Meet Nadia Boulanger, “The Most Influential Teacher Since Socrates,” Who Mentored Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones & Other Legends

We recent­ly fea­tured a video of Bri­an Eno giv­ing con­tro­ver­sial advice to artists: “don’t get a job.” Eas­i­er said than done, of course, but he makes a com­pelling case. Along the way, he says some­thing inter­est­ing about the fetish we make of genius—an obses­sive focus on lone, and almost always male, artists as self-made, hero­ic embod­i­ments of great­ness. “Although great new ideas are usu­al­ly artic­u­lat­ed by indi­vid­u­als,” he says, “they’re near­ly always gen­er­at­ed by com­mu­ni­ties.” (He pro­pos­es the neol­o­gism “sce­nius” in place of “genius” to describe “coop­er­a­tive intel­li­gence.”) Eno would prob­a­bly agree that great art not only comes out of cre­ative com­mu­ni­ties of peers, but also from the influ­ence of great teach­ers.

One such fig­ure, Nadia Boulanger (1887 –1979), has been described as “the most influ­en­tial teacher since Socrates.” This is hard­ly hyper­bole. As Clemen­cy Bur­ton-Hill notes at the BBC, “her ros­ter of music stu­dents reads like the ulti­mate 20th Cen­tu­ry Hall of Fame. Leonard Bern­stein. Aaron Cop­land. Quin­cy Jones. Astor Piaz­zol­la. Philip Glass,” and so on.

“It is no exag­ger­a­tion, then, to con­sid­er Boulanger the most impor­tant musi­cal ped­a­gogue of the modern—or indeed any—era.” She was also a tal­ent­ed com­pos­er, a men­tor and fierce cham­pi­on of Igor Stravin­sky, and the first woman to con­duct major sym­phonies in Europe and the U.S., such as the New York Phil­har­mon­ic and the Boston Sym­pho­ny Orches­tra.

Boulanger had her own take on genius: “We are as fools to say, ‘he’s a genius,’” she opines in the inter­view at the top. She also describes her method of weed­ing out unse­ri­ous stu­dents by ask­ing them, “Can you live with­out music?” If the answer is yes, she tells them “thank the Lord and good­bye!” Even at an advanced age, her fierce­ly uncom­pro­mis­ing approach is pal­pa­ble, a qual­i­ty Philip Glass remem­bers from his first meet­ing with her in 1964, when “she was already a rel­ic,” writes Matthew Guer­ri­eri at Red Bull Acad­e­my. She iden­ti­fied a bar from one of Glass’s com­po­si­tions as “writ­ten by a real com­pos­er,” says Glass. “It was “the first and last time she said any­thing nice to me for the next two years.”

Amer­i­can com­posers sub­ject­ed them­selves to Boulanger’s harsh dis­ci­pline as a “rite of pas­sage,” vis­it­ing her in her Paris apart­ment where she did most of her teach­ing. She also made her way through “lead­ing con­ser­va­toires,” Bur­ton-Hill notes, “includ­ing the Juil­liard School, the Yehu­di Menuhin School, the Roy­al Col­lege of Music and the Roy­al Acad­e­my of Music.” Boulanger’s ear­ly life is as fas­ci­nat­ing as her teach­ing career; she was the def­i­n­i­tion of “a tough, aris­to­crat­ic French­woman,” as Glass describes her, and grew up sur­round­ed by music. Her father, Ernest, was a com­pos­er, con­duc­tor, and singing pro­fes­sor. Her younger sis­ter Lili, who died in 1918 at the age of 24, was the more tal­ent­ed com­pos­er. (Nadia, writes Bur­ton-Hill, was “riv­en with envy.”)

A few years after Lili’s trag­ic death, Nadia aban­doned com­po­si­tion to focus pri­mar­i­ly on her teach­ing, men­tor­ing stu­dents with tremen­dous promise and those with less evi­dent gifts alike. “Any­one could be a Boulanger stu­dent,” Guer­ri­eri writes (pro­vid­ed they couldn’t live with­out music): “Those with less­er skills were tak­en in along­side prodi­gies and pro­fes­sion­als.” She did not dis­crim­i­nate on any basis, though her polit­i­cal atti­tudes make her a dif­fi­cult fig­ure for many peo­ple to ful­ly embrace. “She espoused nation­al­ism, monar­chism and, although her good man­ners kept it from her often-Jew­ish stu­dents, anti-Semi­tism.” She held democ­ra­cy in con­tempt and did not believe women should vote. And she was espe­cial­ly hard on her female stu­dents. (When one woman final­ly met her approval, Boulanger addressed her as “Mon­sieur.”)

Boulanger was as tra­di­tion­al in her musi­cal attitudes—spurning Arnold Schoenberg’s inno­va­tions, for example—as in her pol­i­tics. Yet she worked with jazz musi­cians like Jones and Don­ald Byrd, and with com­posers like Joe Raposo, “the musi­cal chameleon behind the songs of Sesame Street and The Elec­tric Com­pa­ny.” She was an encour­ag­ing pres­ence in the lives of her stu­dents long after they had gone on to suc­cess and fame. When Leonard Bern­stein sent her the score to West Side Sto­ry, she pro­nounced, “I am enchant­ed by its daz­zling nature” (though she added a cri­tique about its “facil­i­ty”). Per­haps her most rad­i­cal stu­dent, Philip Glass, has nev­er been accused of musi­cal con­ser­vatism. But through his dif­fi­cult course of study with Boulanger, he says, “I learned to hear.”

