenties.


Evan Keely: I'll tell you.


John Banther: Yes. Tell us about her, Evan.


Evan Keely: Annette Dieudonné became her assistant in 1910. That's a relationship that would continue throughout their lives. As you said, John, it'd be great to have an assistant when you're 20, but when you're Nadia Boulanger and you're already achieving extraordinary levels by the time you reach your 20th birthday, well, I think you're entitled to have an assistant. This is a professional and personal relationship that lasts a lifetime.


John Banther: It's also around this time, she becomes familiar with Igor Stravinsky. I think she was at the premiere of his ballet, the Firebird. This starts a whole relationship with Stravinsky and just thinking and believing, well, he is really a voice, the future, the kinds of writing, and the lines that he is producing that seemed to stretch on forever. She seemed to be enthralled by that.


Evan Keely: Yeah, the Firebird Fight, 1910. This is before the Rite of Spring, of course. A few years before, but Stravinsky is already doing some pretty exciting things. Nadia Boulanger has the genius and the talent to recognize that this is a very important compositional voice. As you said, John, they become friends. That's another lifelong relationship.


John Banther: As we've said, she is a skilled organist, and she was writing for it as well. I don't listen to the organ a lot, just to be honest. There's some early music and early Baroque stuff that I'll enjoy when I listen to it. One thing I do like are works for organ by French composers around this time. I like her, and Maurice Duruflé as well, just really, really nice. It's nice that we do have, from 1911, a set of three pieces that she wrote for organ that are just wonderful.


Evan Keely: Terribly exciting period in the history of organ music. There's a lot we could say about this, and we don't really have time to get into it, but the organ building technology toward the end of the 19th century really makes a leap forward. You see, especially in France, these huge instruments that make sounds that the world has never heard before. You have electric pumps to push the air through. That's a new innovation as well.

Nadia Boulanger is playing the organ with all of these famous French orchestras. She's playing these famous new organs. There's the Trocadero Palace have this humongous organ at this auditorium that's seated thousands of people. She played there as a teenager and as a young adult. You have a lot of these organist composers in France especially at this time, who are writing really exciting music for these new instruments that have these capabilities that are new. Very exciting period in music history.


John Banther: If you ever get a chance to hear an organ recital in a place like that, I highly recommend it. Again, I said, I've played with organists semi- frequently, and just the other day, I was playing with one. I'm on stage, it's 110 decibels, where it really is not safe for your hearing for any extended period of time, but you are in the sound. That is what Nadia Boulanger is doing at the forefront of this new organ technology.


Evan Keely: Imagine in an age before amplification, before microphones and speakers, to be surrounded by that kind of sound. Of course, there were organs in the 18th century and so forth, they didn't have the kind of power that you see in these humongous French organs of this era that Nadia Boulanger is playing. What a thrill, what an astonishing experience for an audience to be exposed to those kinds of sounds.


John Banther: That is a great point. In the following year, in 1912, she makes her conducting debut with that cantata she wrote, La Sirène, and she had a couple of other works in that performance as well. Just a couple of years later, in Europe, of course, we have the tragedy and outbreak of World War I in 1914. Naturally, from this point, for several years, musical work is diminished. I think this is something we now have some context with, after the last four years of what happens.


Evan Keely: Social disruption and how it affects the arts, definitely a factor in this phase of her life, and the whole world's life.


John Banther: Tragically for Lili, she won that prize, the Prix de Rome, the year before. When you win this award, you get sent off to Italy for at least a year, I think. You're composing, you're studying, and you're premiering all these new works. A few months into it, what?


Evan Keely: The war breaks out, and you're not going to Italy, Lili. Sorry. Yeah.


John Banther: She's there for a little bit. She's got to go right back. That's when her and her sister, Nadia, (inaudible) of course, focusing on, they started a charity that was supplying food, clothes, money, kind of care packages, I guess, to soldiers who were also musicians. Of course, we know so many composers that we love today were in World War I.


Evan Keely: Indeed. It really gives a sense of Nadia's character, too. Here's somebody, this terrible war breaks out, engulfs literally the entire world. Certainly Europe is absolutely consumed in this horrible, horrible war. She and her sister start this organization, which actually is quite effective in providing aid to musicians. Here again, she is just taking command of her life.

