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A Celebration of Female Composers: Lili Boulanger

Welcome to our Celebration of Female Composers series! In the lead up to our next concert, Celebrating Female Composers, on Saturday 9th March 2019, we will be profiling various female composers. Some will be featuring on the next programme, and some are just extraordinary composers that we love to listen to.

First in our series is Lili Boulanger, a French composer most prolific in the early 20th century, and the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome.

Name: Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger

Born: 21 August 1893 in Paris

Died: 15 March 1918 in Paris

What They Say:

“Mademoiselle Lili Boulanger has just triumphed in the last Prix de Rome competition over all its male contestants, and has carried off the Grand Prize with an authority, a speed, and an ease apt to seriously disturb the candidates who, for long years, cried tears and sweated blood while laboriously approaching this goal. Do not be fooled: this deed stands on its own merits. Not only did the gallantry of the judges not intervene to facilitate her victory, but it could be said that they were stricter with this young girl of nineteen than with her competition. The misogyny of the jury was known. […] And it required all the crushing weight and indisputable authority of this woman’s work to triumph over the student’s homework that surrounded it.” – Émile Vuillermoz, reviewer for Musica, 1913

Our upcoming concert, A Celebration of Women Composers, on Saturday the 9th March, features the fascinating Marie-Juliette Boulanger, known as Lili. Sister to the more well-known Nadia Boulanger, her career was brief but dazzling, cut short by her untimely death at the age of 24.

Lili was born into a family of musicians, including grandparents and both parents, and her older sister Nadia attended classes at the Paris Conservatoire at the age of 10. Five-year-old Lili went with her. It had already been established that Lili was musical when Gabriel Fauré, a friend of the family, realised when she was two years old that she had perfect pitch. From that point on her musical education was thoroughly encouraged and she studied piano, violin, cello, harp and organ, as well as singing.

Lili soon turned to composition, and in 1912, at the age of 18, she entered the Prix de Rome, a highly prestigious French scholarship for artists established in 1663, funding the winner to work and study in Rome for several years. However, she fell ill during the process and had to withdraw; the prize was awarded to no one that year. The next year she tried again, and became the first woman to win the award with her cantata Faust et Hélène.

She went on to compose some utterly magical pieces that were very representative of her era and location, but nevertheless carry her own unique style and power. At our next concert we will be playing D’Un Matin de Printemps and D’Un Soir Triste, contrasting sister pieces which tug at the soul in very different ways.

Unfortunately Lili never enjoyed strong health and was ill for much of her life, starting at the age of two with bronchial pneumonia from which her immune system never fully recovered. It is speculated nowadays that her later and fatal illness may well have been Crohn’s Disease, which was undiagnosed at the time. Much of her work was written while fighting off attacks, or else had to wait while she convalesced. D’Un Soir Triste was her last score written in her own hand, and even then she had help from her sister in additional notations of dynamics and articulation. The passion and depth of emotion in this work is staggering.

Lili Boulanger died aged 24, and is buried in Montmartre with her family. Her sister Nadia went on to become hugely influential in the music world as a composer, conductor and teacher.

For information on our March concert featuring Lili Boulanger, click here.


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