by Robert Xavier Rodríguez

Music of Students of Nadia Boulanger
March 7, 1996

Like G. B. Shaw, who said he was not a Catholic “ because there can be only one Pope,” Nadia Boulanger chose not to be just another composer.  Boulanger knew her music was not exceptional; she called it “not bad, but useless.”  While she continued to conduct and to perform as an organist and pianist, she came to realize that in these areas too, while she was as good as any, she was not alone at the top.  Only in the field of teaching did she surpass all others.

What was her secret?  She had the technical mastery and critical insight to make her Self disappear in the practice of her Art.  Having given up composition, she was like a mirror with no face of her own to cloud the issue when considering the work of others.  As she said in her last letter to me, “My great satisfaction is not to have hindered you.” Much of the magic of Boulanger was, thus, that she had the uncanny capacity simply to reflect back to the student no less than an accurate picture of his own music:  identifying weaknesses, inconsistencies, and unintentional borrowings as well as moments of strength and originality.  As Virgil Thomson put it in the New York Times Magazine (1962):

Suddenly he [the student] sees that which has caused him pain, struggle, and much uncertainty unveiled before him, without malice or invidious comparison, as a being to which he has given birth.  Naturally he is grateful.  His work has been taken seriously, has received the supreme compliment of having its existence admitted.

This blazing critical acumen made her an invaluable consultant for teachers and performers as well as for the composers of vastly different musical persuasions who were the focal point of her more than seventy years of teaching.  In each case Boulanger had an unerring ear for what she as a composer herself, ironically, lacked — what she once described to me as “a composer’s greatest contribution: a personality.” 

She was aware that for us Americans, symphonic music was a medium not indigenous to our own hemisphere.  I remember talking with Astor Piazzolla about his days in Paris with Boulanger.  He had wanted to write elegant, “respectable” European symphonies.  “But why?” asked Boulanger.  “Anyone can write symphonies, but only you can write your music.  Your music is the tango.”  And so it was.  Like Piazzolla, many of the finest American and Latin American composers, no matter how many foreign (mainly European) experiences and influences they may have acquired, seem to be at their best only when their native roots are showing.  As her pupil, Aaron Copland, said, a composer’s task is to show what it feels like to be alive in one’s own time and in one’s own place. 

Boulanger’s greatest contribution for so many of us Americans was, therefore, not so much to fill our heads with Frenchness but, conversely, to free us from the overwhelmingly European load of traditions and expectations we were all carrying around.  Rather than let us sink in watered-down Europeanism, she wanted each of us to rise to find his/her uniquely American voice.  It was with this concern for individualism that she had refused to take Gershwin as a student.  She explained to me that “by then, he was already Gershwin.”

For those of us among her last generation of American composers, the challenge was to find one’s own personal identity in a time (the 60’s and 70’s) of both stylistic regimentation and fragmentation.  Boulanger was fond of quoting Jean Cocteau’s statement, “A truly creative artist cannot copy; therefore, in order to create, an artist need only try to copy.”  Stravinsky put it more simply, “Great artists don’t borrow, they steal.”  Over our ten-year friendship, from 1969 until her death in 1979, Boulanger was a sure guide as I tried to “steal” rather than “borrow” a path through the popular schools which were attracting young composers:  from frosty total serialism on one extreme to the first fanciful thawings of what we later recognized as post-modernism on the other.  In my own case, I remember delighting in one small breakthrough when Boulanger said she saw in one of my early scores a little two-bar passage which, as she put it, “only you could have written.”  For better or worse, I had begun to find my way.  Prophetically, Boulanger offered me what I, as a serious young dodecaphonist, found a most unusual piece of advice:  that I would only be half of a composer until I could find a way to express in my music the love of laughter which I enjoyed as a person.  And so it was, twenty years and six comic operas later.

What is her legacy?  The enormous body of music written and performed by her students speaks for itself; but, more importantly, there’s an attitude that she managed to impart that informed and inspired every note which was and continues to be written and performed under her influence.  With Boulanger we were always aware that whenever we made music, we were standing before a great mystery, a mystery that we would never understand, a mystery that we were all — herself included — just barely worthy to approach, and then only if, as she did, we gave all we had, all the time. 

She would sing the opening theme of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in her marvelous baritone and say, “But it is just a scale — fa(#), sol, la, si, do(#), re ... la.”  I could have written that.  And yet, it is such a mystery — always the same, yet always new.”  Suddenly it was as if we were hearing those seven notes for the first time.  We were filled with that paradoxical combination of despair and exhilaration that she always inspired:  impossible as it seemed, maybe we could somehow discover such a mystery for ourselves.  As she put it – whether, poetically, from Valéry (“Do not enter without desire.”) or, more pointedly, in her own inimitable English (“You are either a profound mystery to me or you are a nuisance.”) – with her we had no choice.

So we tried our best not to be a nuisance to Nadia Boulanger.  And she, in turn, helped us discover mysteries within ourselves.