She's stepping forward and doing things that nobody else is doing, or that not enough people are doing, with this immense confidence in herself. It's just really extraordinary, her ability to just seize life in this bold way. You see it again and again throughout her life.


John Banther: It's one of those things that you can only kind of see and recognize in this kind of context a hundred years later, just these big moments and the decisions she makes at each junction. This brings us to 1918, which is a tragic year, because her sister Lili would die at the age of 24. She suffered from poor health from childhood.

Of course, this is naturally devastating for Nadia, as it would be for anyone who loses a close sibling like this in a young, tragic way. She considered her to be a greater composer, from what I understand.


Evan Keely: I think that's certainly true, and I have to agree. I think Nadia Boulanger is a very talented composer, but Lili, in her very short life, wrote some really remarkable music. It's also interesting to notice the ways in which Nadia as a performer is promoting her sister's music very intentionally, with great pride in her sister's talent.


John Banther: She stops, Nadia, that is, composing after this point, basically. She writes a couple more things up to 1922, but that's when it kind of just stops. She said something, which I kind of don't like hearing it, but she said, " If there is one thing of which I am certain, is that I wrote useless music." It's a shame she felt that way. It wasn't a huge output that she already had. It was a relatively small output.

Her chamber music in her songs are especially wonderful. She did write a fantasy for piano and orchestra, I'll put a link on the show notes page. That's also nice. Maybe she wasn't at that same level as her sister, and she believed that, but of course, she wasn't writing useless music.


Evan Keely: Certainly not. We should certainly remember her as a very fine composer, even though that wasn't the primary focus of her long life.


John Banther: That might be something interesting. Well, her long life, it's 1918, she's what? In her twenties or thirties, and she stops composing. Well, what happens then? Well, we're going to get into that because she is, as we said, a massive influence. After World War I, she finds herself in a different world from before, I think much as we experienced today.

Going forward, she's heavily focused on teaching. She is focused to an extent that it's almost not good for her health, the kind of demanding schedule that she's taking on. In 1919, a new school was founded in Paris, and then a sister conservatory was founded a couple of years later, and she went from the other one to this new one, called the American Conservatory in 1921. This was in Fontainebleau, or Fontainebleau, I think.


Evan Keely: Fontainebleau, yes.


John Banther: She's teaching harmony, and solfege, and other classes. This is when she meets someone I think we'll all recognize, right, Evan?


Evan Keely: 21- year- old Aaron Copland was one of the first students at this New American Conservatory.


John Banther: Virgil Thompson was another student of hers at that time. He described her as a warm and intelligent woman, and she had kind of a gift for Americans. Looking back, I find that unusual in a good way, what you're talking about, how she was stepping up for that charity.

For this, I think a lot of people at that time might not want to be teaching people from the United States, just because the conservatory and levels, they're not there at this time. This conservatory, which was geared towards Americans, she was there, and she accepted them, and she really, really gave them her full effort.


Evan Keely: It's interesting that Virgil Thompson makes this remark about her having a kind of gift for Americans, because it's really backed up by history. We can name many Americans, Copland and Thompson among them, Leonard Bernstein, there's a long list of Americans who studied composition with her, who studied piano or organ with her. She really did seem to have this way, this affinity of working with Americans for some reason.


John Banther: She pours herself into this work, this demanding schedule, and she develops a reputation. To further describe just kind of how she was, it seems like, and from the video I've seen of her, there's a documentary I'll put on the show notes page as well, she had this air of authority. She was kind of intimidating. She wore these dark suits with a very angular cuts, and she was kind of more traditional, and I don't want to say like Steve Jobs, but she kind of had a uniform, it seems.


Evan Keely: Yeah, yeah. She definitely had a look.


John Banther: Yes. She had these Pince Nez glasses, if I'm saying that correctly. It's not a monocle, but it's the old- timey glasses.


