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Lili Boulanger's Two Pieces for Violin and Piano

March 1, 2022

On this week's lecture, resident lecturer Bruce Adolphe discusses Lili Boulanger's Two Pieces for Violin and Piano. Featuring a performance by Arnaud Sussmann, violin; Gilles Vonsattel, piano.

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Welcome to the Inside Chamber Music Podcast presented by the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. I'm Bruce Adolphe, Resident Lecturer at CMS, where I started the lecture series in 1992. In 2011, we began livestreaming the lectures on our website, the audio for this podcast comes from the ever growing archive of videos made available live and on demand ChamberMusicSociety.org

We look at the music from a compositional perspective and find parallels in novels, plays and poetry. Plus, we explore historical context and with live musicians in the studio during the lectures, we experiment with performance issues. Today's podcast features two pieces for violin and piano by Lili Boulanger. They're performed by Arnaud Sussmann Violin and Gilles Vonsattel piano

Greetings. Welcome again to the Rose studio for another inside chamber music. Today we're looking at the music of Lili Boulanger. If you don't know the name, you probably do know the name of her sister, Nadia Boulanger. Nadia Boulanger was a very famous teacher who taught composition to Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Astor Piazzolla, many, many others, and also famously refused to give a lesson to George Gershwin when Ravel introduced them.

And she said to Gershwin, "I have nothing to teach you." And no one understands exactly what she meant by that. But we won't analyze it. Nadia Boulanger was the older sister of Lili Boulanger. Lili only lived 24 years, which is why you probably don't know much of her music. She was a truly great composer who found a beautiful personal voice by the time she was about 18 years old.

But her talent was discovered when she was two. How does that happen? Well, obviously, the parents have to be able to discover the talent. And both of her parents were very established musicians. Her mother had been a famous opera singer. Her father, who was much older, was a conductor, composer, and was teaching voice at the Conservatoire in Paris, where Fauré was the director at the time and the family knew Fauré and practically every famous musician in Paris. I would say they did know every musician in Paris.

The parents of Lili and Nadia met when Ernest Boulanger, the father, was conducting an opera in Russia, and one of the singers was soon to be his wife. And when they had their two kids, they realized their musical talent. First Nadia and then Lili. Lili's perfect pitch and ability to sing in tune was recognized at age two, and she was so musical that she followed her older sister, six years older, into the conservatory when she was really a child.

Nadia was herself a young teenager, and there, tagging along, going to the classes and taking private lessons was Lili Boulanger, who learned to play violin, piano and harp, sing and compose, all at an extraordinary level that made her the darling of practically everybody. She's also famous for having been the first woman to win the first prize of the Prix de Rome.

It's important to know that she wasn't the first woman to win a prize. She was the first to win the first prize. Now, interestingly, there's some family history here. Ernest Boulanger won the Prix de Rome when he was 19 years old. So, Nadia Boulanger, who wanted to be like her father, entered the Prix de Rome several times and she did win a second prize for a piece called The Siren, Les Sirènes.

But she didn't win the first prize. But then her little sister did win at age 19, exactly like her father. I must say, Nadia was very devoted to Lili Boulanger. She was her teacher. They often set the same texts to music, and she established organizations in her memory after Lili died at age 24. But you have to imagine that she was also a little bit jealous being the older sister who wanted exactly to be a famous composer in a way that was unusual for a woman at that time.

And she didn't quite pull it off, but her little sister did. And then died so young. We're going to start with a little bit of music from the Nocturne for violin and piano. And I'm pleased once again to have Arnaud Susmann and Gilles Vonsattel to play for us. Here is the opening of The Nocturne of Lili Boulanger. (music)

It's very beautiful music and I don't need to tell you how to listen to it because it's gorgeous music and you're probably being pulled into the style and maybe you didn't want it to stop. But it's interesting to see how it fits into the French music of that time. Her teacher was Gabrielle Fauré. I mentioned that they knew him, the family knew him.

And of course, Ernest Boulanger, Lili's father was teaching at the Conservatoire, and his director was was Gabriel Fauré. She learned not directly from Fauré most of the time. She learned indirectly from Nadia, and she studied with other people. But Nadia studied with Fauré very closely and gave lessons to her younger sister, who also had contact with many of the teachers in various ways as a very, very young child.

