Inspired by Bach : Nadia Boulanger


"Intet nytt under solen", Bach er og har vært inspirasjonskilde for svært mange skapende mennesker - uavhengig av kunstform og sjanger. Albert Schweitzer mente alt fører til Bach, i forståelsen at Bach var et vendepunkt som alt pekte frem mot før, og alt i ettertid pekte tilbake til. 

"The Most Influential Teacher Since Socrates"

Everything that brings us into contact with great minds, minds inspired by noble motives, help us to rise above the humdrum. If we have learnt a lot by heart, we always have company. And what company! The royal company of the centuries great masterpieces.

- Mademoiselle Nadia Boulanger

Sitatet over er det første nedskrevet i min sitatbok som har vært med meg i åresvis - alltid klar for å notere ned innsikt og visdom fra store tenkere.

Mademoiselle - som hun likte og bli kalt, har en status som ingen annen musikklærer i historien - hennes liste er lang på de største musikere og komponister som har studert hos henne. Bare å sjekke listen lenger ned i artikkelen. Men disse er en antydning om størrelsen vi toucher innom i denne sammenheng: Leonard Bernstein, Quincy Jones, John Eliot Gardiner, Aaron Copland, Egberto Gismonti, Dinu Lipatti, Astor Piazzolla, og midt blant disse noen norske - blant annet Geirr Tveitt.

Hver onsdag fra kl. 18-21 samlet hun sine elever - og hver gang ble en av Bachs kantater gjennomgått. Dette var bare en av rutinene for verdens mest berømte musikklærer.

Q. Is it true that at the age of twelve you knew Bach's Well-Tempered Clavier by heart?

A. It was an obligation. I was instructed to learn one prelude and one fugue per week. But you know, let's not exaggerate. One prelude and one fugue per week is not so much... After this kind of training, though, one has a good basis in mind.

"… I admit it's a habit. He (Bach) has given me such joy that I try to bring something of that joy to others..." 

Nadia Boulanger 

En historiefortelling om Nadia Boulanger hentet fra 


Nadia Boulanger, born into a musical family - her father, Ernest Boulanger, was a composer himself - initially had an interest in composition, but she abandoned it after the premature death of her sister Lili in 1918. She was a direct student of Gabriel Fauré, a composer whom she loved throughout her life and with whom she shared a sense of reserve and grace. From 1921 until her death, she taught at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau. She became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Society Orchestra (1937) and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1939).

Not only was Nadia Boulanger fundamental to the panorama of French and European culture, but also to that overseas. It is sufficient to think of Aaron Copland or Elliott Carter, whom Boulanger encouraged to explore traditional forms of American music such as gospel or jazz. Let us also recall her close friendship with Stravinsky, whom she defended and supported numerous times during the lengthy controversies surrounding the performance of The Rite of Spring and his overall position in European musical culture.

To better understand the personality of this remarkable woman, it is both useful and enjoyable to watch the beautiful film dedicated to Nadia Boulanger by director Bruno Monsaingeon. The release of the film was accompanied by a text that eloquently captures the feelings that students must have experienced when coming into contact with her. Let's read some excerpts: "It is hard to imagine today the prestige of Nadia Boulanger, the High Priestess of Fontainebleau, as she was sometimes called. For Nadia Boulanger was and remains a legend. In the wake of Aaron Copland in the early twenties, it seems that all of America's musical talents descended upon Paris to benefit from the advice of 'Mademoiselle,' to the point that there must hardly be a city, if not a small town, in the North American continent that did not harbor at least one famous or obscure student of Nadia Boulanger – the mentor and moral conscience of a (temporarily?) vanished world." The excerpts beautifully convey the reverence and impact Nadia Boulanger had on her students, showcasing her legendary status and the profound influence she wielded in the musical world of her time.

Nadia Boulanger's classes primarily focused on keyboard harmony, delving into the works of all the great composers to uncover their secrets and reveal their creative processes. The power of Boulanger's teaching activities was centered around analytical work. 