Evan Keely: You hold them up with your... There's a kind of severity to her appearance. You see photographs and film of her, she did live a long life, and we have a lot of these images of her, and yeah. She comes across as this powerful, very serious person that you don't want to mess with. I get a sense that she really tried to cultivate that in an intentional way. I don't know for sure. That's certainly how she came across.

There's lots of contemporary accounts of how she comes, she can be very warm, she can get very personable, but she's also very serious, very demanding, and we will talk more about what it's like to study with her, and the very different experiences people have, and the controversy around that, but definitely not someone who suffers fools gladly, I think.


John Banther: We can kind of dig into that a little bit now, because okay, she was a teacher. There's like a million great teachers. What about her is standing apart? She had a deep intuition and natural understanding of music. She could take a piece of music and quickly make remarks as to what is happening, direction, good things, bad things, in an instant. She had a deep, crazy musical memory.

I think a good example of this high level of performances is chess. If you take someone who doesn't know chess, and you show them a picture of a chess board for literally less than three seconds, maybe two seconds, that is in the middle of the game, and then you say, " Okay, now walk over here to this real board, and put all the pieces where they were as you saw in that picture for one or two seconds."

That's impossible for a typical person, but if you're a grand chess player, that's Monday morning. That's very easy. In fact, they'll tell you, " Oh, that's from this board position."


Evan Keely: " That's from this 1932 game with," yeah, exactly. I think that's a great analogy, John, that Nadia Boulanger had that kind of deep insight, and she was able to do things on that quick level that was just, her brain would immediately process things on a very deep level. It's one of the things that made her such an effective teacher.


John Banther: Yes. There's this documentary made at the end of her life that also demonstrates this. Leonard Bernstein tells this story of how he was playing her a new song that he wrote, and there's this moment, just a little moment, where this B flat played in the bass, and she grabbed his arm. You'll see that in the video. She would grab a student's arm to make them stop, you really stop in your tracks.

She would start talking, and she grabs his arm and says, " Why'd you put that B flat there? Why would that go there? We just heard that in this voice a moment before." Remember, she's not looking at any music or anything. Actually, she doesn't really have much eyesight at that point.


Evan Keely: Yeah, at this point, her eyesight was so poor she couldn't see the score, but her ear would immediately pick these things up, these small details, that she would instantly notice and be able to comment on in this profound way. It's rather shocking to observe these kinds of moments.


John Banther: Yes. She says, " Well, that B flat's in a different voice a moment before, and it's not too much higher, so that that sound is still in the ether," so to speak. This is something that you might realize looking at a score for a while, maybe an hour. You're going through a score, you're looking at stuff.

Maybe this pedal B flat right here, we could do something a little more interesting, but for her, it's just in that moment, she grabs you and says, " What are you doing right here? Don't do that," or, " You can do better." We also have an account from Charles Fisk, who wrote a lot about his studies with Nadia Boulanger. Why don't you read this for us, Evan?


Evan Keely: One foundational aspect of Boulanger's method was the memorization at the keyboard of specific four- part harmonic progressions and their subsequent transposition into all keys. These progressions exemplified two basic categories: cadences, progressions capable of articulating the conclusions of phrases, sections, or entire compositions, and sequences: transitional progressions moving through musical space to link harmonic points of departure to ensuing points of arrival.

To all of her students, Boulanger distributed a cadence sheet featuring specific progressions that arrived at tonic resolutions in a given key, from every possible chordal point of origin in that key. By practicing these cadences, one internalized a specific way of employing an initiatory C major chord, not only as the home chord of C major, for example, but also as a functioning entity in A minor, G major, F major, E minor, and D minor.


John Banther: There is a lot there, probably confusing for a lot of people. Basically, she's having her students learn how to go from anywhere, from any point in a progression. Harmonically, also, this can help you out melodically in how you lead things. She wants you to be able to do anything and everything at the drop of a hat.


Evan Keely: Right. It's this question of memorizing these things on the keyboard. I think she's even trying to induce a kind of muscle memory. It just becomes a part of your nervous system that you are able to hear and feel these things, and even in your hands and your arms, not only in your ears. It's a very physical experience of music that she's really trying to train people on a very, very deep level. It seems to have had a really powerful effect on those who are able to master it.