Much of what you hear harmonically is very French and very Fauré. Fauré studied at the Niedermeier School, and I'll be giving a lecture on Fauré soon in which I will really get into Fauré's harmonic language and how he taught at the conservatoire. But already you're hearing a lot of Fauré's sound in Lili Boulagner. But she did take it further and further make it her own even as a very young person. Part of that sound is that a chord to Fauré and to his students was a note and all its permutations of possible harmonies.

So the note C didn't just mean C major. (music) Even if you were in the key of C. It also meant C minor, and diminished, and half diminished, and dominant, and dominant ninth, and dominant minor, ninth, all of those things. And so you're actually hearing that idea spelled out for you in the opening of this piece as you have a pedal tone. (music)

And I'll get back to that in a moment. Another very Fauré idea is this inharmonic modulation, was not invented by Fauré and it's been used by many composers before this time. But a very specific kind of modulation where an augmented chord, here's C major, (music) augmented G, sharp it, and let that take you into another key, but just temporarily. Because what was very French and very Fauré was not to change key for long but to kind of flirt with keys. To sort of visit them and come back to migrate in return.

This is very typical of French music and it comes in and out so much and you'll hear so much of this that I like to think of it as a kind of divergent chromaticism. Meaning, instead of being chromaticism in the German sense, it's chromaticism like a color, like a, as I said, a flirtation. Which I won't get into Fauré and all his flirtations right now.

But they're a huge part of his life and his music. Now, this whole idea of the opening, again, the tune could have been a pop song, but it's not. She obviously could have written a simple French melody, a song, and she did write some songs. But this tune (music), it doesn't have the shape of a normal song. It has the phrases you might find in a popular song, but it keeps growing and evolving and then shifting key so that it is more elusive.

And that's one of the things that makes it a piece of classical music and not a song. Of course you can have a classical song, but a piece of instrumental classical music that evolves organically and grows. A contemporary in America of Lili Boulanger, who was writing songs and practically invented the American idea of a popular song of a certain kind, was Jerome Kern.

What would Jerome Kern do with Lili Boulanger's tune from The Nocturne? I think this. (music) And it's over. But that's popular music for you. Now, getting back to The Nocturne of Boulanger, you notice right at the beginning (music) that there is this, what's called a pedal point, a pedal point, very familiar term in music, the idea comes from putting the pedal on an organ down and leaving your foot there. (music) And moving the notes around.

So the pedal point is a foot on a pedal, literally. That evolves to be not just organ music, but it evolves and it's found all over music. Now, Lili Boulanger loved the pedal point. I want to point out that when you first hear a pedal point, your ear assumes that you're in the key of that first note. (music) But you're not.

It's a very small, subtle thing. But this piece, Nocturne, is in F major. And it's starting on C, which is not revolutionary, but it's interesting and kind of subtle and charming in a very French way, because you don't really realize that at first. And then you do. And then eventually, of course you're in F. You feel that this is not the tonic.

But what I like about it is it reminds me of the idea of entrainment as, if you know psychology, you know Konrad Lorenz, who studied animals and showed that when little animals, especially chickens, but similar creatures are born, the first thing they see, they think is their mother and they follow it around, even if it's a toy or a human, they follow the first thing around.

And so your ear does the same thing. And when you hear a note, especially just one note, you think it's your mother. I mean, sorry, you think it's the tonic, it's the key, and you follow it around and then your ear shifts and realizes, no, that's not the mother key at all. It's something else. A small point. But this business of the pedal points, which in French is called the le point d'orgue literally means the organ point, is that it's a very, very big thing in the music of Lili Boulanger and also Nadia Boulanger.

I'm going to play a couple of examples. Here's a piece called Les Sirènes. It's just the opening. I can't do the whole thing for you because it's for a solo soprano, women's chorus and piano. But it's a piece by Lili Boulanger written in 1911, and it starts like this. (music) So you have, just like you had in the other piece.

But here at C-sharp, a pedal point that just, here it's very hypnotic as pedal points are in French music. And it's called Les Sirènes so the sirens are singing to the sailors. And the hypnotic pedal point is a... maybe it's where the sirens are. It's pulling them towards, inevitably, inexorably, this particular C-sharp of the sirens.

One of the interesting things about this is that Nadia Boulanger wrote a piece called La Sirènes. Basically the same. In 1908, and she tried to, with that piece, win the first prize of the Prix de Rome, but she got the second prize. And then using the exact same text, her sister, with probably the encouragement by Nadia, wrote Les Sirènes, not for the Prix de Rome, but she did write it. Same text, same idea.

