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April 13, 2018

Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund Announces 2018 Winner

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Lili Boulanger

At its annual meeting, the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund board unanimously chose as its 2018 competition prizewinner the 25-year-old pianist Jean Sélim Abdelmoula, from Switzerland, granting him a prize of $5000. Judge András Schiff had nominated Abdelmoula. “An uncommonly poetic musician”, according to The New York Times, Abdelmoula received first prizes at the 2012 Edvard Grieg International Composer Competition in Oslo, 2013 Lausanne Concours d’Interprétation Musicale, and 2016 Premi de Musica de Cambra Montserrat Alavedras, and his works have been played by ensembles the Orchestre de Chambre de Toulouse, the Swiss Chamber Soloists, the Camerata Bern, the Zürcher Kammerorchester, the Sine Nomine Quartet, and the Ensemble Séquence.

“Mademoiselle” and Her Pet Project

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), reverently called “Mademoiselle” by her students, wrote a few short pieces in her life, but early on, abandoned that pursuit for a world-renowned career as a teacher of composition and harmony. She also encouraged her musically gifted younger sister, “Lili” (Marie-Juliette Olga), born in 1893. She started out studying with Nadia before entering the Conservatoire, where she studied with Paul Vidal; at age 19 she became the first woman to receive the Prix de Rome (First Grand Prize in Music jointly with Claude Delvincourt), for her cantata Faust et Hélène. Five years later, she fell ill and died, devastating Nadia. Extremely productive in the short time allotted to her, Lili left behind a choice oeuvre. In addition to several excellent short choral works, based often on Christian themes, she also wrote for chamber ensembles and solo instruments. Resolving to keep Lili’s memory alive through her music, Nadia started the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund in 1939.

Next season, Lili Boulanger’s D’un soir triste will be played for the first time by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Andris Nelsons conducting. The first of the three performances, on February 21st, happens to fall on the anniversary of the first appearance of one of Lili’s pieces on a BSO program. Koussevitzky led Pour les funérailles d’un soldat on Feb. 20th and 21st, 1925. This probably came about because of the US tour Walter Damrosch, Arthur Judson, and the New York Symphony Society arranged for her.

Almost half a century passed before Lili Boulanger was again in Symphony Hall. On April 19th and 21st, 1962, the second half of the concert featured three of her works based on Psalms: Du fond de l’abîme (130), with organ; Ils m’ont assez opprimé (129); and La terre appartient à l’éternel (24). Nadia Boulanger conducted the BSO and the New England Conservatory Chorus. Laurence D. Berman, former student of Nadia and retired professor of music history and theory at UMass-Boston, recalls, “According to what I’ve heard, it was Leonard Bernstein who got this trip rolling by inviting her to conduct the New York Philharmonic in mid-February. He was there for the Saturday night concert (February 17th, I think it was) and in fact came out on stage to introduce her. Music Director Charles Munch then followed suit and invited her to the BSO”.

The entire concert seems to have paid homage to Lili, by including not only her pieces but also Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music and Mendelssohn’s Reformation Symphony as a major work in the concert. The BSO’s  notes for the Mozart quote Otto Jahn; “It is the musical expression of that manly calm which gives sorrow its due, and no more than its due, in the presence of death”. While one could quibble with “manly”, especially given that a woman composed the other music. presenting the concert clearly was an homage to Nadia, then on her second visit to this country and revered particularly among Bostonians and Cantabrigians.

During that three-month visit from February through April of 1962, several of her former students organized other concerts. The first was on Sunday, April 8th, at King’s Chapel, where Daniel Pinkham was music director. The second, in the Fogg Art Museum Courtyard on April 13th and 14th, was organized by Harvard graduate students Berman and James Harrison. The vocal chamber concert began with Bach’s Cantata No.161, Komm, du süsse Todesstunde, and ended with Carissimi’s Jephthe (in Nadia Boulanger’s arrangement); in between came a group of Monteverdi’s continuo madrigals (already known from Boulanger’s now-famous 1937 recording), in which Richard Conrad and Karl Dan Sorensen sang.

“Boulanger was very pleased with all the soloists, not to speak of the chamber chorus and orchestra,” Berman reminisced. “But can you imagine doing completely different programs on three successive weekends? At almost 75, she was indefatigable”. 

In April of 1974, the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund itself presented her song cycle, Clairières dans le ciel (1914), at the First and Second Church Boston. The artists were soprano Christine Whittlesey and pianist Robert Levin—also a former student. Although the song cycle has now been repeatedly performed and recorded here and abroad, Berman noted, “We are led to believe that the Boston performance of 1974 was the first time it had been done in the United States.” The concert also included a chamber work by Walter Piston, who studied with Nadia during the 1920s.