John Banther: I think it definitely did. That last part is a great example, C major, a C major chord, a simple chord, that exists, of course, as the home chord of C major, but that also naturally exists in all these other keys, A minor, G major, F major, E minor, and so on. Learning a C major chord, that's not really something you learn. Anyone who can push three buttons simultaneously can play a C major chord. I've got one finger, and my dog's got two paws. We're covered.


Evan Keely: There you go.


John Banther: The C major chord, it exists in all these keys, and how you play it, how you approach it, how you lead from it will change, dependent on what's happening harmonically and musically around you. That's what she wants you to do. Not just play these chords as they are, but as they would function musically in any situation.


Evan Keely: It's also fascinating too that this is a very tonal approach to music at a time when some composers in Europe, especially in the German- speaking parts of Europe, are writing atonal music and so forth. Of course, she's very interested in Stravinsky and these composers who are writing what we would think of as " very modern" music.

These are very sort of old- fashioned principles that she's trying to inculcate into her students. It's really kind of a foundational sense of this is what music is about. Then from there, we have the freedom to explore further what it can do.


John Banther: After hearing all this about how she's able to hear things so quickly, move from this chord to anything else, so resolve in any way you want, with all of that, let's just take a moment to listen to the beginning of that song I mentioned before, Extase.

It's beautiful. She's basically going from chord to chord in her progression, and the voicing is wonderful. It feels like we're just being guided along. Now, how many songs start with an introduction? Most of them, right, Evan?


Evan Keely: Sure.


John Banther: That's how it goes. It's common to hear that introductory part repeat when the voice comes in. When you hear the first chord that she plays, we hear a B as this highest note. When the voice comes in, then with that same chord, it settles in on a B, that voice. Then that B in the high voice of the piano is omitted, for example.

That's not very profound, but I can't imagine her not grabbing your arm if you showed up, Evan, and said, " Hey, here's this new piece I got," and you had to be in the piano and in the voice at the same time. She might grab your arm. " What are you doing?"


Evan Keely: It's kind of a sense of economy, I think. She wants to avoid anything superfluous in music.


John Banther: It's that less is more principle that we strive for here sometimes, but she does it very well. That's just a fraction of what's going on with her and her teaching, and the approach that she has. She's doing this from the 1920s in her thirties. In 1924, she has her first tour in the United States, and it's organized by the New York Symphony Society, which later becomes the New York Phil with another group.

Among some of her works, she also premiered, and I did not know this, Evan, she premiered Copland's Symphony for Organ and Orchestra. That paints perfectly what you were saying before, she's playing these huge works and premiering them at the organ.


Evan Keely: Right.


John Banther: It's throughout this time and the remainder of her life that musicians would just flock to her for lessons, even for just a couple. She is someone you could take a few lessons with, I think, Evan, and then spend years unpacking everything. That's also a common thing in music. You take a couple of lessons, and it might be two years later when some of that stuff fully sinks in.


Evan Keely: Again, that sense of economy, she was able to pack a lot of meaning into very brief expressions, both as a composer, I think as a performer, and certainly as a teacher. In just a few lessons, you could get a lot out of what she had to share.


John Banther: I think we'll see that in the video as well. Everyone is just sitting on bated breath, waiting for her next instruction. She has some of the biggest names in music: Aaron Copland, Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, who we heard at the beginning studied with her, and they were, I don't know if close is the right word, but there was definitely a very fond relationship there.

There's so many interviews of Quincy Jones talking about his time with Boulanger. Also, John Eliot Gardiner, famous conductor; Virgil Thompson, George Walker, Quincy Jones to Joe Raposo, writing the Sesame Street theme, Bye- Bye Birdie by Charles Strauss, they studied with her. That's just a fraction.


Evan Keely: One of the things that's fascinating about this list of names is how different they are. You think of a composer like George Walker, a great 20th century composer. Of course, Aaron Copland's music is very familiar to many of us, writing in a very different style. There isn't this sense of the Boulanger composition students all have this Boulanger sound. They have their own sound, and she as a teacher is helping them to find that sound and share it.


