'Truly one of the great French song cycles of the first quarter of this century' (Fanfare, USA)
'Utterly seductive music with depth, sensitively performed. Highly recommended' (Classic CD)
'Le belle chaleur de timbre de Martyn Hill rehausse la sensualité de ces pages. Un miracle de beauté' (Diapason, France)
Hymne au soleil [3'59]
It must be nearly thirty years since, as a student, I first encountered the music of Lili Boulanger on the classic Markevich record originally issued on the Everest label in the USA (and subsequently available on EMI). I was transported by what I heard and immediately wrote to her sister Nadia, then in her eightieth year but still teaching and functioning with the same formidable energy that had won her pupils and admirers the world over for fifty years. That music – and that letter – effectively changed my life. After spending the summer of 1967 studying with Nadia at Fontainebleau I made my first broadcast on music the following year, and published my first article – both on the subject of Lili (1968 was the fiftieth anniversary of her death). I have kept in sporadic contact with her music, and produced a (now deleted) record of chamber works for Unicorn-Kanchana in 1982, three years after Nadia’s death. Biographies of both Nadia and Lili have since appeared containing much fascinating food for thought. But nothing provides a rational explanation for how Lili, at the age of twenty-four, died the great composer which in my estimation she was. The entire Boulanger phenomenon, in fact, is unique in the history of music.
Everyone knows of the contribution made by Nadia Boulanger to the music of our time, principally as a teacher. I am now convinced that the whole pattern and purpose of her life of mature achievement was determined by her relationship with her sister. In her first letter to me, in November 1967, she wrote: ‘She [Lili] died in 1918 but her words are still guiding and helping me.’ Surely it was recognition of Lili’s superior gifts as a composer which led her to give up composing herself; just as surely it was Lili’s premature death which led to a special, indeed unique, quasi-maternal rapport which she tried to establish with every member of her international family of students. As she explained once to David Wilde: ‘My mother lived from the day of my birth to the day of her death to me, for me, as me, in understanding me. And my sister, knowing she was to die, being twenty-four, said to me: “Remember that your students will always, when you’re older, bring you what I brought until the day I left you.” And that is a fact: that they enter, and very often I think of what she said; and then I love them in a way which is not earthly, which is an ideal, but they take a great importance, and they make teaching a sacred form of life.’
Both the Boulanger sisters were attractive and gifted women, though Lili could perhaps lay the greater claim to orthodox beauty of feature. They were both photogenic, particularly Lili with her beautiful deep dark eyes. (Nadia’s personality was such that to the end of life she could hold an audience enraptured by the music of her voice alone.) Of Lili’s strength of character a number of contemporary reports have come down to us; but the soundest evidence of all is, of course, provided by her music, in which masculine and feminine elements are startlingly juxtaposed. Roy Harris once stated that Nadia had the ‘judgment of a strong man combined with the intuition of a marvellous woman’, and much the same could be said of Lili. In fact all the qualities which assumed for Nadia a paramount importance in music, and which she strove tirelessly to foster in her students, are seen to have been present in Lili. She had star quality, a passionate inner life, inner energy, enthusiasm, awareness, strength of thought, poetic sensibility, involvement, gravity of purpose, discipline, concentration – her life and music bear testimony to all these, and I dare say she lived the span of her twenty-four years as intensely as those who achieve their statutory three-score-and-ten and more. Certainly her masterpiece Du fond de l’abîme (‘De profundis’) is a work of complete technical and spiritual maturity: into it she seems to have compressed the emotional experience and depth of insight of a lifetime.
The question is: how did Lili do it? At the age of two she contracted bronchial pneumonia, from which she recovered only with a permanently undermined resistance to infection. Ultimately it was a form of intestinal cancer which destroyed her, and a protracted and painful business it was. Yet she fought back with astonishing strength, determined she would say all she had to say while there was time. (Does the increasing predominance of ostinato in her music have anything to do – as it certainly does in the case of Holst – with the God-given labour-saving device of the repeat-mark? Holst, who was plagued by neuritis in his right arm, found it very useful to be able to write two or more bars for the price – in terms of expenditure of effort – of one.) She very nearly succeeded: the only major score she left unfinished was an operatic setting of Maeterlinck’s La Princesse Maleine. How she learned what she needed so quickly and so thoroughly is hard to explain. Probably her mother’s insistence on intensive concentration helped, and there was also the fact that Boulanger père was already seventy when Nadia was born in 1887, seventy-seven when Lili arrived; adulthood must have been assumed early on by the sisters. Whatever the means, Lili acquired a totally professional technique with unnerving speed and facility. Her orchestration, for instance, is masterly. She was essentially a poet-in-sound, with an artist’s feeling for beauty of colour and texture. Yet Lili’s opportunities for hearing the actual sound of her orchestration were limited basically to a few performances of her cantata Faust et Hélène. Her finest scores – Du fond de l’abîme, Psaume 129, the Vieille prière bouddhique, the Pie Jesu – were never performed in her lifetime; but when they were, no changes were needed apart from a few modifications of dynamics. Woman’s intuition, perhaps? Du fond de l’abîme also demonstrates that, from a formal point of view, Lili was in complete command of the technical resources she required. Her architecture shows masterful awareness of symphonic practice; and whether or not Nadia was at that time impressing on her pupils the importance of the grande ligne – the thread or lifeline that runs through music and provides at any moment the link between what goes before and what follows after, so creating flow, continuity and inevitability – she could have pointed to no finer example than Du fond de l’abîme.
