Nocturne & Cortège (Boulanger)

Program note

by Canberra Symphony Orchestra Magazine
Wide landscape shot of a lake at sunset; a town is visible in the distance.

Boulanger was making the most of student life when she wrote this piece…that exuberance infuses every note.

LILI BOULANGER (1893–1918)

A child prodigy, French composer Lili Boulanger’s musical talents were famously noticed by Gabriel Fauré when she was just two years old. By five she was sitting in on classes at the Paris Conservatoire with her older sister Nadia, who would go on to become one of the twentieth century’s greatest teachers, inspiring musicians from Astor Piazzolla and Leonard Bernstein to Burt Bacharach and Quincy Jones. It wasn’t long before she was taking her own classes in music theory and learning organ with Louis Vierne. While Boulanger died tragically young, living with chronic illness for most of her short life, she achieved remarkable success in her 24 years.

In 1913 Boulanger became the first woman to win first prize in the Prix de Rome for her cantata Faust et Hélène, setting text by Goethe. The award, a scholarship to study in Italy, boasts a list of winning composers including Charles Gounod, Georges Bizet and Claude Debussy, as well as Boulanger’s own father Ernest in 1835. Her sister Nadia was awarded the second prize in 1908. Lili Boulanger was working on her first opera, based on Princesse Maleine by symbolist playwright Maurice Maeterlinck (the author of Pelléas and Mélisande) when she died.

Boulanger wrote this exquisite Nocturne (a title added to the work by her publisher) in 1911, originally conceiving the piece for flute and piano. Some have heard in it echoes of the flute solo in Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The bell-like piano of the opening transports the listener to a mystical world, from which the violin’s beautiful melody emerges.

Boulanger composed the short Cortège for piano in June of 1914, while she was studying in Rome, later arranging it for violin and piano and dedicating the new version to French violinist Yvonne Astruc. Boulanger was making the most of student life when she wrote this piece – her diary entries gleefully describe a water fight and locking a fellow student in a bell tower – and that exuberance infuses every note.

© Angus McPherson, 2022

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