It's actually a more beautiful, more unusual structure and it's, frankly, a better piece. And Nadia Boulanger did realize that her sister somehow had more finesse and more skill in ways that really made a difference. Interesting that it was the same text written just a few years later. Now, here's another example of pedal point, but this one is Nadia Boulanger. From a song. (music)

Now, that's just the end of a song with just the piano, not the singer, but it gives you the same exact kind of pedal point. Interestingly, they both must have been thinking, very likely, of the most famous French piece of that time, which is Pelléas et Mélisande of Debussy, the opera. Which has in the beginning of Act three, this passage. (music) Very, very similar and very beautiful.

You know, the French idea of a pedal point is very specific. It's not the same as the Germanic idea. But before I explain that, here's another pedal point. This one is Lili Boulanger and it's very special. Again, I'm playing primarily the piano accompaniment to a song. The note F sharp in the bass is just there almost all the time.

And then when you think it's gone, it appears in other places in the harmony. So I'm going to bring it out more than is musical and a few places just so you're sure that it's still there. (music) And now it's gone with a new pedal point. So she really loved pedal points. Brahms loved them too. And Brahms used a lot of pedal points in his music and he was criticized for it in the Requiem, where there are huge passages of pedal points that go on for a long time.

And George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and critic, mostly a playwright. His music criticism is very sad to read. He was a very angry music critic. He criticized Brahms. He didn't like Brahms for a long time, and he specifically criticized him for using pedal points. And he said pedal points are old fashioned. Essentially, I'm summing up, that they come from the time of the Baroque period.

The music of Bach and Handel is where the pedal point belongs. And that Brahms, now I'm quoting, "Confuses the cowl with the monk thinking the cowl makes the monk." Well, the clothing, the pedal point makes you religious. It doesn't. Well, that's what George Bernard Shaw said. And then it turns out there's a letter from Brahms to Clara Schumann saying, "I hope you like the pedal points in this particular piece."

He said, "I know your softness for pedal points." So that was very personal. But Brahms's use of pedal points is not French. And I'm bringing this out in order for you to see clearly what a French pedal point is in the manner of Debussy and Lili Boulanger and also Ravel and some others. So here's a little bit of Brahms' first symphony with a pedal point, which is the same note that we have in The Nocturne of Lili Boulanger.

But it's in the Brahms symphony. (music) Very different kind of music. But what's really important here is the pedal point is like destiny or fate or God. The pedal point is a powerful force and the harmonies are all functioning tonal harmonies. In other words, they fit in a key and they have their role in the key to play like a grammar.

And the C that's there is something that the courts are trying to get away from, actually, to get to another cadence. And they finally do. And it's a huge thing to break free of the power and the force of that low C. Now, in French music, the low C or the pedal point in any case is very different.

It actually is a hypnotic, usually, point of reference and security. You hold on to it like an anchor because the harmonies around it are ambiguous. They're floating. We're not sure what key we're in sometimes. They move about not to break away from it, but almost hovering around it in some kind of hypnotic sense. That's very typical. Here's the opening of Ravel's Piano Trio, which has exactly the same effect that we've been talking about in Boulanger and Debussy.

(music) This is the note. Whoop.

So that E (singing) that E pedal point is, again, a frame of reference. By the way, this is written after the Boulanger. Not an imitation of it, but it was a thing in French music. This pedal point that is not representation of destiny or power, but instead a point of security and safety around which harmonies might float in some kind of parallel or nonfunctioning, meaning not doing their function within a key, not the grammar, not the syntax, but simply colors.

They're just floating beautiful ornaments. If you think back to the Ravel lecture, I mentioned the musical objects. Well, if chords are musical objects placed around that, you have a pedal point, which is the frame or the resting point visually. If you want a comparison to something visual, the resting point around which you can have this kind of complexity.

Let's hear from maybe the beginning again and let's stop right after that happens. So we'll stop right before (French). (music) Great, beautiful. Now, another great example of a similar thing occurs at bar, if we start at bar 22, where it says, "Augmenté," and stop at the (French). We're going to hear a beautiful modulation, again, where there's a temporary change of key - doesn't last long and it's inharmonic and uses this beautiful common tone. (music) Yeah, it passed right through there.

I hope you heard it. This is what's typical of Fauré and all his students, actually. It's that a beautiful complex modulation occurs but then you go right past it. If this were German music, you would not pass. You would stay there. There's a phrase, a word called tonicisation, which means you go to a new area and make a note, for a while, the center, the new key.

