Magazine article Gramophone

The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger

Magazine article Gramophone

The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger

Article excerpt

The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger

Performing Past and Future Between the Wars

By Jeanice Brooks

Cambridge University Press, HB, 304pp, 55 [pounds sterling]

ISBN 978-1-107-00914-1

The first thing to be said about this book is that it is not a birth-to-death biography. It is very specific: it is about Nadia Boulanger's work between the two world wars; but is also an analysis of her recreative methods that holds good generally for her work as a musician, especially as a conductor.

What we do not learn is Boulanger's concern for what music is about, which tends to be ancient and modern--including JS Bach, his contemporaries and earlier creators, and the music of her own time, certainly Stravinsky. Such twin peaks of musical interest made little difference to what is written on the page: it was to be interpreted as written, studied for what is on the page, notated for the performers as a mathematical concern. What it may be about and what it may mean is not necessarily the concern of the performers. The danger is that Boulanger comes across as pedantic and literal, although one is left in no doubt as to her musical intellect, her devoted analysis or her ability to inspire.

Today Boulanger (1887-1979) is best known as a teacher; how often her name is included in composer biographies, especially of those learning their craft in the middle part of the last century. Boulanger was not only pedagogical but a composer (short-lived), a conductor (at a time when women were not associated with this vocation) and a critic. Her activities in this last role are well documented here, not least for illuminating what seems to be a specifically French way of interpreting, listening to and commenting on music and music-making. When Walter Damrosch conducted the Eroica in Paris, it was Boulanger who reviewed it.

However, this book, although written from the standpoint of an admirer, is rather dry and does not make for continuous reading. That said, it is divided into clearly labelled sections: about music as performed during the stated period; about historical implications of the chosen music and links with the then contemporary; and about Boulanger's influence and legacy. We start at the end of the First World War, with France rebuilding and looking to return to the glamorous times lost to conflagration, and it's clear that Boulanger mixed in the highest of society and was able to present concerts of music that reflected her enthusiasm for the brand-new and the old and forgotten that attracted the upper echelons, yet were there for all and were broadcast. …

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