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