John Banther: You're right, it's just there is no, " Oh, that's the..."


Evan Keely: Philip Glass and Elliott Carter both studied with her. Two more different composers would be hard to find, but there they are. They both, I'm sure, benefited from what they learned from her.


John Banther: Her fame only grows in France. In 1932, she's given the highest order of merit, a Chevalier to the Legion d'Honneur, and she's given a similar award or merit in Poland in 1934. We can list a bunch of these right now, right, Evan? In 1962, she becomes an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1962, the Howland Memorial Prize, 1975, you'll probably pronounce that one better than me.


Evan Keely: Medaldo of the Académie de Beaux- Arts, and the Institut de France, another very prestigious award. She's a grand officier of the Legion d'Honneur in 1977. 1977 Order of the British Empire, Order of St. Charles of Monaco, Order of the Crown of Belgium. These, all over the world, she's getting this recognition for her meritorious contributions to the arts.


John Banther: One question I have is, I imagine she got a little pin or an award, actually, she did for the French one. She wore that on her suit, I believe. Did anyone give her a sword, I imagine? I don't know if it's because I watched a documentary on Japanese swords the other day, but she had to have a sword. She's a grand officer in something, right?


Evan Keely: It's so hard to conduct maybe with a rapier, but I don't know. Whether or not she had all the regalia, she certainly had the recognition and the esteem, and I think well deserved.


John Banther: I would put the sword, I would mount it above where I teach. No misbehaving.


Evan Keely: She didn't need a sword to get people to be intimidated, though.


John Banther: That's true. One of the longest ongoing things for her began in her early days of teaching. In music school, we have something called studio class. This is when your entire studio, meaning your teacher and their specific students, get together. This is kind of freeform. A lot can happen. Maybe one person plays and receives instruction while everyone listens, then someone else plays, or maybe you'll work on some ensemble music, mock auditions, orchestral work.

It's really up to the teacher, but they're often every week. Nadia Boulanger, she held them at her apartment in Paris for decades, and it became this kind of event. You hear people like Bernstein describing her house, her apartment, her flat is just filled with pictures. There's a big piano, and everyone is just crammed in there, as many as possible, just to experience it.


Evan Keely: It's really a who's who of the musical world gathering in her apartment, and just to be a fly on the wall and to sit in the room with all that amazing talent. As we were saying, John, the different kinds of talent, the different voices, the different styles, the different approaches. You have composers, you have pianists, you have conductors, you have all these different disciplines that are having this experience of learning with her.


John Banther: In the 1930s, she comes back to the United States for a pretty demanding tour. Now, she's conducting, and she's the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the National Symphony Orchestra. Unfortunately, in the 1930s, we don't have any video of her conducting, but we do have a recording or two. One of them is a piano concerto by Jean-François that she conducted with a composer at the piano in 1937.

Her conducting career was pretty atypical for what we have today. You don't really read about her studying, conducting at the Paris Conservatory. Would they have even allowed her? I doubt it. There are conductors today who have said that they as women were prohibited from classes, or they could only audit the class. That's today.


Evan Keely: Yeah, yeah.


John Banther: She also wasn't a director of an orchestra, nor would she may even be allowed. She wasn't traveling and conducting orchestras maybe like someone like Gustav Mahler. You can remember from our episodes on conducting, it's not really about waving your arms around on stage, looking like a star. It's about your deep understanding of the music. She is able to convey these musical ideas, like you said, this economy of means, directly getting things across. When you work with a conductor like that, oh, it's so, so nice.


Evan Keely: Yeah. Making the ensemble sound really amazing, it takes, like you said, it's not just waving your arms. There has to be what you convey in the rehearsals, and what you're able to express verbally, as well as gesturally, as a conductor, as a music director, that's really... Her talent in that really shines. We do have some recordings, and certainly her reputation.


John Banther: Unfortunately, war would break out again in 1939, and we will get into that right after this. Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music, is made possible by WETA Classical. Join us for the music and insightful commentary any time, day or night. You can stream the music online at, or through the WETA Classical app. It's free in the app store.

