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.