How French Music Teacher Nadia Boulanger Raised a Generation of Composers: Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass & More

One of my favorite quotes about cre­ativ­i­ty comes from 20th-cen­tu­ry elec­tric bass vir­tu­oso Jaco Pas­to­rius: “You don’t get bet­ter, you grow.” The aspi­ra­tion to get “bet­ter” implies a cat­e­go­ry of “best” – a height artists fre­quent­ly despair of ever reach­ing. Pas­to­rius reject­ed a state of per­fec­tion, which would mean stop­ping, going no fur­ther, freez­ing in place. “One can always learn more. One can always under­stand more. The ques­tion is to pro­vide your­self with con­fi­dence.” That wis­dom comes not from Jaco Pas­to­rius but from 20th cen­tu­ry French music teacher and com­pos­er Nadia Boulanger, who might not have approved of the lib­er­tine jazz phe­nom’s life, giv­en her aris­to­crat­ic con­ser­vatism, but hearti­ly endorsed his wis­dom about con­tin­u­ous cre­ative growth.

Although deeply root­ed in a clas­si­cal tra­di­tion which strove for per­fec­tion, Boulanger taught, influ­enced, and cham­pi­oned some of the cen­tu­ry’s most avant-garde com­posers, such as Igor Stravin­sky, who broke vio­lent­ly with the past, as well as jazz greats like Quin­cy Jones, who took her lessons in an entire­ly dif­fer­ent mod­ern pop direc­tion.

Indeed, Boulanger presided over “one of the most expan­sive  peri­ods in music his­to­ry, par­tic­u­lar­ly for Amer­i­ca,” says the nar­ra­tor of the Inside the Score doc­u­men­tary above, “How Nadia Boulanger Raised a Gen­er­a­tion of Com­posers.” Aaron Cop­land, Leonard Bern­stein, Charles Strauss, and even min­i­mal­ists like Philip Glass… all stud­ied with Boulanger at some point in their career.

Boulanger also took on many female stu­dents, like com­pos­er Lousie Tal­ma, but she pre­ferred to work with men. (The famous­ly stern teacher once com­pli­ment­ed a female stu­dent by call­ing her “Mon­sieur”). She had lit­tle regard for Roman­tic ideas about “genius,” and cer­tain­ly not all of her stu­dents were as tal­ent­ed as the list of famous names asso­ci­at­ed with her, but for those with aspi­ra­tions in the clas­si­cal world, a vis­it to Boulanger’s Paris apart­ment con­sti­tut­ed a rite of pas­sage. “Aaron Cop­land and Vir­gil Thom­son led the way in the ’20s,” notes Red Bull Music Acad­e­my, “trans­form­ing Boulanger’s clear, tart tonal exact­ness into a new ver­sion of hardy Amer­i­cana.” She became such a stal­wart pres­ence in the world of 20th cen­tu­ry com­po­si­tion that com­pos­er Ned Rorem once joked, “Myth cred­its every Amer­i­can town with two things: a 10-cent store and a Boulanger stu­dent.”

At age 90, in 1977, Boulanger was well known as the most famous music teacher in the world when direc­tor Bruno Mon­sain­geon caught up with her for the near­ly hour-long inter­view above. See the aged but still incred­i­bly sharp (no pun intend­ed) leg­end still teach­ing, and strug­gling to put into words exact­ly how it is that music keeps us grow­ing past math­e­mat­i­cal lim­i­ta­tions. “Can one actu­al­ly define that?” she asks mid-sen­tence while instruct­ing a stu­dent. “I am using words such as ten­der­ness or ten­sion. It’s all wrong. It is what the music itself is.…”

Learn much more about Boulanger’s extra­or­di­nary life and work as a music teacher and com­pos­er in the doc­u­men­tary Madamoi­selle: A Por­trait of Nadia Boulanger, fur­ther up, and in our pre­vi­ous post at the link below.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

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

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

A Min­i­mal Glimpse of Philip Glass

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

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