You make it the tonic. It's tonicized. But with Fauré and Lili Boulanger and also Debussy, who did not study with Fauré, and Ravel and many others, in French music you can pass by such an amazing modulation and it just passes right by. And this was a huge, huge influence on jazz in America.

The idea of a chord or a key that just floats by because you're actually substituting something for something else. And the whole idea of substitution becomes a very big thing in jazz around the same time that it's happening in France. Here's a nice example of a substitution. Let's play from, I say let's play, but I'm not playing. They're playing.

Let's play from bar 36 to the end. (music) There are two things in there I'd like to point out. One is it seems like she knew that this sound might make someone think of Debussy and of Berlioz, because when she does this (music) most French musicians would have thought (music) which is Debussy, The Afternoon of a Faun. But a beautiful moment in that last passage by Lili Boulanger is exactly what I'm talking about.

A substitution that is a brief flirtation with another key. This passage... (music) All of these notes are flattened. If they weren't, it would just stay in F major and be perfectly ordinary like this. (music) But I already passed that passage because I just played an F major seventh chord. But she flats all the notes except F. It's not a strange harmony.

For those who care, it's called the F half diminished. I mean, I'm one. I care about it, so don't take it the wrong way. I mean, I do care about these things and people argue about it. Half diminished is a weird English expression, not used anywhere else. But she does it, though, in a French way, which is just to flat everything except one note and come back.

So it's not a modulation. It's not being used to even refer to another key. It's just one chord that is colored differently. That's why we call it French. That's what it's really all about. Now I want to get into some of her harmonic technique, but before I do, I'm going to give you a flashforward, like a taste of the future.

She didn't live very long, as you know. She lived to be 24, but she was evolving quite amazingly, very rapidly into a more modern composer with every piece. Here's a little bit of piece of music called D'un Matin de Printemps, The Morning in Spring by Lili Boulanger written in the year she died 1918. It's completely different music. Just a, sorry, a breath of I don't know if it's fresh air, but it's completely different air. (music)

Yeah. So there you see that she was becoming a little more dissonant and more angular and she used some clusters. She was really keeping up with the times with her own voice. A true tragedy of a death at 24. An amazing musical mind and very remarkable composer. I want to say a few things about her harmonic style as she learned it from Fauré and how it changed in her hands.

And for those of you interested in jazz, you'll find this extremely familiar or at least provocative in terms of thinking about jazz and French harmony. The other movement you're going to hear along with Nocturne is called Cortège. And Cortège was originally a little piano piece as part of a set of three piano pieces. So I'm going to take the first of those three piano pieces because it's a perfect way to explain what I want to say to you.

It's called In an Ancient Garden. And first I'm going to play what Lili Boulanger wrote, just a few phrases, and then I'll take it apart for you and we'll examine what she's doing. (music) It's quite beautiful and very unusual. It starts and ends in the same key, C-sharp minor. Along the way, it passes through strange harmonic chromatic, I don't want to call them flirtations here, but they're almost wormholes.

I mean, it's kind of divergent harmony. In other words, it's moving sideways and back and you don't know what's happening. But I'll explain to you what's happening. Here we go. The easiest way to understand this, and this is very French, is to not do any of those sharps and flats that she put in there, take them all out, play the whole thing in one key.

It's very easy to do that. So it's like taking an eraser and erasing the flats and sharps other than what belongs to C-sharp minor. Those four sharps of C-sharp minor. I did that for you. And this is what it sounds like if you take out all those substitutions and unusual accidentals. (music) It's actually quite lovely just as it is. There's really nothing wrong with it, musically speaking.

I mean, nobody would say, "That's not perfect." Use it. I love it. But that's not what she does because she is, of her time, influenced by Fauré and Debussy, but finding her own voice and what makes her own voice is she is willing to do slightly stranger things than her teachers were doing at that time. So let's listen to this phrase by phrase. (music)

Alright. She does this. (music) She just took all of these sharps out. And then the next phrase would be this. (music) And she simply lowers it all. She keeps it flatted. And then again, now she is raising it, but not high enough. Now she takes away the flats and she puts the flats back while leaving one note in the other key. It resolves.

And then she keeps this note and raises the chord beneath it, keeping this one note in a different key. Whoa, that is dissonant and then resolves that and suddenly goes back, just falls back into C-sharp minor. So she is walking a dangerous chromatic path, allowing strange things to happen. Now, to make this as clear as possible. And you're going to hear this in her music when we hear the performance, I took various tunes everyone knows so that you can hear the process more simply.

