Nadia Boulanger, on the importance of music

(Juliette) Nadia Boulanger (16 September 1887 – 22 October 1979) was a French composer, conductor and teacher who taught many composers and performers of the 20th century.Boulanger taught in the U.S. and in England, working with music academies including the Juilliard School, the Yehudi Menuhin School, the Royal College of Music and theRoyal Academy of Music, but her principal base for most of her life was her family’s flat in Paris, where she taught for most of the seven decades from the start of her career until her death at the age of 92.

Many years ago, while a student at The New England Conservatory of music n Boston, I receiveed a phone call from Daniel Pinkham, who was a professsor teaching Music Literature at the Conservatory.

(Daniel Pinkham(1923-2006), He asked me to come to tea at the home of Winifred Johnstone, who lived in Back Bay, in Boston.

(Winifred later became a friend for many years) She asked me if I had ever heard of Fonainebleau, in France, where there was a summer academy for Art, Architecture and Music. Fontaineblea was a small town near Paris, where the school was located. It was housed in the Chateau de Fontainebleau, dating from the Reign of Francis the first. It was a beautiful castle spread over several acres, richly flowered ad gardened, with mazes, peacocks, a great tourist attraction, and home of the Ecoles d’art Americaines .

So much for the tea. Several days following I received a letter offering me a full scholarship at theMusic School in Fontanebleau, the Dean of which was Nadia Boulanger.

Several days following that letter, I received a call from the Treasurers of at the Conservatory informing me of a secret donor who would provide travel expenses , covering airfare.

I learned later, that Rosario Mazzeo, inventor of the Mazzeo System Clarinet, had provided this secret donation. He later informd me that it would be a good idea to enter the Geneva Compettion, which included clarinet in that year. Of course, the reason being that if I won the competition, it would provide needed publicity for his clarinet, my instrument.

This was to be my first trip to Europe. and my first meeting with Nadia Boulanger,  Her most famous student was Aaron Copland, but she was also a mentor to many composers of note. While there were some who called her, “the Hitler of the American Amateurs”, there were a great majority of those who revered her, I being one of many.

I did enter and participate i the Genva Concours. I played th most difficult Concerto, by Eugene Bozza, ( a kind of cheap Jacques Ibert).played it very well, and was eleminated in the first round.

But the most valuable prize of that summer was and remains Fontainebleau: concerts played, relationships formed, the rich history of France and Europe , Paris, Van Doren , Selmer, and Nadia Boulanger.(in reverse order)

She took a liking to me and we remained frineds andcolleagues until her death. She wrote letters of recommendation for me and corresponded with me about my marriage, my children for several years. Truly a great lady.(it is said that she could hear and write nine(9)  separate voices at he same time). That is certainly true. A famous story, originating in her classes in Paris, concerns one of her well known exercises in doing several musical chores simultaneously. One of the students, incredulous, said, “it can not be done” She answered by doing what she had asked immediately, and answered the student:“young man, when you have achieved your discipline, you may question mine.”

There were frequent concerts in the Jeu de Paume, and indoor tennis court within the Palace that was the concert hall. It was said that the reverberation was so  that you could hear an entire concert after it was played ….from the echo..

I played in every concert I could. After each concert there was usually a social event taking place in Boulanger’s apartment for the participants of the concert and othes. There was wine and cheese, the usual party .

And now we come to the subject for this posting. Following one of the chamber music concerts, I asked Mlle Boulanger,”how one could justify teaching clarinet students at this time?”She loooked at me and responded, “one must choose music, or wish to die without music.”

These words may sound harsh, however the desire to do music, to be in music, must be the main impetus. If you want it enough, you will find success and achievement.

But you must always keep practicing. You will find your place.

Stay well, sherman


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