She believed that "sight-reading is like life. The initial intention is to start from the beginning and reach the end. Never stop. Never stop life. It must continue, even with a mistake, even if we believe we are repeating ourselves." 

Boulanger emphasized the importance of continuous learning and perseverance, drawing parallels between music and life itself. She encouraged her students to embrace mistakes as part of the learning process and to strive for continual progress. Her approach fostered a deep understanding of music and a commitment to ongoing growth and exploration.

According to what her students report, her method was different for each student – because she believed that every student has a unique creative quality that needs to be supported

According to what her students report, her method was different for each student – because she believed that every student has a unique creative quality that needs to be supported – but, in general, she favored a strict and demanding approach. Just think about what Daniel Barenboim tells us: during his first lesson at the age of 12, she suddenly asked him to transpose a Bach prelude into another key. Her teaching philosophy is completely devoted to music, to the point of considering research and studies as a way to transcend ourselves, our daily habits, and limitations.

Barenboim with Igor Markevitch in 1952
Barenboim with Igor Markevitch in 1952

Barenboim´s first lesson - at age twelve - with Boulanger 

In my childhood I played practically all the Preludes and Fugues from Das wohltemperierte Klavier and many other pieces by Bach. That was my basis. At the age of twelve I moved to Paris to study harmony and counterpoint with Nadia Boulanger. When I arrived for my first lesson, Das wohltemperierte Klavier was on the music stand of the grand piano. She turned the pages forward and back; finally she settled on the Prelude in E minor from Book One and said: "Right, my boy, now play it for me in A minor". She held a wooden ruler in her hand and every time my fingers played a wrong note she tapped them with it. ThusDas wohltemperierte Klavier became the foundation for everything.

- Daniel Barenboim

 The High Priestess of Fontainebleau

It is a valid question to ask today what survives of her teaching and method. Firstly, her numerous students, all of whom have embarked on different paths – consider composer Michel Legrand or producer Quincy Jones, for example – only continue to perpetuate her memory by recounting the anecdotes that surround this immortal musician. Additionally, her discipline and availability still serve as a model for many educators who study her teachings for their own benefit, in today's world where the virtual realm has completely disrupted traditional concepts of teaching. 

As she wrote in 1945, "The teacher is merely the soil. The more you teach, the more you remain in touch with life and its positive results. All things considered, I sometimes wonder if the teacher isn't the true student and beneficiary."

Noen av hennes berømte elever:

  • Burt Bacharach // Daniel Barenboim // Lennox Berkeley // Leonard Bernstein // Elliott Carter // Aaron Copland // John Eliot Gardiner // Kenneth Gilbert // Egberto Gismonti // Philip Glass // Quincy Jones // Ralph Kirkpatrick // Johan Kvandal // Ruth Lagesen // Michel Legrand // Robert D. Levin // Dinu Lipatti // Igor Markevitch // Emile Naoumoff // Astor Piazzolla // Ned Rorem // Roger Sessions // Henryk Szeryng // Geirr Tveitt

The Pembroke College Girls' Choir sing Nadia Boulanger's 'Cantique', conducted by Anna Lapwood and accompanied by Joe Beadle. 

"We're so excited to release the first single from our latest album, 'Celestial Dawn'. I stumbled across this little piece by Nadia Boulanger a couple of years ago, and it has been a firm favourite ever since. The beauty of this piece lies in its simplicity; sparse chords on the piano twinkle like starlight, underpinning a melody that sounds as if it has been woven from a single thread. The piece exists in two versions—the one heard here, written for solo voice and piano with a beautifully evocative text by Maurice Maeterlinck, and a sacred version written a year later for voice, violin, cello, harp and organ, with the text changed to 'Lux aeterna'. I did consider recording the sacred version instead, but found myself repeatedly drawn back to the powerful text of the original. I also think it's important for the choristers to sing in languages other than those which dominate our repertoire (English and Latin), and, seeing as one of our girls is bilingual, speaking fluent French, we had a lot of fun working on the text as a group. This is a piece which draws you in, envelopes you in a warm embrace and then doesn't let you go. To all weeping souls to all sin to pass I open in the midst of the stars my hands full of grace. No sin lives where love speaks No soul dies where love weeps And if love gets lost on the paths of the earth Its tears will find me and not go astray."