Most of Lili’s published compositions are vocal. This reflects not only the traditions with which she was surrounded by family, friends and teachers as she grew up – solo song, opera, vocal or choral ensemble, sacred music – but also the need to prepare herself technically for the up-and-coming Prix de Rome, which she won in 1913 (the first time it was awarded to a woman). Of the five choral pieces here recorded, Lili provided all except Hymne au soleil with orchestral accompaniment (unpublished and difficult to obtain); she also made orchestral versions of several of the Clairières dans le ciel song-cycle. First to be written were Les sirènes and Renouveau, both completed towards the end of 1911 when she was eighteen; both are impressionistic nature-pieces, expertly written in what Nadia called ‘the language of her time’ (‘le langage de son époque’). What is immediately apparent is the trainee-composer’s poetic sensibility and, in particular, her feeling for vocal texture. By 1913 – the year in which she won the Prix de Rome with Faust et Hélène – her technique was maturing rapidly. Renouveau was in fact written for the preliminary round – the concours d’essai – of this competition.
Like Renouveau and Les sirènes, Soir sur la plaine is a nature-poem dating from 1913; but if the first two were freshly inspired water-colours, here Lili is painting richly in oils. She is still using an impressionist vocabulary but gives it more than a touch of her own mind. Hymne au soleil belongs to the previous year (1912) and clearly registers the impact of Debussy’s then-brand-new Martyre de Saint Sébastien; but it also looks forward in its sturdy masculinity to one of the first works of Lili’s true maturity, her setting of Psalm 24 (‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that therein is’).
For Lili, B flat minor was the key of the abyss, of mourning and despair. Its Stygian gloom envelopes not only Du fond de l’abîme but also Pour les funérailles d’un soldat, a de Musset setting for solo baritone, chorus and orchestra which, within the quasi-objective context of funereal formality and ritual, articulates the young composer’s prescience of human misery. The opening and closing sections, with their pungent scoring for brass, wind, and drums on the one hand and the wordless chromatic lament of the chorus on the other, certainly rank amongst her best inventions. The pizzicato figures for double basses, as they imitate, Britten-like, the marching beat of muffled drums, sustain the B flats implacably to the end. What is here recorded is the composer’s own version with piano accompaniment; and it is remarkable how the ‘B flat minor’ black resonates over the keyboard in all directions.
Clairières dans le ciel (‘Clearings in the heavens’) is perhaps the most important of Lili’s secular works. Ever since she acquired a copy of Francis Jammes’s collection of poems entitled Tristesses she wanted to set them to music. Jammes is classified as a symbolist poet on account of his versification and syntax; on the other hand his concern for clarity and simplicity is decidedly un-symbolist. Having acquired both the poet’s permission to set his verses, and his agreement to a change of title, Lili chose thirteen from the twenty-four poems of the cycle. As her biographer Léonie Rosenstiel points out, Lili almost certainly identified with the heroine of the poems – a tall, somewhat mysterious young girl who had suddenly vanished from the poet’s life, we do not know how or why. Jammes recollects his emotions more or less in tranquillity; for the most part they are induced by fleeting natural phenomena – two columbines on a hillside, the sight of a country landscape, a memory of last year’s lilacs, a sudden rainstorm. Material objects also arouse strong feelings – a keepsake medallion given him by his love, a black Madonna at the foot of his bed. (Darius Milhaud, one of Jammes’s greatest friends and admirers – he turned Jammes’s play La brebis égarée into an opera – explains that the poet’s ancestors hailed from the West Indies: hence the many Creole echoes in his work.) The music of the Clairières engages the lyrical fragrance and innocence of Pelléas et Mélisande in a sequence of self-portraits untainted by sentimentality. However, a seeming naïveté is occasionally belied by flashes of violence, particularly in the last song (an epilogue in all but name) which refers nostalgically to earlier songs and is gradually heard to be assuming the emotional burden of the cycle as a whole.
Any account of Lili Boulanger’s life and work must perforce leave a number of vital questions unanswered: the specific relationship between sickness and creativity, for example. Did Lili’s illness and oncoming death give her music an edge and depth which no ordinary career or state of health would ever have provided (as in the cases of Wolf, Mahler, Delius and Britten, for example)? Or was it rather the compulsion, the irresistible vocation to compose music which pushed her meagre physical resources beyond the limit and killed her? (We remember that sixty years later Nadia, in her nineties, was giving lessons virtually on her death-bed.) Was Lili so sequestered and chaperoned that she remained emotionally untouched by the usual storms and stresses of adolescence and early adulthood, as Nadia stoutly maintained? I find this hard to believe, chiefly on account of her music which is anything but jejune. Did Nadia, as Léonie Rosenstiel claims, actually feel some resentment towards Lili for having upstaged her in terms of first-hand, first-class musical creativity? To what extent did it compound her natural guilt feelings that she – the lesser of the two luminaries – survived, while Lili died? Did she do enough for Lili – or did she, as some think, do too much? Roger Nichols is definitely of the opinion that Nadia’s cult of Lili to some extent obscured the real person. What really counted was not Lili ‘the feminist’, not Lili ‘the martyr’, but Lili ‘the composer’; and not a composer ‘who might have been’, but one who very definitely ‘was’.
Christopher Palmer © 1994