Nadia Boulanger: Mademoiselle


On the occasion

of Nadia Boulanger's 90th birthday

Nadia Boulanger is the most famous

music teacher of the 20th century.

Today, aged 90, she still teaches

pupils from all over the world.

Paul Valry wrote about her:

''N. Boulanger

sometimes allows me the illusion

''that I understand something

of the subtleties

''and skillful arrangement

of great music. ''

Here now is Igor Markevitch.

First of all,

one must bear in mind

her double origins.

On her father's side,

the French intelligentsia,

the French Academy,

the Rome Prize.

On her mother's side,

a Russian princess' family.

Hence a certain tension,

two poles which represented

- knowing Nadia as I did -

a permanent feature of her character,

of her activity,

and even of her physical appearance.

When I first came to her

as an adolescent,

I was struck by her charming profile,

by the pince-nez she wore

like a Herr Professor.

I think she wore it deliberately.

In those days, in order to exist,

a woman had to assert herself.

She probably wore that pince-nez

so that she'd be taken seriously

as a real Professor.

One thinks one is in B minor.

But no, it doesn't stay put...

With the same motive...

Each chord opens a perspective.

We are here

in Nadia Boulanger's Paris flat.

The piece she is working on

is Mozart's C minor Fantasy.

She tries to kindle

her pupils appreciation

of its surprising harmony.

He plays slowly. Rightly so.

He listens.

It seems we were in E flat minor...


a streak of tenderness:

B major.

C sharp in the tenor voice!

It's better than it was.

Then G, no!

D major! G major, sorry.

Then, a different kind

of expression...

Something else.

Some minor mistakes...


again B minor.

A rest on the dominant.

Tonic! Dominant !

Tonic !

No, 4th degree!

Tonic, dominant,

we know for sure we are in B minor.

And then...


- Then what?

- We are in D major...

Since you're playing, that's

the least we can expect of you.

So, here we are in D major.

The ear,

which heard:
f, b, f, b, f,

and suddenly...

This D major modulation

is not simply a D major modulation.

Can one actually define that?

I am using words such as tenderness

or tension. It's all wrong.

It is what the music itself is...

They have come by the thousands

to study with her.

Some of them became famous.

Pianists such as:

Dinu Lipatti,

Idil Biret,

Daniel Barenboim,

Jeremy Menuhin.

Composers like Penderecki, Berkeley,

Aaron Copland,

Jean Franaix,

Virgil Thompson,

Walter Piston,

Roger Sessions,

Elliot Carter,

Andrzej Panufnik,

Michel Legrand,

Pierre Schaeffer,

and Igor Markevitch,

the conductor

of worldwide reputation.

During my first year with her,

we would study a Bach Cantata

every week.

She revealed these works to us

in an extraordinary way.

We had the feeling

that until then

we had remained on the surface,

that we suddenly penetrated

their inner meaning,

their very structure.

I remember

my fellow student,

Sviatoslav Stravinsky,

the son of Igor, saying:

''It is as if the work at hand

suddenly became as deep as the sea.''

Indeed, we all had that feeling.

All these works acquired

a new dimension,

a new depth,

that we might never

have been aware of,

had she not played them

to us.

It went so far

that when we brought her

a score we had written,

she was able,

while sight reading it,

to correct mistakes

that had eluded us.

She had a prodigious eye,

and an ear

which were absolutely remarkable.

The accuracy of her ear

seems to have struck

all the great musicians

who knew her. Leonard Bernstein:

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Submitted on August 05, 2018

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