We had to wait 37 years to hear Lili Boulanger played by the BSO in Symphony Hall, when Keith Lockhart directed D’un matin de printemps in March 1999. However, Tanglewood included her morceaux for piano and soloists at its various chamber venues in 2009, 2014, and 2016. The gaps between performances of her music are narrowing.

 *  *  *

Jean Sélim Abdelmoula (DR photo)

The Boston-based Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund has continued with Nadia’s objectives to perpetuate Lili’s music and memory and to support talented musicians. The category for the prize rotates from year to year. A list of candidates is produced by a group of nominators selected each year by the board of trustees. Each nominator offers a single candidate, and after a recommendation by a board of judges, the fund then awards the prize to one of them. The first judges were Boulanger herself, Koussevitzky, Copland, Piston, and Stravinsky. LBMF’s early supporters included a number of Boston’s and Cambridge’s grandes dames: Mildred Titcomb, Persis Toppan, Phyllis (Mrs. Gardner) Cox, and the three Ulster sisters, Winifred Johnstone, Mrs. Henry (Aileen) Higginson, and Nora Smith.

Myriad former students of Mademoiselle, who became performers, professional musicians, and musicologists well known to the greater Boston community, have since served as board members. They include Tillman Merritt, Elliot Forbes, John Crawford, Daniel Pinkham, Rowland Sturges, and troubadour Joel Cohen. Besides Berman and Levin, the former students now serving on the board include pianist Charles Fisk and music professor and composer (and BMInt contributor) David Patterson. Retired BU professor Robert Gartside, who for many years also served on the board, sang in her concerts as a tenor soloist. Mark DeVoto, Professor of Music Emeritus from Tufts University, has been president for many years. My husband, John M. Norton, the only non-musician of this meritorious group, served as treasurer from 1969 until this spring. (Nadia once sent a letter of gratitude to him, which he treasures.) The fund still exists solely on donations, which it parcels out for awards in different categories every year.

Bettina A. Norton, emerita editor of the Intelligencer, is a retired museum professional. She has published widely in her field, American historical prints, and in later years, was editor and publisher of The Beacon Hill Chronicle. She has been attending classical music concerts “since the waning years of World War II.”

3 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. To my chagrin, I have just learned that LBMF board member, pre-eminent musicologist and performer of early music Joel Cohen, also was a student of Nadia. My apologies

    Comment by Bettina a Norton — April 13, 2018 at 11:17 pm

  2. Toni, please do not apologize. I learned a lot from your excellent piece. It reminded me that one of Nadia Boulanger’s 1962 tour stops was Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. She spoke, commandingly, from a podium onstage in Pembroke Hall, the same one where Martin Luther King had given a memorable speech about love, some months or perhaps a year before.

    After perhaps an hour of peroration in her uniquely idiosyncratic English, Mademoiselle began to grow impatient with the passivity of her large but intimidated audience. “But what is the music that YOU defend?” she queried. “Who are the composers of our day whom YOU love? (I believe she had been talking about Stravinsky) Speak up!” Silence, several whole notes’ worth, pretty much everywhere in the building. Then, timidly, I raised my hand. “I quite like the music of Ernest Bloch,” I ventured.

    Punishment was swift and severe. “Young man, Ernest Bloch is NOT a composer of our day,” she thundered from her high perch. Moses had just descended from Sinai and viewed the Golden Calf, or so it seemed to me. I was hoping at that moment that the ground would open up and swallow me whole, but somehow it did not. She finished her lecture, and I carried on with my shaken existence to complete my undergraduate degree.

    About three years later I was in Mademoiselle’s living room at Rue Ballu seeking to have her take me on as a pupil. She had, fortunately, no memory of me as a retrograde Blochish nudnick, and agreed to teach me, as she then did, regularly, for two years. Among the many emotions I experienced under her tutelage, chagrin, to evoke Toni Norton’s term, was definitely in the mix, recurring any number of times.

    But what two years they were, thanks in large part to that 1962 moment of shock and awe!

    Comment by Joel Cohen — April 14, 2018 at 4:02 pm

  3. Having had Jean Selim as a young artist at The Banff Centre, and then as fellow in the Rebanks Family Fellowship Program and International Performance Residency Program at The Glenn Gould School of The Royal Conservatory, I am not at all surprised by this recent success. Jean Selim is a beautiful young artist with a poetic voice and deserves all the support possible.

    Barry Shiffman
    Artistic Director, Rockport Music

    Comment by Barry Shiffman — April 14, 2018 at 6:06 pm

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