For the second time in her life, a World War breaks out. It's 1939. She is trying to get some students out of France, and she herself arrives in New York in November of 1940. While she is here in the US, she's teaching at several schools, one of them, the nearby to us, Peabody Conservatory, and her influence teaching in the United States during these years should not be underestimated or understated.

We said she had these demanding schedules before, I think she still has them now. That is how she was also a huge influence on so many musicians like us who had teachers who studied with her directly.


Evan Keely: Yes.


John Banther: After the war, she returns to Paris in January, 1946, and she becomes a professor at the Paris Conservatory, and now she's director of that Fontainebleau School that we mentioned earlier.


Evan Keely: American Conservatory, yes.


John Banther: Her skills remain sharp basically through her seven decades of teaching from this point. As she gets older, her eyesight and her hearing starts to fade away, I hear maybe in the 1960s, but she would pass away at the age of 92 on October 22nd, 1979. That documentary that we've mentioned a couple of times was made I think when she was 90. You see her sitting at the piano, as energetic and demanding as any other teacher in their prime.


Evan Keely: Yeah. She started teaching, as we said, John, in her teens, and taught all the way up into her nineties. Even with eyesight and hearing diminishing toward the end of her life, she just kept going really pretty much up to the end.


John Banther: She was also a complicated figure as well. Award- winning musicologist, Kendra Preston Leonard, has written about some of this, and we'll go through it now a bit, and I'll leave a link to her writings and her web page on the show notes page. Let's start with a quote that she included of American harpist, Lillian Phillips, who studied with Boulanger in 1963.


Evan Keely: This is what Lillian Phillips has to say about Boulanger's teaching. Boulanger's master classes, are they to exploit her one or two most talented students and make complete fools of the others? I saw too many people made fools of and ridiculed by her: adults and even college professors. Maybe this is European teaching, but I went to all of those classes of hers, and they were a waste of time. Yes, I learned a tremendous amount how not to teach.


John Banther: We'll pause on this for a moment, because this is also going to apply to other things we say. When you hear that, when you read that, Evan, what Lillian says, it sounds, oh, my gosh, so severe, so out of the ordinary, so kind of almost shocking, but the sad truth is this isn't unique. In fact-


Evan Keely: Not strange at all, actually. Yeah.


John Banther: ... One of the most common experiences. I think every musician has stories like this. I have several. Especially in the 20th century, the mid- twentieth century and earlier, conservatories today are quite ruthless. They really are.


Evan Keely: Yes.


John Banther: This domineering authoritarian teaching style, it was common in the 20th century.


Evan Keely: Absolutely. You were a student at New England Conservatory, I went to the Boston University School of Music, two really fine schools, if I may say modestly, and certainly some great teaching going on there, and some amazing students. The long stories, either or both of us could tell, John, about abusive teachers, screaming at students, people sobbing in the practice rooms.

This is just a part of the experience. I think people more and more are really questioning whether or not that's how it should be. Maybe we're starting to see some change, but even today in 2024, it's not out of the ordinary for these really outrageous behaviors to just be accepted.


John Banther: I do see and read things that are changing, of course, probably rather slow. Even in the late 2000 when I was in school, Kleenex could have just, they could have made a million dollars a day just by selling tissues.


Evan Keely: Yeah, the sobbing students. Yeah.


John Banther: That's all to say, I'm not surprised that this monumental figure, Nadia Boulanger, would also have some of these attributes. The big thing to also remember, which some are certainly saying, is that well, Nadia and her sister, Lili, they were coming into this field as women in the 1910s and 1920s.

Think about everything that includes. Women in France did not even get the right to vote until 1944. I can understand that you have to be three times better than your male counterpart, and you have to put your foot down in ways that are uncomfortable, but just to be there maybe.


Evan Keely: Yeah. They're breaking the rules in a lot of ways as women asserting themselves in male dominated fields. Does that necessitate certain compromises that are uncomfortable for us to think about? It's a hard question to answer.


John Banther: It is a hard question to answer. Kendra Preston Leonard also writes, and I'm kind of paraphrasing here, musicologist, Susan Weiss, who attended the conservatory in order to study with Boulanger, wrote of her experiences that the young women were not treated as serious candidates for professional careers in music, particularly by Mademoiselle Boulanger.

