In all respects except one, the life of Nadia Boulanger must be considered a failure. She tried her hand at composing in her early years, but none of her works has established for itself a secure place in the repertoire. Her early potential as a performer on piano and organ seemed impressive, but whenever she tried to go outside the circle of her admirers in France and establish a reputation as a virtuoso in other countries, something seemed to happen to thwart her ambitions.
"It was as if Nadia were programming herself to fail . . . " suggests Leonie Rosenstiel in this revealing biography. "She had not communicated the visceral excitement essential to all successful soloists. In her publicity brochures, words such as 'solid,' 'correct,' 'highly cultivated, fine and thoughtful' and 'well-equipped' replace the more fiery rhetoric usually found in such literature."
And yet, Nadia Boulanger helped to change the course of music history; she was the midwife of modern American classical music, directly responsible for some of the most important and exciting music of our time and almost equally responsible for the changes in the way music is perceived today--the flavor of modern rhythms and orchestral color, the broader historical context in which composers and audiences see music. With Igor Stravinsky, who was not one of her students but a friend and a sort of prote'ge', she helped to liberate music from the limitations of a dying Viennese tradition and enlarge its scope so that all nations, all historical periods could contribute to the vocabulary of the modern composer.
She was most successful in the work of her students--a long and distinguished list that includes not only the composers who made her famous, but also performing artists (Dinu Lipatti, for example, and Hugues Cuenod), administrators and educators. Students who did not make careers as composers or performers would become orchestra managers, members of important boards, teachers and department heads at universities across America, where she visited frequently and taught in exile during World War II. The Boulanger alumni include not only the superstars but the crucial backstage people who helped the careers of her prote'ge's and spread and solidified her reputation as the most important music teacher of our century. Through their continuing work, her influence permeates our musical life.
But above all, she is known as a teacher of composers. The list of her former students is headed by the name of Aaron Copland, the first student to register in 1921 at the newly established Conservatoire Americain at Fontainbleau. Others who passed through her hands include Walter Piston, Virgil Thomson, David Diamond and Elliott Carter. Although her influence was particularly strong in the United States, she also had an impact, through her students, on the musical life of England, Poland, Japan and other countries.
If Boulanger's life was a success, as it certainly was, she achieved it primarily through other people, fulfilling what one commentator called "her instinctive need to guide and mold the minds of others." She did this not only as a teacher but as a conductor, the only area of music performance where she achieved enthusiastic critical success and the only area where a musician functions by manipulating other people. Rosenstiel's biography makes it clear that her life took this pattern because it was programmed to do so from the beginning.
Boulanger was the daughter of a minor French composer who was in his sixties when he married a Russian woman who was 20 at the time and claimed to be 18. Knowing that she would be a widow for a long time and that she would need someone to support her, Raissa Boulanger trained her daughter Nadia for that role. She was raised to believe her mother right in all things and to be utterly dependent on her. For example, they slept in the same bedroom until Raissa's death, when Nadia was in her late forties. In her childhood, Nadia was often dressed in boys' clothes and was made to understand that she could never marry or enjoy an independent existence because of her mother's needs.
The pressure was enormously increased by Nadia's little sister, Lili, who was also a musician, whose personality was as feminine as Nadia's was neutral, and who accomplished quickly, easily, gracefully and with spectacular success what Nadia had managed only slowly, painfully and with merely respectable results. After producing some well-received compositions and winning the Prix de Rome (in which Nadia had managed to reach only second place), Lili died young. Raissa made Nadia promise to promote her dead sister's glory above her own, and Nadia kept that pledge throughout her life--though now that she is dead, it is doubtful that Lili's music will be able to survive on its own.
The psychological convolutions of a life forced into such narrow and unnatural restrictions, the spectacular levels of energy and dedication which were produced by the bottling up of normal drives in an extraordinarily talented woman: These not only made music history, they produced a personality that is uniquely interesting, even for readers whose interest in music is only marginal. Leonie Rosenstiel presents that personality in all its knowable dimensions with the thoroughness and lucidity of a great biographical researcher. Her writing is functional rather than elegant, and she can be rather sketchy on obscure musicological points (as in her discussion of "Bach's cantata Bist du bei mir," which is neither a cantata nor a composition of Bach's). The book could have benefited from skilled editing to avoid occasional pointless repetitions and to insert the date of Boulanger's birth (Sept. 16, 1887) at the point in the text where that event occurs. But in spite of minor blemishes, this book is a monumental achievement.