“To under­go Boulanger’s rig­or­ous train­ing,” writes Guer­ri­eri, “was to absorb her sense of music his­to­ry: evo­lu­tion, not rev­o­lu­tion.” Then again, many of history’s rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies have also been some of the keen­est stu­dents of tra­di­tion, usu­al­ly assist­ed, guid­ed, and trained by his­to­ry’s great teach­ers.

via @dark_shark/Red Bull Acad­e­my

Relat­ed Con­tent:

A Min­i­mal Glimpse of Philip Glass

Leonard Bernstein’s Mas­ter­ful Lec­tures on Music (11+ Hours of Video Record­ed at Har­vard in 1973)

1200 Years of Women Com­posers: A Free 78-Hour Music Playlist That Takes You From Medieval Times to Now

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness.

by | Permalink | Comments (10) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (10)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Jeremy Polmear says:

    A very inter­est­ing arti­cle, show­ing a female influ­ence on a host of 20th Cen­tu­ry com­posers.

    But there is an irony here, because among Nadia Boulanger’s pupils were also Grazy­na Bacewicz, Mar­i­on Bauer, Louise Tal­ma, Peg­gy Glanville-Hicks and Pri­aulx Rainier.

    Why were they not men­tioned here? Not because Josh Jones is biased, I’m sure; but because, as women, they are less well-known.

    Why are they less well-known? Part­ly because they don’t get men­tioned in arti­cles like this, so don’t enter the pub­lic con­scious­ness. So they keep hav­ing to be re-dis­cov­ered, with peo­ple express­ing sur­prise at how good their music is.

  • Josh Jones says:

    Thanks for this com­ment, Jere­my. You’re absolute­ly right, the omis­sions per­pet­u­ate an unfor­tu­nate irony, and I freely admit my igno­rance of these com­posers. They go unmen­tioned in the sources I’ve read on Boulanger, and this needs to be reme­died.

  • Ana R. Guisado says:

    Thank you, Jere­my Polmear for bring­ing
    these com­ments to the pub­lic eye. The same hap­pens in Lit­er­a­ture, many great writ­ers are ignored and kept in the shad­ow.

  • Raj says:

    Thank for the arti­cle Josh Jones. In reply to Jere­my’s com­ment, I must say that I strong­ly dis­agree with his point. I am afraid that none of the com­posers he men­tioned, though their music is cer­tain­ly worth lis­ten­ing to, is any­where near the lev­el of influ­ence and accom­plish­ment as the com­posers Jones list­ed in the arti­cle. Peo­ple today are too quick to con­flate mer­i­toc­ra­cy with oppres­sive patri­archial bais. Great music always bub­bles to the sur­face regard­less of the iden­ti­ty of the cre­ator. Bach’s music did­n’t even become well-known until a cen­tu­ry after his death. Before Mendelssohn dis­cov­ered Bach’s music, Bach was only known amongst small cir­cles of afi­ciona­dos. I’m sor­ry but I am not con­vinced by the “irony” here.

  • Roberto Riggio says:

    Are you con­vinced by the irony in your own com­ment, Raj? Per­haps one of the artists men­tioned by Jones will be the Bach of suc­ceed­ing gen­er­a­tions.

  • Raj says:

    Rober­to, I guess only time will tell. ;)

  • Jeremy Polmear says:

    Hav­ing a dis­cus­sion about which com­pos­er is bet­ter can be frus­trat­ing; there’s no def­i­nite answer and it’s all a mat­ter of per­son­al taste any­way.

    There’s anoth­er way of look­ing at things: which is the ‘best’ Himalayan moun­tain — Ever­est, because it’s the high­est? K2 because it’s the hard­est to climb? Malaku because it’s the most beau­ti­ful? You get the idea.

    Why can’t we keep them all, men and women, in our Moun­tain Range of com­posers?

  • Sigmund Rosen says:

    Thank you for this arti­cle. For some rea­son Harold Brown (10/31/09–9/26/79) was not list­ed in a Boulanger Arti­cle i saw a few years ago.
    The Albany TROY 1352 CD of his string music. Has an ear­ly quar­tet c. 1932+ undoubt­ed­ly influ­enced by NB. His “Two Exper­i­ments for Flute/ Clar­inet/Bas­soon- real­ly sounds ‘French’! you can hear it on our music page of . There are also pho­tos of HB while in France along with some of his oth­er New York com­pos­er friends in 1930: Elie Sieg­meis­ter , Lehman Engel, Her­rmann, et al.(on Facebook)=Composer Harold Brown.

  • dall says:

    If music be an aca­d­e­m­ic exer­cise.

  • Jose Miranda says:

    Thank you for this arti­cle. Nadia Boule­nag­er was a tremen­dous teacher and the list of stu­dents was fan­tas­tic but I rec­om­mend a clos­er look into the life of Leonard Bern­stein as I believe that he nev­er took class­es with Nadia. They sure­ly knew each oth­er and he vis­it­ed her at least twice. But he did not took class­es with her

    Thank you in advance

    Jose Miran­da

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.