the lost canon

It’s Time We All Heard the Music of Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger. Photo: Library of Congress

This story was originally published in April 2019. We’re republishing it now as part of our new series “The Undersung.”

Fame, at least lasting fame — the your-work-goes-down-in-history kind, often accompanied by fat royalty payments — is a club that thinks of itself as an unbiased meritocracy, blind to everything but aesthetic innovation and popular success. It’s never quite worked out that way. When we look at the past, we still see generations of great talents who never quite got their due critically or commercially, many of them left relatively unsung. In this ongoing series, our critics pick artists they feel remain underappreciated and tell their stories and sing their praises.

War was still ripping through Europe in the summer of 1918, when the conductor Walter Damrosch traveled from New York to Paris to alleviate the continent’s misery with music. He brought back news: “I think that Lili Boulanger is the greatest woman composer the world has ever seen,” he declared. The statement managed to pack hyperbole and condescension into a single phrase, since he was partially retracting an earlier statement that “there would never be a great woman composer.” He left it unclear how, in his rankings, the best of the females compared to pretty good males.

Among the scores in his steamer trunk was a short work for chorus and orchestra, Pour les Funerailles d’un Soldat (For a Soldier’s Funeral). With its slow march and tolling bells, its quotation of the “Dies Irae” chant and parallel chords reminiscent of medieval polyphony, the piece conjured a dark, gothic atmosphere. Though Boulanger composed it in 1912, two years before the shooting started, by the time Damrosch got his hands on it the piece seemed like the composer’s requiem for herself and for the millions who had died in the muck. It was unmistakably French: The nation’s Catholicism, martial temper, constant grief, and medieval longings all swirl together in music of austere beauty.

The conductor just missed her: The 24-year-old Lili Boulanger had died in March, of Crohn’s disease, after years of physical pain and artistic glory. During her brief career and in the century since, she regularly received high, though conditional praise, which almost always boiled down to this: She was surprisingly accomplished for someone so young, ill, and female.

It’s time to stop hedging. Boulanger matured early and worked feverishly, and in the time allotted her, produced a handful of masterworks that require no special pleading. They weren’t lost, hidden, or unplayable; they were just treated with a neglect that would be shocking if it weren’t so predictable. The New York Philharmonic hasn’t performed a note of hers in more than 40 years. The last concert of her works on Carnegie Hall’s main stage took place in 1962. Fortunately, this is just the sort of historical injustice that the conductor Leon Botstein loves to rectify, and on May 2, he leads the Orchestra Now in “De Profundis,” a Carnegie Hall concert of works based on Psalm 130. The program concludes with Boulanger’s massive, thrillingly dark setting of the text, which moves from despair (“Out of the depths have I cried unto thee, O Lord …”) to tremulous hope. Those were the two emotional poles of her life.

Lili and her older sister, Nadia, the daughters of a distinguished Parisian composer and a Russian countess, grew up swaddled in music and privilege. In France’s highly centralized Establishment, the Prix de Rome was the ultimate credential, awarded to Debussy, Berlioz, and Bizet but also to a parade of industrious bores. For the family, the prize was a thing of reverence and rivalry. The girls’ father had won it, and only after Nadia failed (twice) did Lili dare aspire to do the same. The process was grueling. After flying through the first round in 1913, she and the other (significantly older and much more male) finalists spent a month sequestered in a drafty château outside of Paris, frantically composing and orchestrating a half-hour cantata on a given text.

The result was Faust et Hélène, a piece of such unsettling originality that it made her instantly famous. She frames, dresses, and lights a scene in a few quick strokes, then dissolves effortlessly to the next. In the orchestral introduction (“Faust’s disquiet”), yearning, restless melody with echoes of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde leaps through shifting mists of harmony. Then a harp’s upswept chord ushers us toward a sun-suffused landscape where Faust sleeps on a pillow of moss. The cantata is a concert piece, but its vivid theatricality heralds the opera Boulanger never got the chance to complete. That was La Princesse Maleine, based on the play by Maurice Maeterlinck, who practically begged her not to die before finishing the score.

Boulanger became the first woman to win the Rome Prize, and that achievement, along with her ferocious talent and air of angelic doom, made her an instant celebrity. (Only the director of the French Academy in Rome resisted; when she arrived late, accompanied by her mother and a nurse, he wrote her off as a drama queen.) Her status allowed her to think big, and she wrote for large chorus and orchestra tricked out with sarrusophone, organ, and plenty of brass. The fact that her music is expensive and challenging to perform has provided a handy excuse not to do so. (That’s rarely a consideration for male composers: The scale and complexity of Mahler, Bruckner, and Shostakovich symphonies have only boosted their reputations for high seriousness.)

The few extant recordings don’t always do her justice, but one that does capture her mixture of energy and subtlety is a 2002 disc, conducted by John Eliot Gardiner, in which three of her scores hold up impressively against Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms. The melody of Vieille Prière Bouddhique (Old Buddhist Prayer) undulates between the two poles of a tritone (G-D flat), while perfumed harmonies create an atmosphere of hazy incantation, exotic and antique. Stravinsky or Thelonious Monk might happily have plundered her collection of chords, in which notes plucked from distant keys are stacked in a polychrome harmonic Jenga, always threatening to fall apart. Eventually, those wayward dissonances converge on austere clanging fifths.

Gardiner’s recording also includes her Psalm 130. In the opening, a soft moan emerges above a deep tectonic rumble. Double basses strain upward and release a quiet exhalation in violins and violas. Sigh follows sigh, breaking apart into a contrapuntal shimmer of suffering. The chorus finally enters with its plaintive chant, exhausted before it has even begun, and then subsides into a closemouthed murmur. We are in the presence of a virtuoso of transcendent pain. Even more startling is the high-voltage current that runs through the piece, and the orchestral finesse that most composers only acquire through years of experience, often on the podium. It’s all very well to hear it on headphones, but this is music that needs to bloom in the vastness of a concert hall.

After Boulanger’s death, Nadia became the keeper of her flame, and a guru to generations of American composers, including Aaron Copland and Philip Glass. Nadia died in 1979, and it is tantalizing to imagine what Lili might have wrought if she, too, had enjoyed good health through most of the 20th century. Even a hypertalented composer is just getting started at 24, and evolves by listening. Just think what Lili Boulanger might have wrought if she’d broken out of the darkened bedroom of her life and absorbed the shocks of modernism, jazz, Broadway, electronics, and the luminous mysticism of Messiaen. Instead of that alternate reality, we have the consoling Psalm 130, in which the massed singers take up the composer’s plea to be heard — a plea that posterity has only half-heartedly honored.

*A version of this article appears in the January 6, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

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It’s Time We All Heard the Music of Lili Boulanger