Nadia Boulager: Teacher of the Century

By Leon Botstein

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

If one imagines a history of twentieth-century music written around 1970, one would assume that such a history would describe twentieth-century musical modernism as a phenomenon shaped by two dominant and somewhat opposing figures: Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky. Both men might be legitimately charged with an egocentrism that made them consciously present themselves as the founders of modernist traditions. Throughout his career, Schoenberg maintained a powerful role as a teacher, but for all his irrepressible tendency toward authoritarianism, he was generous in giving his time to younger colleagues (such as Alban Berg or John Cage), particularly those eager to follow in the master’s footsteps. In marked contrast, Stravinsky never taught in the formal sense. Nevertheless his work and aesthetic outlook became the impetus for a school of composition which seemed explicitly to compete with the tradition that Schoenberg sought to create. Writing at the end of his life from Los Angeles in 1949, Schoenberg noted that American music was in the first instance characterized by apathy and a “commercial racket.” But he then commented that “there is a great activity on the part of American composers, la Boulanger’s pupils, the imitators of Stravinsky…they have taken over American musical life, lock, stock, and barrel…”

The individual whom Schoenberg mentioned so derisively was Nadia Boulanger. It would be hard to imagine a more charismatic and forceful personality in the history of twentieth-century music than Boulanger. She began her career as a composer studying under Fauré, but eventually turned to performance in keyboard (she also studied with Charles Marie Widor) and conducting. She was central to the rebirth of public performances of pre-classical music during the first part of this century, particularly music from the Renaissance and Baroque. Boulanger’s first performance in the United States was as the organist in the premiere of the Symphony for Organ by her most famous pupil, Aaron Copland. Boulanger was the first woman to conduct the major symphony orchestras in the United States. One of her last appearances was here in New York with the New York Philharmonic in 1962, when she conducted works by her sister and the Fauré Requiem. With characteristic elegance and generosity, she dedicated the Sunday afternoon performance to the memory of Bruno Walter, who had died the night before.

Boulanger first gained a reputation as a teacher at the Ecole Normale. From 1920 on, she was on the faculty of the American Conservatory at Fontainbleu. During World War II, she taught in the United States. Boulanger’s teaching was firmly rooted in her allegiance to Stravinsky (whose Dumbarton Oaks Concerto she premiered). Before World War II, she had already become the teacher of choice for aspiring composers. In addition to those on tonight’s program, her pupils included Jean Francaix and the Americans Virgil Thomson, Roy Harris, Elliot Carter, David Diamond, Walter Piston, Louise Talma, Elie Siegmeister, and Marc Blitzstein.

The history of modernism in America across all the disciplines is rooted in the confrontation between nativism and Europe’s pervasive influence. The iconoclasm of Charles Ives and the experimentalism of Henry Cowell were self-assertive reactions to the continued dependence of Americans on European models. In the 1920s, Paris became a veritable Mecca for painters and writers as well as musicians. In the United States, the role played during the 1930s and 1940s by such towering émigré figures as Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, and Ernst Bloch produced an American following for German and Austrian innovations.

Apart from the specific history of European influences transmitted through teachers in this century, when we consider the influence of teachers in general terms, we try to understand the degree to which the student assimilates the ideas and perspectives that have been taught, as well as the process through which an independent identity is forged. Haydn’s reputation as a teacher of Beethoven is well known, but what precisely did Beethoven learn from that experience? Certainly Thomas Attwood actually studied with Mozart, but in the end to what effect? Schoenberg’s influence on Berg and Webern is unmistakable, but how do we assess shared influence in the context of the striking differentiation of style and ambition? In the case of American musical modernism, however, we also confront the larger question of nationalist cultural ambition. Why did so many quintessentially American-sounding composers emerge from the classroom of Nadia Boulanger?

Perhaps the answer lies partially in Boulanger’s pedagogical approach, which may contains some ironic clues on the matter of influence. Can one speak of a uniform impact on Boulanger’s students, particularly the American ones? The disciplined modernist Neoclassicism with which Boulanger was associated did result, one might argue, in an American school of which Aaron Copland was the most elegant exponent. However the orchestral version of the Piano Variations on tonight’s program comes from a period of Copland’s music which predates the era of Appalachian Spring, Rodeo and the Third Symphony, works which have in whole or part become emblematic of Copland’s musical rhetoric. Boulanger’s teaching in the case of many of her American pupils inspired compositional strategies which tolerated a more conservative, accessible style and ones which lent themselves to narrative and dramatic uses related to the stage and film. But when one considers the work of Elliott Carter, for instance, one would be hard-pressed to find an overriding common thread in the music of Boulanger’s American pupils.

