Badass Ladies in History: Nadia Boulanger

Hello, Germies, and welcome back to Badass Ladies in History. This month I am extremely excited to spotlight one truly badass lady who kicked some major ass with her musical compositions, teachings, and overall dedication to the classical music world.

Nadia Boulanger in 1925
Nadia Boulanger in 1925

Born in Paris, France, on September 17, 1887, Nadia Boulanger was basically born to make a distinctive and important mark in the music world. Her father, Ernest Boulanger, was a composer and professor of voice at the Paris Conservatory. Nadia’s mother, Raissa Myshetskaya, was a celebrated singer and also one of Ernest’s students at the Conservatory.

Nadia and her younger sister, Lili, were both extremely invested in their work as musical artists and composers, and at the age of 9, Nadia began her musical studies at the Paris Conservatory. Nadia was taught by renowned French composer Gabriel Faure at the Conservatory, and she was remarkably dedicated to her studies in composition — so much so that she was determined to be the first woman to win the Prix de Rome for musical composition. Although Nadia never won the first place prize, she was incredibly close to winning in 1908 with her cantata La Sirene. Her composition ended up taking second place in the competition.

Although Nadia gave up after her fourth attempt at entering the competition, her younger sister ended up winning first place in 1913, making her the first woman to receive first place in the Prix De Rome. Lili was an incredibly gifted composer, but her health was rapidly declining. After Lili’s death in 1918, Nadia stopped composing for a time and solely focused on teaching.

Nadia had made her conducting debut in 1912, and in the summer of 1921, Nadia was invited to become a professor of harmony at the newly opened French Music School for Americans in Fontainebleau. Her work at the school would mark Nadia as an important fixture and influence to several significant composers, including the American composer Aaron Copland.

Concerning her teaching philosophy, Nadia wrote, “My goal is to awaken my students’ curiosity, and then to show them how to satisfy that curiosity. I want to make it clear that their dedication to music must come first, before their dedication to their own careers.”

Nadia was a devoted composer who brought her talent and passion to the United States during the 1924-25 concert season. Walter Damrosch, director of the New York Symphony Orchestra, arranged the trip for Nadia, and during her American tour, she gave 26 concerts and numerous lectures. While in the US, Nadia made an international name for herself and was even able to premiere Aaron Copland’s new “Symphony for Organ and Orchestra.”

Nadia continued to teach and make an international reputation as a teacher, and she was able to influence several significant composers, such as Virgil Thompson, Walter Piston, Roy Harris, and Elliot Carter. In 1928, she rejected the opportunity to teach one of America’s most important composers, George Gershwin, saying, “What could I give you that you haven’t already got?”

After the 1929 Stock Market Crash, student attendance at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau slowed down, which meant that Nadia had time to pursue other prestigious endeavors; and, in 1936, she made history by becoming the first woman to conduct London’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. She also became the first woman to lead the New York Philharmonic as well as orchestras in Boston and Philadelphia.

After spending time in America as a resident between 1940 and 1946, Nadia returned to Paris, and she was appointed as the professor of accompaniment at the Paris Conservatory — where her musical career first started. In 1950, she was appointed director of the Fontainebleau school, and she remained their director until her death in 1979.

Nadia continued touring around the world, lecturing, conducting, and sharing her gift with others. At the end of her life, Nadia’s eyesight and hearing began to fade, but that did not stop her from working until her death.

Nadia Boulanger’s mark on the music world is far too long to list in one simple article about her life. Her legacy is felt even to this day, seeing as she was a landmark component in the influence and progression of classical music. Nadia’s need and drive to continue working even up until the age of 92 is a true testament of her passion and ability to further the musical development of her students, sharing her passion with the world around her.

So, three cheers to Nadia Boulanger — an amazing composer, conductor, and mentor to countless men and women who would feel her influences throughout their musical careers for several years to come!

Listen to a sample of Nadia Boulanger’s composition genius below!

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