-  Anna Lapwood

The composer

Nadia Boulanger's 'Cantique',

To all weeping souls 

to all sin to pass 

I open in the midst of the stars 

 my hands full of grace.

No sin lives 

where love speaks 

No soul dies 

where love weeps

And if love gets lost 

on the paths of the earth 

Its tears will find me 

 and not go astray.

Lenny´s last visit to Mademoiselle

In his own words

The last visit I had with Nadia was on her last birthday. I don't think she knew it was her birthday, since she was in a coma. But Nature seemed to know it, providing for the occasion an unforgettably radiant September Sunday, with the intense blue of the cloudless sky competing in saturation with the rich greens of the Fontainebleau gardens. The air trembled.

Everything conspired to urge me on to Fontainebleau that day: my one free afternoon in a three-week working visit to Paris, the exhilarating weather, and the certain knowledge that it would be my last time with her. On the other hand, there were some strong warnings against it from her closest friends and guardians: Mademoiselle would be disturbed and exhausted by a visit; she could not speak, and in any event would not recognize me. Tant pis: I paid my visit, as if compelled.

I was ushered into her bedchamber by the angelic and anxiety-ridden Mademoiselle Dieudonné, who, with forefinger to lips, and seconded by an attending nurse, whispered a sharp order: ten minutes only. As it turned out, the visit lasted closer to one hour.

Nadia was beautifully dressed and groomed, as if for the coffin. Her crucifix gleamed at her throat; her eyes and mouth were closed; her whole face seemed closed in coma.

I knelt by the bed in silent communion. Suddenly there was the shock of her voice, deep and strong as alaways.

"Who is there?"

I could not respond for shock. The Dieudonné finger whipped to the lips. Finally I dared speak:
"Lenny, Leonard…"
Silence. Did she hear, did she know ?
"Cher Lenny…"
She knew; a miracle. I persevered.
" My dear friend, how do you feel?"
Pause. Then that basso profundo (through unmoving lips!):
"Quite strong."
I drew a deep breath:
"You mean…inside yourself?"
"…Yes. But the flesh… »
« I quite understand », I said hastily, to shorten her efforts. "I'll go. You must be very tired."
"No tiredness. None…"
A protracted pause, and I realized she had drifted back to sleep.
Signals from the astonished attending ladies suggested my departure, but I was held there, unable to rise from my knees. I knew there was more to come, and in a few minutes, it did come.
"Don't leave."
Not a plea, but a command. I searched my mind anxiously for the right thing to say, knowing that anything could be wrong. Then I heard myself asking:
"Do you hear music in your head?"
Instant reply:
"All the time."
This so encouraged me that I continued, as if in everyday conversation.
"And what are you hearing at the moment?"
I thought of her preferred loves. Mozart? Monteverdi? Bach ? Stravinsky ? Ravel ?
Long pause.
« One music…(very long pause)…with no beginning, no end… »
She was already there, on the other side.

Meet Nadia Boulanger, "The Most Influential Teacher Since Socrates," Who Mentored Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones & Other Legends

This compelling film on the extraordinary figure of Nadia Boulanger was Bruno Monsaingeon's first documentary.

Shot in the 1960s and early 1970s, when Boulanger was in her late 80s and still fearsomely in command of her abilities, this film remains one of the most important documents concerning this extraordinary teacher. She is seen at one of her fabled 'Wednesdays', a composition lesson held weekly in her apartment for almost six decades and attended by anyone who would come.