“A teacher of teachers, with a long life and a great breadth of mind, Boulanger had among her pupils Virgil Thompson, Aaron Copland, Elliott Carter, Daniel Barenboim, Phillip Glass, Ravi Shankar, Astor Piazzolla and – among the Mexicans – José Rolón and Julio Estrada. They all remember not only her lessons, but also the manner in which she helped them find their artistic identity. … It is thanks to Mademoiselle that we can listen to 37 works of music, by a person who disdained her own composer side, and which include 13 pieces recorded for the first time. Art songs, solo piano works, pieces for cello and piano as well as for organ are interpreted by Nicole Cabell, Edwin Crossley-Mercer, François-Henri Houbart, Lucy Mauro, Amit Peled and Alek Shrader.” —Xavier Quirarte (translated by Dennis Adams), Milenio (Cultura section)
How did Mademoiselle come about?
A colleague of mine studied with Boulanger for four years, and actually stayed in her house in Paris, taking care of it when she traveled. After hearing about his experiences while studying with her, I began researching her music and found that very little had been recorded. I contacted Carol Rosenberger at Delos, the label for which I have made various recordings, and she was interested and had been a pupil of Nadia Boulanger herself. In the disc’s notes, Carol wrote a beautiful reminiscence of the time when she studied with her.
How did you conduct your research?
I worked with the Nadia and Lili Boulanger International Center in Paris, transcribing Nadia Boulanger’s unpublished manuscripts for the recording and future publications. The whole project took me three years, and to complete it, I was fortunate to receive grants from West Virginia University and the West Virginia Arts Commission. I wanted to present a fitting tribute to Boulanger with the inclusion of her published and unpublished works, as well as recording on the famous Cavaillé-Coll organ, which she played at the historic Madeleine Church in Paris, and including the programming of some of the songs just as she programmed them in various concerts.
What can we listen for?
The music is beautiful and quite accessible. Boulanger composed in a French late-Romantic style. In her colorful textures and harmonies, we can hear the influence of Fauré and Debussy. She turned to a variety of inspirations that include Spanish influence in one of her cello pieces, French popular song and her religious faith, as she was a devout Catholic.
What was the most difficult aspect of interpreting her music?
Boulanger included detailed expressive markings in all her music – and, interestingly, I even had her handwritten corrections and revisions of some published songs. All this was very valuable in interpreting her works. All the performers are marvelous musicians, and they all brought their own perceptions and artistic personalities to the interpretations. It was a wonderful experience performing with them, and connecting with Boulanger’s emotions and expressive range.
Would you use the word “genius” to describe Nadia Boulanger?
As one of her biographers, Jerôme Spycket, said, her claim to fame was “…her genius as a pedagogue.” Yehudi Menuhin once said: “She had a musical ear that was beyond belief.” Nadia Boulanger, however, thought differently. In a documentary filmed toward the end of her life, she said, “You know, all that counts for us is mystery. Genius: I don’t even speak of it.”