The Greatest Music Teacher of the 20th Century

The words “great” and “greatest” appeared several times during my research into Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), both on the Internet and from books that I own.

Why was I looking for references about her? Because I had come across her name yet one more time, recently, causing me to go over the tipping point, not able to resist getting to know her better.

Last week a friend had given me a book, What to Listen for in Music by the composer of quintessentially American music, Aaron Copland, and in the foreword by Alan Rich was a reminder that Copland had been a pupil of Boulanger.

The Greatest Music Teacher of the 20th Century

Leonard Bernstein congratulating Nadia Boulanger, after she became the first woman to conduct the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, February, 1962. [Secondary Source]

Most simply put, she can be considered “the greatest” because she was teacher to so many renown composers and performing artists, some of whom were great teachers in their own right—Aaron Copland, for one.

These are some of the American students of Nadia Boulanger:

Robert Russell Bennett (1894 – 1981)
Marc Blitzstein (1905 – 1964)
Elliott Carter (b. 1908)
Aaron Copland (1900 – 1990)
David Diamond (1915 – 2005)
Philip Glass (b. 1937)
Roy Harris (1898 – 1979)
Quincy Jones (b. 1933)
Ned Rorem (b. 1923)
Walter Piston (1894 – 1976)
Roger Sessions (1896 – 1985)
Virgil Thomson (1896 – 1989)

Although Leonard Bernstein’s name is linked for many reasons with that of Nadia Boulanger, he apparently was not a pupil of hers. But, he was a pupil of a pupil of hers: Walter Piston.

Boulanger, in 1928, rejected as a student one of America’s most important composers, George Gershwin. “What could I give you that you haven’t already got?” she asked him. [Source]

I most recently saw Boulanger’s name while reading Sylvia Beach and the Lost Generation, by Noël Riley Fitch. Beach was the owner of the famed “Shakespeare & Company” bookshop in Paris to which Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound and many other writers of the 1920s and 1930s gravitated, along with musicians and other artists. Several of these musicians and future composers were in Paris because of Nadia Boulanger, thus offering the creative and disciplined influence of these two remarkable women who apparently never met each other. In chapter seven of her book, Fitch offers these anecdotes:

Aaron Copland (1900-1900), ©1979-2010 Adair

Most of the regular customers of the bookshop were writers, but among them were four composers: Satie, Antheil, Virgil Thomson, and Aaron Copland…Copland, who had joined the lending library [of the bookshop] had time to read [Sylvia’s] books in spite of being worked “terribly hard” by Nadia Boulanger, the great French teacher of musical composition to more than a generation of American composers…Because of Stravinsky, Ravel, Schönberg, Strauss, Satie and the music school of Nadia Boulanger, young American composers went to Europe, particularly Paris, to complete their professional education. In America, musical training was predominantly Germanic and old-fashioned, but in Paris, according to Copland, Boulanger knew “pre-Bach to Post-Stravinsky…cold.”

Although only the names of male composers have entered this narrative so far, Nadia Boulanger was teacher and mentor to a number of women in the field of music. In A History of Classical Music, the author, Barrymore Laurence Scherer writes:

Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953)

During [Ruth Crawford’s] European travels she was embraced by such pre-eminent musical figures such as Bartók, Honneger, and Nadia Boulanger…Among Nadia Boulanger’s American students were other women who achieved positions of distinction as composers, among them Marion Bauer (1882-1955) and Louise Talma 1906-1996). Bauer…had learned French from her parents; when introduced to Boulanger…in 1906, she offered to give Boulanger English lessons in return for lessons in composition, and thus became Boulanger’s first American student.

But, what was it like to study with Nadia Boulanger; what was so special that the most talented people sought her out? We can get a glimpse from Philip Glass.

Around a year ago I bought the book Writings on Glass: Essays, Interviews, Criticism, edited by Richard Kostelanetz. I have been fascinated with Glass’s music for almost two decades, especially since having viewed and bought the film Koyaanisqatsi, for which he wrote the musical score. The film has no spoken dialog. “In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means ‘crazy life, life in turmoil, life out of balance, life disintegrating, a state of life that calls for another way of living'” [Source]

In an early chapter of the book we learn that Glass went to study with Boulanger in 1963, at age 26, because a musical colleague whom he admired had studied with her. Glass had already completed his studies at the Juilliard School of Music.

(Transcribed from an interview by Ev Grimes)

Boulanger wasn’t interested in the music I had written…I started studying first species counterpoint with her again…I studied counterpoint and harmony with her for over two years…

She had a variety of techniques that she was teaching. They included score reading, counterpoint, harmony, figured bass, and analysis…With Boulanger, nothing was theoretical; it was all practical. The rules of harmony she could describe in a few sentences, but you could spend years writing it, because to her the difference between technique and theory was that technique was practice. Harmony is practice, counterpoint is practice—neither is theory…

You took three classes with her a week…[The] Black Thursday class…was a special class…[Y]ou were asked to that class; you couldn’t request it. She put together six or eight students…It would start at nine o’clock and would go till noon. The subject of the class was announced at the beginning, and we rarely accomplished it…When we left the class, we would sit in the café across the street. No one would say anything; we would have our coffee or a beer, then we would part until we got together the next week. No one would say anything [repeated]. It was totally demoralizing in one way. We all knew we were either her best students or her worst students, but none of us knew which ones we were…

One can read more of Nadia Boulanger and her teaching goals and methods from these sources:

List of students and others associated with Nadia Boulanger

About Ron Pavellas

Expatriate American living in Sweden with wife. Retired from employment in the USA. Currently focused on blog articles, memoirs, and creative writing.
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