In their live stream concert on Friday 16 April, Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform D’un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning) by French composer Lili Boulanger (1893 – 1918). Ahead of the performance, we wanted to share a little more information you (probably) didn’t know about this phenomenal woman and her work…
Lili Boulanger, or rather Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger, was a remarkable young woman and composer whose life has arguably been overshadowed by that of her sister, Nadia. Nadia lived into her 90s whereas Lili died, tragically, aged just 24.
Her life was short but not without note. The daughter of a Russian princess (!) and a Parisian music conservatoire teacher, with musicians as grandparents, there was never any question of the path Lili would take – particularly after her father’s death in 1900 meant she and Nadia had to work to provide for themselves.
Lili’s father was 77 years old when she was born, and his death had a huge impact on her. Much of her music explores themes of grief and loss.
Before that though, she was something of a child prodigy, in music conservatoire classes by the age of 5, with her rare gift of ‘perfect pitch’ being discovered when she was just 2. In 1912, aged 18, she entered the Prix de Rome but collapsed during her performance. Not one to be put off, she returned the following year and became the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize for her cantata Faust et Hélène.
She studied composition, harmony, counterpoint, fugue, and organ throughout her life, and took lessons with Gabriel Fauré. Some say you can hear influences of Fauré and Debussy in her music.
A catholic and influenced by religion, she wrote musical settings of Psalms and a Pie Jesu, but she also set a Buddhist daily prayer. In just ten years as a composer Lili remarkably produced over 50 works before her death.
Having suffered with a weakened immune system throughout her life – as a result of childhood pneumonia – Lili eventually died of intestinal tuberculosis (now known as Crohn’s disease) when she was 24. She had a lasting legacy though.
As well as the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, which offers financial support to musicians, there is the Friends of Lili Boulanger Association in Paris and the Boulanger Initiative in America. The Asteroid 1181 Lilith was named in her honour, too.
Listen to D'un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning)
D’un matin de printemps (One Spring Morning) – which Royal Northern Sinfonia will perform at Sage Gateshead on Friday 16 April – is one of the last pieces that Lili completed. It’s a fresh and joyful piece written to charm. It’s short, coming in at around 5 minutes, but certainly not short of character.
The piece sounds unsure at first but in an ‘exciting-not-dark’ way. Ok, there is a slightly darker middle section with some uneasy string trills, but before you know it (only 5 minutes, remember?) the solo violin brings the music back to the vitality heard in the opening. For a short piece it changes mood a lot. But then again, so does the weather in spring.
In The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger, Léonie Rosenstiel writes that the decision to become a composer “provided Lili with the means to decide her own future as music as possible, and to show she was capable or being considered a contributing member of the artistic and intellectual community in which she lived”. And we’re very glad she did.