An artist and a woman, in her own words

Nadia Boulanger: War Years in America and Her Last Decades, by James Whipple Miller

3 minute read
Book cover: title at top right in yellow and white text; superimposed on a close-up of Nadia’s serious face, late in life.

Nadia Boulanger cast a wide shadow over the classical music world of the 20th century, exerting her influence as a pathbreaking composer, conductor, and pedagogue. James Whipple Miller’s Nadia Boulanger: War Years in America and Her Last Decades, coming this fall from Chestnut Hill Press, demystifies the artist and the woman, offering a rich portrait of her supportive approach to teaching and artistry. Containing a treasure trove of letters written between 1941 and her death in 1979, this volume makes a valuable addition to the world of Boulanger scholarship.

Born in 1887, Boulanger charted a career at a time when the music industry was suspicious, if not downright hostile, to ambitious women. Although she taught hundreds of accomplished pupils over the course of her long life—including Philip Glass, Gian Carlo Menotti, Adolphus Hailstork, and Daniel Barenboim, to name just a few—the fact that she is remembered primarily for her educational advocacy rather than her work as a composer carries a whiff of sexism. Although the Philadelphia Orchestra has programmed works by Nadia’s sister Lili Boulanger in recent years, her own compositions have yet to become concert standards. (The Bard Music Festival, in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, dedicated its 2021 summer season to Nadia’s output.)

Defining moments

Miller begins his examination in the years following several of Boulanger’s most defining life events: the premature death of Lili in 1918 at age 24, her initial introduction to the United States as a touring musician in the years between the World Wars, and her flight from Paris in 1940 at the dawn of World War II. Although the book focuses somewhat on Boulanger’s mentorship of the Turkish pianist İdil Biret, it primarily explores the long and deep friendship she shared with Ruth Robbins (1910-2005), with whom she maintained a 40-year correspondence.

The musically inclined daughter of a prosperous Midwestern family, Robbins found an idol and paradigm in Boulanger, who in turn was charmed by Robbins’s musical talents and caring nature. Miller asserts that, in meeting, the confident, worldly composer opened up possibilities for the timid, soft-spoken young woman. “Encountering Nadia Boulanger transformed Ruth Robbins’s life, filling an emotional gap,” he writes. “Ruth wanted to learn to live in beauty—musical, artistic, and moral. She found a guide brilliant at teaching how to connect passion to beauty and to the highest of moral goals.”

The letters between Robbins and Boulanger reveal warmth going both ways. Robbins sounds confident and comfortable as the communications progress, miles away from the timid middle child she seems to be when the relationship starts. Boulanger comes across as part godmother, part girlfriend: one can never entirely forget the formidable air about her, but her affection is clear and genuine. Her letters almost always begin with an affirmation of her devotion to the friendship: “Just a hasty note to say how profoundly I am happy for you coming,” starts one missive to celebrate a visit Robbins made to France in 1946.

Behind the curtain of an extraordinary life

Interspersed are reminders of Boulanger’s status as the leading teacher of the period. A profile published by the English composer Lennox Berkeley in l’Adam International Review begins thus: “To anyone who has not met Nadia Boulanger, it is difficult to explain her power as a teacher; to anyone who has met her, it is unnecessary. This is because her success is due more to her character than to her methods. Her personality is so compelling, her enthusiasm so irresistible, that the reason for her very wide and lasting influence is immediately obvious.”

It will be obvious, again and again, to the readers of this volume. Those who seek a portrait of the nuts and bolts of her life as a pedagogue may come away disappointed—aside from some references to pupils and events in letters, Miller does not endeavor to dwell on that part of her life. (For that, look to Léonie Rosenstiel’s seminal Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music.) But as a peek behind the curtain of an extraordinary life and enduring friendship, this book is a must for any musical devotee.

What, When, Where

Nadia Boulanger: War Years in America and Her Last Decades. By James Whipple Miller. Philadelphia: Chestnut Hill Press, coming September 16, 2023. 380 pages, hardcover; $24.99. Pre-order it here.

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