We might therefore conclude that what made Boulanger a great and magnetic teacher not only for a cadre of famous composers but for many other distinguished musicians who studied with her was less the imposition of an aesthetic than the transmission of discipline and the encouragement of individuality. Indeed, the sheer range of her pupils’ styles and development is astonishing. Perhaps it was her decision to abandon her own compositional aspirations that allowed her avoid competition or impose her will on her pupils or, as in the case of Schoenberg, to experience jealousy and resentment regarding the creative success of her students. The one common element she shared with Schoenberg, however, was an abiding and imaginative interest in the history of music. Schoenberg’s attention as a teacher was focused on Mozart and Brahms; Boulanger introduced her students to the wonders of Monteverdi and Gesualdo.

Nadia was not entirely immune to competition, at least as far as Lili Boulanger, her younger sister, was concerned. But perhaps no where else are the personal qualities that made her a great teacher more in evidence than in that relationship, for her career demonstrates any sibling rivalry Nadia may have felt was eclipsed by her recognition and nurturing of Lili’s prodigious talent. That the music of Lili Boulanger remains in the repertoire is very much a result of the advocacy of her elder sister, who was Lili’s first and perhaps most influential teacher. The person closest to Boulanger after her sister on tonight’s program was no doubt Copland, whose career she helped to launch. Easley Blackwood, whose sixty-fifth birthday is celebrated this year, may be a figure less familiar to audiences in New York, but inhabitants of the second city, Chicago, are far more familiar with his music. In addition his compositional achievements, Blackwood is a formidable pianist; his performances of Ives’s Concord Sonata and Boulez’s Second Sonata are legendary. In addition to his First Symphony, another early work, the Chamber Symphony, Op. 2 (bearing the influence of his other famous teacher, Paul Hindemith) is a remarkable achievement, all the more so given the youth of the composer. In recent years, Blackwood has turned his attention to music written on the basis of a microtonal system of tuning.

Perhaps one of the most enigmatic figures on tonight’s program is Igor Markevitch, best known among music lovers as an extraordinary conductor and teacher of conducting. As the Icare on tonight’s program hints, among Markevitch’s most celebrated achievements as a conductor were his performances of Stravinsky. His output as a composer was limited; like Gustav Mahler, his primary identity during his lifetime was as a conductor, especially in Stockholm, Montreal, Havana, and Paris. He shared with Boulanger a background in the French-Russian traditions of twentieth-century music. Not surprisingly, Markevitch was an enthusiastic exponent of twentieth-century music and was responsible for the first recordings of the music of Lili Boulanger.

Though there may not be much commonality in the compositional achievements of Boulanger’s students as represented on tonight’s program, there is one important characteristic that they do share, wherein perhaps lies Boulanger’s finest legacy. Blackwood, Copland and Markevitch showed early on a profound commitment themselves to teaching others. Too often in this century, individuals of enormous talent who have taken the vocation as a “creative artist,” whether in the visual or the performing arts, have developed a contempt for the role of the teacher. It is an idiotic adage that “those who can do; those who can’t teach.” By this logic, the truly successful artist should not have to teach, engendering a sense of superiority and suspicion about those who do. In the history of music especially, this attitude cannot claim an honorable historical tradition. The list of great composers who taught with enthusiasm is probably longer than the list of composers who shunned teaching as beneath their dignity. Nadia Boulanger evidently demonstrated to her pupils not only that a first-class, demanding and genuinely supportive teacher is indispensable to artistic development, but that being such a person for others can also be rewarding. In 1958, the year following his three years of study with Boulanger, Blackwood accepted a position at the University of Chicago where he has been a powerful force for the past forty-one years. Copland served as chair of the faculty at the Berkshire Music Center for twenty-five years. The inestimable contribution of Tanglewood to American music has much to do with Copland’s influence. Markevitch’s achievements in the instruction of conducting nearly matched his renown as a conductor, and exceeded his success as a composer. It is only recently that his compositions have begun to attract their deserved attention. Perhaps Lili Boulanger would have demonstrated a similar commitment had she not died at so tragically young an age. Therefore this concert might well be viewed not only as a recognition of the most successful and influential music teacher of the century, but also an acknowledgement of her triumph in communicating the significance of teaching in itself to her own pupils. We celebrate not only the continuing tradition of twentieth-century music-making but also of music-teaching: a crucial synthesis of the continuance of traditions with the will to innovation.