Composer Patricia Morehead has commented that after telling Boulanger she was to be married to a fellow student, " My private lessons after our announcement were mostly about my duties as a good wife." Unfortunate to read, and then something also rampant then, and something also still happening now.


Evan Keely: Kind of astonishing that this amazing woman who was such a trailblazer, would tell another woman, like, " Oh, make sure you put your husband's slippers out when he comes home from bowling," or whatever. I'm not really sure how that pans out, but you see the compromises that are being made in these complicated situations. It's easy for us to judge. Maybe we should, maybe we shouldn't. I don't think we should ignore it. Again, hard questions get raised when we look at the details.


John Banther: Another troubling aspect was that with Jewish students, she had many, but there was also, I don't want to say a " limit," but she sought to also not have too many at once in the studio, or perhaps they were socially segregated at the American Conservatory.


Evan Keely: There's definitely some troubling things there in terms of relationships with Jewish students. You look about what's going on in French society at this time and going back further. We could do a whole season of Classical Breakdown on the Dreyfus Affair and its influence on the arts and so forth. Where is Boulanger in all that? Was she a rabid antisemite? I doubt it, but you definitely see some things that are very questionable in her conduct.


John Banther: Yes. Hard questions to answer, often better suited to musicologists who devote study, like Kendra Preston Leonard. I'll put a link to her website on the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org. We wanted to include that, because as I read from her and from others, there were serious concerns. Of course, this isn't limited to Nadia Boulanger whatsoever...


Evan Keely: Certainly not.


John Banther: ... But this is who we're talking about right at this moment. She was a force. One of, if not the most, influential musician and teacher in music of the 20th century. She has affected how we studied music in school, and also how we teach. We're definitely richer for having her and all of the extraordinary work she did.


Evan Keely: You and I are among the countless music people of the world, John, who had a teacher who had studied with her. Her musical grandchildren are innumerable.


John Banther: Yes. I encourage everyone to go to the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org, because we're going to have video of her teaching, links to some of the things that we've mentioned so far, and just more resources to her music as well. Now, it's time to get to your reviews from Apple Podcasts.

We have a review here from Sugarcatguy89, cat emoji, and I love this because I didn't know you could have an emoji in your username, so I love that. Why don't you read this one for us, Evan?


Evan Keely: I like the show, but needs obscure composers, and also some music that tells stories. Anywho, good show.


John Banther: Well, thank you so much, Sugarcatguy89 cat emoji for the five stars. Yes, obscure composers. Obscure is often in the eye of the beholder, so if you have some that are in your mind, definitely let me know at ClassicalBreakdown@ WETA. org. Just to give an example of one who I know nothing about, I just heard this composer on the way in on WETA Classical when Linda was on, a trio by John Antis, an American composer from the 18th century.

It was a recording with The Vivaldi Project. I'll include it here. Sorry for any intonation whiplash here, but incredible trio. I don't know anything about this composer at all, but I really, really liked it. There's one, at least right there.


Evan Keely: So much to discover.


John Banther: Music that tells stories, I like that as well. We've had several in the past that we've done with symphonic poems, and works that, yeah, well, tell a story, but it's been a while.


Evan Keely: Sure. (inaudible) , you and I talked about Augusto Almez, and you did an episode way back about pictures in an exhibition. Yeah, more of that, I'd love to have more of those conversations with you, John.


John Banther: Yes. If you have one in mind, a particular story, Scheherazade is one that we did as well, but maybe I'll look for something along those lines as well. Well, thank you so much for writing in, and thank you for listening. Thank you, Evan, for joining me for this bite- sized conversation of Nadia Boulanger.


Evan Keely: Thank you, John. It's great to talk to a fellow Boulanger musical grandchild.


John Banther: Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown, your guide to classical music. For more information on this episode, visit the show notes page at ClassicalBreakdown. org. You can send me comments and episode ideas to ClassicalBreakdown@ WETA. org. If you enjoyed this episode, leave a review on your podcast app. I'm John Banther. Thanks for listening to Classical Breakdown from WETA Classical.