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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 6, No. 3

Nadia Boulanger, That Woman Down the Hall

by Don Campbell / November 1, 2000

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"So far as musical pedagogy is concerned–and by extension of musical creation–Nadia Boulanger is the most influential person who ever lived. Ned Rorem, 1979

In the forty years that have passed since I first met Nadia Boulanger in Fontainebleau in the summer of 1960, I have continued to be astonished at her penetrating and far-reaching influence on music today. Present pedagogical systems, techniques in composition and the computer as a notation master have all changed and modified the way we compose, orchestrate and organize our musical expression. Yet, Nadia Boulanger and her remarkable skill as a teacher for over 70 years still can direct and inspire students of future generations.

"One can never train a child carefully enough," she said. "If you take general education, one learns to recognize color, to recognize words, but not to recognize sound. So the eyes are trained, but the ears very little. This is not because someone taught me that red is not blue that I pretended to become a painter. But most people hear nothing because their ears have never been trained and many musicians hear very badly and very little."

Boulanger was a master of sonic precision. She insisted the muscles of the ear and the focus of the mind be so acutely developed that intervals, rhythmic patterns and harmonic progressions be ingrained deeply, not only within the conscious mind, but also within the well of melodic and harmonic archives resting in the memories of music heard throughout a lifetime.

Born into a family of musicians, Nadia as well as her sister Lili were the fruition of four generations of teachers and performers at the National Conservatory in Paris. Born on Sept. 16, 1887, her father’s 72nd birthday, she became a musical phenomenon. Sound was far too potent for her young ears, and it was not until she was five years old that she was able to withstand listening to music. She usually ran away from music with her hands over her ears. One day, while a fire engine passed her apartment in Paris, she screamed a loud pitch in unison with the sound and suddenly got up and touched the same note on the piano keyboard. From that day forward, she stayed at the piano and recognized the unison of sounds that came from the musical and non-musical world around her. By the time she was sixteen, she had won most of the first prizes at the Paris Conservatory and the grand second prize of the Grande Prix de Rome.

Her younger sister, Lili, a brilliant visionary within the impressionist style, in 1913 became the first woman to receive the Grande Prix de Rome. Lili died on March 15, 1918, at the age of twenty-four. Nadia declared at that time she would never compose again and began her extraordinary journey as mentor to young composers and performers until 1979 when she died at age 92 in Fontainebleau.

It was at the first session of the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau in 1921 that Boulanger began to establish her reputation as an astonishing teacher who remembered every chord progression in Bach’s Preludes and Fugues and how they relate to modern music.

When Aaron Copeland arrived for that first summer school, he could not fathom studying with a woman. But after a few weeks, one of his classmates insisted that he attend a class with "That Woman Down the Hall." In two hours, his life changed. He found his mentor, colleague and friend. Within a few years, dozens of promising musicians moved to Paris to study with her, and in the course of her career, thousands of students from abroad were captivated by her skill and yet exhilarated and intimidated by her knowledge and inspired by her deep, manly-voiced philosophical statements.

In one striking pronouncement, she said, "Sight Reading is like life. The important purpose is to come from the beginning and go to the end. Never stop. Never stop life. It must continue, even with a mistake, even if we think we repeat."

Throughout her long career, the ability to demonstrate musical examples was so vast, it seemed as if a whole concordance of Western harmony and tonality was at her fingertips. In preparing my book, Master Teacher, Nadia Boulanger, (Pastoral Press, 1983) I remember one student telling me the amazing story of how Nadia looked at the score of a new string quartet movement for a few seconds, then said, "My dear, these four measures have the same harmonic progression as Bach’s F Major Prelude and Chopin’s in certain measures of his F Major Ballad." Then she asked, "Can you not come up with something new and interesting?"

As a thirteen year-old, I entered a world of solfège, counterpoint and keyboard harmony. It was all brilliantly complicated and I knew no better than to dive into the remarkable world of rigor and focus. At one of our first lessons, I recall her saying to me, "Don, you are so young and now everything will be so easy for you. Can you memorize one measure a day?" I responded, "Yes, of course." She said, "Good, you can be my student for two years. Today we begin with this first measure." She then opened the Well-Tempered Clavier, Book One and asked me to play the simple C Major Prelude. I thought, "Oh, music will be simple by just memorizing a few beats a day!" Needless to say, every thirty days or so, my mind was racked with challenge. I did not pass her high expectations, but I began the long and inspiring road toward musical literacy.

It is easy to romanticize such an influential and powerful teacher. Many students left her classes defeated, depressed and exhausted. "I am your highest degree of tension. Listen to it in your self," she said. Rigor, focus, accuracy and attentiveness were just the first requirements for a successful life as a musician.

As for the kinds of students she taught, she explained, "There are three classifications of applications from students: those without money and without talent, those I do not take; those with talent and without money, those I take, and those with talent and money, those I do not get."

In one of her last articles for Music Journal, she wrote, "Some think the young composers of today try to avoid consonance. But what do we call consonance? Debussy as a boy offered his explanation when one time the secretary of the conservatory came to him and asked, "Have you finished poisoning the ears of your friends with all his dissonance?" And Debussy, only 12 years old, answered, "Oh Mr. Secretary, dissonance is today. Consonance is tomorrow."

I often wonder what "That Woman Down the Hall" would think about both the consonance and dissonance of the twenty-first century. A visionary based on the most conservative traditions, she loved Bach and Debussy. She brought Monteverdi to life after centuries of sleep. She seeded and tuned the overtones of thought into music.

As she declared: "Nothing is better than music. When it takes us out of time, it has done more for us than we have the right to hope for. It has broadened the limits of our sorrowful lives; it has lit up the sweetness of our hours of happiness by effacing the pettinesses that diminish us. It brings us back to the pure and the new."n

Don Campbell is author of nine books in fifteen languages, including The Mozart Effect, The Mozart Effect forChildren and Master Teacher, Nadia Boulanger. He serves on the boards of the Boulder Philharmonic and the American Music Research Center.

He can be reached at www.mozarteffect.com

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