Lili Boulanger

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Lili Boulanger

Marie-Juliette Olga ("Lili") Boulanger (French: [bu.lɑ̃.ʒe]; 21 August 1893 – 15 March 1918) was a French composer, the younger sister of the noted composer and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, and the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize.

Early years[edit]

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.

Les sirènes[edit]

Les sirènes (1911) is written for solo soprano and three part choir. The topic, mermaids, uses a text by Charles Grandmougin. The work is dedicated to Madame Jane Engel Bathori.[1] Bathori, a soprano, was known for her concert organisation, as detailed by Barbara Kelly.[2] Bathori supported many new artists and composers.


Psalm 24[edit]

Boulanger composed three psalms: Psalms 24, 129 and 130.[3] She composed Psalm 24, entitled La terre appartient à l’Eternel ("The earth is the Lord’s"), in 1916 while she was resident in Rome. The work is dedicated to Monsieur Jules Griset, who was the director of Choral Guillot de Saint-Brice.[4] Durand published the work in 1924. The work is scored for choir (consisting of soprano, alto, tenor and bass), accompanied by organ and brass ensemble (consisting of 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, 1 tuba), timpani and 2 harps.[5] Boulanger's score uses brass fanfares and homophonic choral passages: the contrast of sections contrast to the style of her 1912 Prix de Rome winning cantata, Faust et Hélène, as heard in Yan Pascal Tortelier's recording.[6]

Psalm 129[edit]

Psalm 129 was also composed in 1916 in Rome. This psalm is much longer than Psalm 24 and is composed for full orchestra.[7] The premiere performance was held at the Salle Pleyel in 1921, conducted by Henri Busser.[8]

Psalm 130[edit]

Du fond de l’abîme (Psalm 130: De Profundis/"Out of the depths"), is composed for voice & orchestra, and dedicated to the memory of her father, as noted at the top of the score.[9] Boulanger's psalms convey Boulanger's Catholic faith.[10] Boulanger completed this work when she was only twenty-two, yet it sounds mature and conveys her developed compositional style.[11] Ristow writes that Boulanger composed Du fond de l'abîme in reaction to World War I.[12]

Prix de Rome[edit]

Lili Boulanger was the first female composer to win the distinguished Prix de Rome in music, with her cantata Faust et Hélène (1913). This work had many performances during Lili's lifetime.[4] The text was written by Eugene Adenis (1854-1923) based on Goethe's Faust.[13] She worked with Georges Caussade, and with Paul Vidal at the Paris Conservatoire, in order to prepare for this competition.[10] She gained a contract with the publisher Ricordi after winning the Prix de Rome.

Pie Jesu[edit]

Lili Boulanger finished this Pie Jesu (1918) towards the end of her life, but “the first of Lili Boulanger’s sketches for the Pie Jesu are to be found in a composition book she used between 1909 and 1913.”[14] As noted by her sister, Nadia, she dedicated the work to her.[15] Scholars such as biographer Léonie Rosenstiel[16] and Olivia Mattis[17] speculate that Boulanger intended to write a complete Requiem Mass but did not live to complete it. Scored for high voice, string quartet, harp and organ, Boulanger's setting is sparse.[18] Pie Jesu is the only surviving Boulanger text setting that uses an explicitly Christian text (i.e. coming from either the New Testament or the Christian liturgy, as opposed to her Psalm settings, whose texts come from the Jewish Old Testament).[19]

Vieille prière bouddhique[edit]

This sacred hymn is written for tenor and chorus (Soprano, Alto, Tenor and Bass), accompanied by Orchestra. There is a large orchestra consisting of: 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets (B♭), bass clarinet (B♭), 2 bassoons, sarrusophone + 4 horns (F), 4 trombones, tuba + drums, cymbals, bass drum + celesta + 2 harps, strings.[20] Composed during 1914-1917, as many of her works, it was not performed until after World War 1, in 1921. Interestingly, this work is not based within Catholicism, as her psalms. Rather, it sets a Buddhist daily prayer.[21] James Briscoe notes that this work shows similarities to Stravinsky but also to the next generation.[22]

Instrumental Pieces[edit]

D'un soir triste[edit]

This instrumental work was the last Boulanger was able to compose by her own hand, without help in writing.[23]

D’un matin de printemps[edit]

This symphonic poem is one of the last pieces Lili Boulanger completed. Different arrangements were produced including a version for violin, for flute, and for piano, another for piano trio, and another for orchestra. Although she finished both these instrumental works, her sister Nadia reportedly edited the works to add dynamics and performance directions.[24]

Illness and premature death[edit]

Tomb of Lili and Nadia Boulanger.

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" (Crohn's disease) that cut her life short at the early age of 24.[25] 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 two definitive biographies are The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger (ISBN 0-8386-1796-4) by the American musicologist Léonie Rosenstiel and À la recherche de Lili Boulanger by French musicologist and tenor Jérôme Spycket.

Boulanger 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.

The asteroid 1181 Lilith was named in her honor.

