music

Nadia Boulanger

This weeks Illustrated Women in History was submitted by James Purvis. 

Nadia Boulanger was a French composer and conductor who amongst her other achievements became the first woman to conduct the London Philharmonic Orchestra in 1912.

As a child she was sensitive to music, and a story is told of her hearing a fire alarm and then picking the notes out on the piano. After this she worked avidly towards the entrance exam for the Paris Conservatoire, where she studied composition under Gabriel Fauré and won prizes for harmony, organ, piano accompaniment, and composition.

Boulanger’s driving goal was to win the prestigious Prix de Rome, a prize that had been claimed previously by other great composers such as Berlioz, Bizet, Debussy, and notably for Boulanger, her father Ernest.

While she worked tirelessly towards this aim, achieving some distinction, ultimately this was not to be, and she retired from composition to focus on her teaching career, saying that she was convinced that she wrote ‘useless music’. Her sister Lili later claimed the prize in 1913, becoming the first woman to do so.

Boulanger’s teaching career was prolific. She taught a large number of students from Europe as well as over 600 American students, many of whom such as Philip Glass and Quincy Jones, would go on to become key figures in the music of the twentieth century.

Her contribution to music was recognised internationally, and she was awarded the Order of the British Empire, the Order of the Crown of Belgium, and the Order of St. Charles of Monaco.

Boulanger’s breadth of skill and mastery as well as her mentoring of key figures from twentieth century music is particularly salient given the puerile arguments that can be trotted out in response to women in the field today. Particular opposition is singled out for those who occupy what is considered the primary leadership role – the conductor. The dearth of female conductors is demonstrative of the state of inequality, and the role of conductor has been described as a glass ceiling for women. By way of illustration, the well regarded UK concert ‘Last Night at the Proms’ had it first female conductor as recently as 2013.

Speaking on this subject, when asked how it felt to be the first female conductor of the Boston Symphony she is reported to have said:

“I have been a woman for a little over 50 years and have gotten over my initial astonishment. As for conducting an orchestra, I don’t think that’s a job where sex plays much part.”

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