A Parisian-born child prodigy, Boulanger's talent was apparent at the age of two, when Gabriel Fauré, a friend of the family and later one of Boulanger's teachers, discovered she had perfect pitch. Her parents, both of whom were musicians, encouraged their daughter's musical education. Her father was 77 years old when Lili was born and she became very attached to him. Her mother, Raissa Myshetskaya (Mischetzky), was a Russian princess who married her Paris Conservatoire teacher, Ernest Boulanger. Her grandfather Frédéric Boulanger had been a noted cellist and her grandmother Juliette a singer. Boulanger accompanied her ten-year-old sister Nadia to classes at the Paris Conservatoire before she was five, shortly thereafter sitting in on classes on music theory and studying organ with Louis Vierne. She also sang and played piano, violin, cello and harp. Her teachers included Marcel Tournier and Alphonse Hasselmans.
In 1912 Boulanger competed in the Prix de Rome but during her performance she collapsed from illness. She returned in 1913 at the age of 19 to win the composition prize for her Faust et Hélène, becoming the first woman composer to win the prize. Nadia had given up entering after four unsuccessful attempts and had focused her efforts upon her sister Lili, first a student of Nadia and then of Paul Vidal, Georges Caussade and Gabriel Fauré—the last of whom was greatly impressed by the young woman's talents and frequently brought songs for her to read. Lili was greatly affected by the 1900 death of her father; many of her works touch on themes of grief and loss. Her work was noted for its colorful harmony and instrumentation and skillful text setting. Aspects of Fauré and Claude Debussy can be seen in her compositions, and Arthur Honegger was influenced by her innovative work.
Illness and premature death
Her life and work were troubled by chronic illness, beginning with a case of bronchial pneumonia at age two that weakened her immune system, leading to the intestinal tuberculosis (now called Crohn's disease) that cut her life short at the early age of 24. Although she loved to travel, completing several works in Italy after winning the Prix de Rome, her failing health forced her to return home, where she and Nadia organized efforts to support French soldiers during World War I. Her last years were also a productive time musically as she labored to complete works previously left unfinished. Boulanger died in Mézy-sur-Seine and was buried in Paris, in a tomb located in the Cimetière de Montmartre, leaving unfinished the opera La princesse Maleine on which she spent most of the last years of her life. In 1979, her sister Nadia Boulanger was laid to rest in the same tomb. The definitive biography is The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger (ISBN 0-8386-1796-4) by the American musicologist Léonie Rosenstiel.
She was buried in Montmartre Cemetery, near the entrance to the cemetery in the southwest corner of section 33 close to the intersection of Avenue Saint-Charles and Chemin Billaud.
Wellesley College created an international foundation and annual award in her name to honor an outstanding young composer or performer. Recipients of the prize have included composers such as Harold Shapero and instrumentalists such as Robert D. Levin, Noël Lee and Sebastien Koch.
- Faust et Hélène, cantata for mezzo-soprano, tenor, baritone, and orchestra (1913)
- D'un matin de printemps, orchestra (1917–18)
- D'un soir triste, orchestra (1917–18)
- Les Sirènes, soprano, female choir and piano (1911)
- Psaume 24, tenor, choir, organ, and orchestra (1916)
- Psaume 129
- Psaume 130 (Du fond de l'abîme) - alto, tenor, choir, organ, and orchestra (1910–17)
- Vieille prière bouddhique
- Pie Jesu
- "Composer of the Week". radionz.org. Retrieved 2012-11-07.
- Annegret Fauser:"Lili Boulanger". Grove Music Online, ed. L. Macy, accessed 9 Apr 05. (subscription access)
- Photographs of Lili Boulanger's grave
- Free scores by Lili Boulanger at the International Music Score Library Project
- Lili Boulanger: Nocturne on YouTube played by Gregor Piatigorsky and Valentin Pavlovsky