D’un matin du printemps (1918)

By Kyle Gann

Written for the concert Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century, performed on May 13, 1998 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Nadia Boulanger’s life was one lived surrounded by composers. Arguably, the most crucial composer in her life was her younger sister Lili, with whom her relationship was fraught with guilt, envy, and love. Six years older than Lili and a tireless worker who demanded perfection from herself, Nadia watched her younger sister excel in music more easily than she had. Where Nadia had a cold demeanor and put people off, Lili had an easy grace and more feminine air, and when Lili became, at age nineteen, the first woman composer to win France’s distinguished Prix de Rome for composition, she attracted national press attention in a way that Nadia never would.

Yet Lili Boulanger was a sickly child, and by age three had developed what was then called intestinal tuberculosis–now called Crohn’s disease, or ulcerative colitis–that doomed her to a fragile life of ill health. With the onset of World War I, both sisters volunteered for war work, and the effort helped wreck Lili’s health. She died a few months short of her twenty-fifth birthday, mourned by musical France, and Nadia never composed again.

In her brief life, Lili Boulanger wrote more than fifty works, ranging from choral pieces such as Pie Jesu (played at her funeral) and the grand Du Fond de l’Abime to a number of brief chamber pieces popular today. D’un Soir Triste (Of a Sad Evening) and D’un matin de Printemps (Of a Spring Morning), traditionally paired together, are orchestral versions of such chamber works, the first also existing in a version for cello and piano, the latter originally a sprightly duet for flute and piano. That they belong together is obvious from the opening motives, which though contrasting in speed are nearly identical in melody, beginning with a dotted-note motive E-G-E-D-E. The Sad Evening is worked out in bittersweet harmonies with Debussyan parallelisms, the Spring Morning in a flightier idiom of quickly changing keys; both are heavily modal. Dating from 1918, these are the last works that Boulanger was healthy enough to copy out herself, and even so, dynamics and expression markings were filled in by her sister.