Here's the Brahms lullaby. I mentioned Brahms before. Well, this is a simpler Brahms, a lullaby. And there is a pedal point in the lullaby, which, again, it's German, but here it simply represents a rocking cradle and stability. So it's a little more like a French one, but it's still Brahms. Here's the lullaby in its familiar form. (music) Now, what Boulanger would do, inspired by Fauré's technique, is this. (music) Now I'm going to take a risk here.

I'm just going to do that with my eyes closed and use the technique and improvise. Because the whole point of this is that it became an improvizational style in American jazz through French music of substituting chords. So I'll take a little risk. Bear with me. (music) I had fun. I hope you enjoyed that. Now, you can see, though, that it's... the gift of French harmony to American jazz players was enormous.

Now, taking that further, here's a famous tune by Chopin from a Waltz, and I'm going to harmonize it in the Boulanger school. (music) And now I'm going to take it just a little bit further in the same style. (music) Let me explain what I mean by that. In the first one, I left the tune alone, and I just did strange things to the harmony which disturbs your sense of the tune.

But now I'm going to do the same kinds of things to the tune as well. (music) It's almost like looking in one of those strange mirrors in the carnival. I don't know if anybody does that anymore, but those warped mirrors. You probably have on your phone a warped mirror app. Take a look. See what I mean. Now, before we hear this piece, I need to point out that most people, if they know anything about Lili Boulanger, the first thing they say was, "She was the first woman to win the first prize in the Prix de Rome."

And that's true. And it's important to know that the Prix de Rome was hugely important in France. More important than any prize in America, except maybe something like the Oscars. The French public and the French press followed which composers won the Prix de Rome. And when Nadia Boulanger won the second prize, there was a scandal in the papers because she was supposed to write a vocal fugue as part of the competition, and she wrote an instrumental fugue instead.

And this made the headlines in the French newspapers. It's amazing. But I want to point out that the first woman to ever win a prize in the Prix de Rome was not a Boulanger. It was a woman named Hélène Fleury. And I think she deserves a mention here. She is pretty much forgotten. I don't know how much music she wrote.

There's not a lot that I could find, but I found something that fits exactly with what I'm talking about because she was part of the same world, a little bit earlier generation. And here's an organ piece dedicated to George Jakob, who was a famous composer and organist. It starts off, interestingly, it starts off very similarly in a key without anything changing.

And then she does the same technique. It's a little different sounding. Not quite as remarkable, in my opinion, as Lili Boulanger, but she does the same things. So, I'll play a little bit of it. Here's the opening phrase of Pastorale by Hélène Fleury. (music) Now, it stays like that for a while, but then a little bit later, she does the same techniques of substituting harmonies that I'm discussing here. Here we go. (music)

I hope you're hearing how strange that was in that same way. Especially to go from C-sharp minor to keeping that C-sharp and everything around, just like Lili Boulanger. Everything around that note shifts and then it comes back and they like the open fifths that sometimes, especially organists like it, but also French composers. You might remember that Nadia Boulanger, an excerpt I played ended on open fifths.

It gives it a kind of medieval quality, which was, that ancient quality was something that French composers wanted to draw upon at that time. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were using modes, church modes and medieval and renaissance feeling. But with this modern, complex sense of chromatic harmony all mixed together. This came from, originally, the way Fauré understood what he was taught at the École Niedermeyer and then blossomed.

And all of these French composers. Even, to a certain extent, with Debussy, who did not study with Fauré but was certainly aware of everything that was going on and was at the Conservatoire. Now, Lili Boulanger died at 24 in 1918. That's the same year that Debussy died. But I want to point out what the world was like in, especially in Europe in 1918. 1918, when she died, Paris was being bombed.

It was the final year of World War One and the first year of a pandemic, the Spanish flu, which killed 15 million people worldwide. So Lili Boulanger is an important figure in more ways than we sometimes imagine. And I'm hoping that you'll find her music as extraordinary as I do and that, do some research, dig it up, find it on YouTube and become a fan of Lili Boulanger.

And now we're going to hear The Nocturne and Cortège. Thank you. (music)

We hope you enjoyed the podcast. Visit ChamberMusicSociety.org to watch videos of these lectures as well as masterclasses and concert performances. And while you're there, check out the calendar of upcoming Chamber Music Society events in New York and around the world. See you next time.