Selected works[edit]

Lili Boulanger, source: Library of Congress.
  • 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


  • Attente : Claves, Marsyas
  • Clairières dans le ciel : Ambronay, Centaur, Hyperion (Helios), Naxos (Marco Polo), Timpani
  • Cortège for violin & piano : Arts, Collins, Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • D'un jardin clair : Arts, Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • D'un matin de printemps : ARS, Audiomax, Centaur, Chandos, Dutton, Dynamic, Farao, Feminiae [1], Gramola, Naxos (Marco Polo), Timpani
  • D'un soir triste : ARS, Chandos, Timpani
  • D'un vieux jardin : Arts, Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • Dans l'immense tristesse : Claves, Marsyas, Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • Elle est gravement gaie : Analekta, Cedille
  • Elle était descendue au bas de la prairie : Cedille
  • Faust et Hélène : Chandos
  • Hymne au soleil : Hyperion (Helios)
  • Le Retour : Claves, Marsyas, Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • Les lilas qui avaient fleuri : BIS
  • Les sirènes : Hyperion (Helios)
  • Nocturne : ABC, Audiomax, Centaur, Classic FM, Collins, Decca, Deux-Elles, Divine Art, Doron, Feminiae [2], Genuin, Gramola, Harp & Company, Meridian, Naxos (Marco Polo), White Line
  • Nous nous aimerons tant : Ambronay
  • Pie Jesu : DG, Naxos, Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • Pieces (2) for piano trio : Avi Music, Genuin
  • Pour les funérailles d'un soldat : Hyperion (Helios), Timpani
  • Psalm 129 'Ils m'ont assez opprimé dès ma jeunesse' : Carus, DG, Timpani
  • Psalm 130: 'Du fond de l'abîme' : Carus, Chandos, DG, Querstand, Timpani
  • Psalm 24 'La terre appartient a l'Eternel' : Chandos, DG, Timpani
  • Quatre Mélodies : Timpani
  • Reflets : Cedille, Claves, Marsyas
  • Renouveau : Hyperion (Helios)
  • Soir sur la plaine : Hyperion (Helios)
  • Thème et variations for piano : Naxos (Marco Polo)
  • Trois morceaux pour piano : Timpani
  • Vieille Prière bouddhique : DG, Timpani
  • Vous m'avez regardé avec toute votre âme : Ambronay, Champs Hill, Zigzag


  1. ^ (1893-1918), Lili Boulanger (1911-01-01). "Les sirènes - Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) - Work - Resources from the BnF". Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  2. ^ Kelly, Barbara (2013). Music and Ultra-modernism in France: A Fragile Consensus, 1913-1939. Boydell Press. pp. 50–53. ISBN 978-1843838104. 
  3. ^ Fauser and Orledge., Annegret and Robert (12 March 2016). "Boulanger, Lili". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 12 March 2016. 
  4. ^ a b Potter, Caroline (2006). Nadia and Lili Boulanger. Farnham: Ashgate. p. 94. ISBN 978-0754604723. 
  5. ^ "Lili Boulanger, Psalm 24". Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  6. ^ Lili Boulanger, ‘Faust et Hélène, D’un matin de printemps, D’un soir triste, Psaume 130, Psaume 24’, [CD], cond. Yan Pascal Tortelier, BBC Philharmonic, City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus (1999) Chandos CHAN9745.
  7. ^ "Boulanger, Lili, Musical score". Repertoire Explorer. Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  8. ^ "Lili Boulanger, Psalm 129". Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  9. ^ "Boulanger, Lili, Musical score". Repertoire Explorer. Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  10. ^ a b Fauser and Orledge, Annegret and Robert (12 March 2016). "Boulanger, Lili". Grove Music Online. Oxford University Press. Retrieved 12 March 2016. 
  11. ^ Lili Boulanger: Psalm 130 (Du fond de l'abîme), Psalms 24 & 129, Vieille Priere bouddhique; Igor Stravinsky: Symphony of Psalms; London Symphony Orchestra, The Monteverdi Choir, Sally Bruce-Payne (mezzo soprano), Julian Podger (baritone), cond. John Eliot Gardiner; Deutsche Grammophon CD B000068PHA (2002).
  12. ^ Ristow, Gregory Carylton. 2011. “Contextualizing Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme: Music, War and Politics with a re-orchestration for performance in halls without organ.” DMA diss., University of Rochester.
  13. ^ Rosentiel, Leonie (1978). The Life and Work of Lili Boulanger. Fairleigh Dickinson University Press. p. 258. ISBN 9780838617960. 
  14. ^ Léonie Rosenstiel, The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger (Cranbury, NJ: Associated UPs 1978), 200.
  15. ^ "BOULANGER, Lili and Nadia: In Memoriam Lili Boulanger". Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  16. ^ Rosenstiel, Léonie. 1978. The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger. Associated UPs.
  17. ^ Mattis, Olivia, 1993. “Lili Boulanger - Polytoniste.” In Lili Boulanger-Tage 1993. Bremen zum 100. Geburtstag der Komponisten : Konzerte und Veranstaltungen, edited by Kathrin Mosler, 48-51. Callas/Zeichen und Spuren.
  18. ^ "Boulanger, Lili, Musical score". Repertoire Explorer. Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  19. ^ Gregory Carylton Ristow, ““Contextualizing Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme: Music, War and Politics with a re-orchestration for performance in halls without organ” (DMA diss., University of Rochester, 2011), 55.
  20. ^ "Vieille prière bouddhique (Boulanger, Lili) - IMSLP/Petrucci Music Library: Free Public Domain Sheet Music". Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  21. ^ "Vieille Prière Bouddhique". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  22. ^ Briscoe, James (2004). New Historical Anthology of Music by Women, Volume 1. Indiana University Press. p. 278. ISBN 978-0253216830. 
  23. ^ orchestrationonline. "Lili Boulanger in Her Own Right". Orchestration Online. Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  24. ^ "D'un matin de printemps". AllMusic. Retrieved 2016-03-12. 
  25. ^ "Composer of the Week". Retrieved 2012-11-07. 

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