Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Nadia Boulanger, teaching Stravinsky to David Conte

Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) remains one of the most influential music teachers to have ever assigned counterpoint exercises. She was largely responsible for the training that made composers as diverse as Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Elliott Carter sound the way they do—each inherently unique, each an easily identifiable Boulanger pupil. And of those living composers championed by Boulanger, Igor Stravinsky held pride of place. Stravinsky represented all that Boulanger valued in the world—brilliant artistry drawn from a genius of a man. Dr. David Conte of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music studied with Boulanger from 1975-1978. He sat down with me recently to discuss his former teacher and what he learned of Stravinsky from her.

Boulanger often drew connections between analysis and performance. I wonder if you experienced this emphasis in your studies with Boulanger. 

I think the main connection Boulanger wanted to make was that analysis serves to illuminate the architecture of a piece of music, and this was helpful when memorizing a piece that one was performing or conducting. Her analysis was very focused on tonal structure—determining what key a given passage was in and how the movement through various keys was related to the tonic of the piece. In other words, every piece has a “tonal plan,” which requires that the composer is listening in such a way as to make each choice accountable to what has come before, and to what is coming after.

Nadia Boulanger, Fontainebleau 1964, Louise Talma Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress. Used with permission.
Nadia Boulanger, Fontainebleau 1964, Louise Talma Papers, Music Division, Library of Congress. Used with permission.

Did you happen to study any of Stravinsky’s works with Mademoiselle and if so, which pieces? 

I was at Fontainebleau for the summers of 1975 and 1976, and in the Paris Analysis Class from 1976-1978. Boulanger emphasized a few works by Stravinsky that she had been teaching for many decades: the Symphony of Psalms, the Mass, the Duo Concertante. We also used Stravinsky’s manuscript score of Orpheus for score reading practice in the Saturday morning Keyboard Harmony class, which was attended by about 6 of her more advanced students. We performed the Kyrie and Agnus Dei from the Mass in the Chorale in the summer of 1975. She coached the piece, and student Brian Davenport conducted. I remember her pointing out the larger tonal plan of the Symphony of Psalms, with so many “G’s” in the first e minor chord of the first movement, leading to the final cadence on “G” of that movement, setting up c minor for the second movement double fugue, leading ultimately to the final C major chord at the end of the third movement.

New facts have recently come to light about Boulanger’s biography and personal life. What do you find the most challenging of these claims? 

What is challenging for me involves speculations about Boulanger’s private life. I think some biographers have handled the subject with respect and dignity. But I think that it’s very difficult for modern people to enter fully into the idea that Boulanger saw herself as a “bride of music,” much as Catholic nuns see themselves as “brides of Christ.” It’s hard to believe that a person as passionate as Boulanger didn’t have “romantic” feelings for others, including Stravinsky. But she had the moral force to channel her energies completely into being of service to the art of music through teaching, and through championing the work she believed in—above all, that of Stravinsky.

David Conte. Used with permission.
David Conte. Used with permission.

Do you think there is room in present-day music classrooms to do what Boulanger did, combining analysis, performance, and history when tackling newly-composed works?

Analysis reveals the way that a composer handles language. Theory serves to describe practice. Boulanger said: “Music is nothing more than an incalculable number of solutions based on a limited vocabulary.” In-depth analyses of music can reveal how one composer resembles another, how they have assimilated various influences, and what it is that is unique to their handling of the language. Boulanger believed that there were timeless principles that transcended style and taste. The mastery of these principles can allow any individual composer to express his or her own unique musical personality.

I think that there is very little truly illuminating analysis of musical works today. I analyze my own works according to Boulanger’s methods, and I have tried to guide analysts of my music toward a more illuminating kind of analysis, but this has been difficult. The training simply doesn’t exist anymore, even in our most prestigious graduate programs.

And finally, what do you think is the characteristic that most commonly distinguishes a Boulanger alumnus and where do you think Boulanger’s pedagogical legacy lives on most vibrantly? 

Boulanger always linked music theory and analysis with “hands-on” work at the piano. For her, the fingers led the ear and the brain. One had to have absorbed the principles of classical voice leading in all keys to the point of being able to realize complex materials at sight. An important core of her training that isn’t really recognized are what we called “The Boulanger Cadences.” While at Fontainebleau, we had a class every Wednesday with Mlle Annette Dieudonné for two hours, the goal of which was to memorize these cadences in all keys, modulating to all closely related keys and those keys related through simple mixture, while singing—not playing—any given voice, while playing the other three, and sometimes reversing the hands. In this way, the student’s perception of both vertical and horizontal relations was remarkably sharpened. Having known these progressions by heart for over 40 years, I can attest to their great value. My 2010 lecture on these cadences at the European American Music Alliance (EAMA) has since been posted online with an explanation by Derek Remes.

So Boulanger alumni share a more thorough grounding in harmony, counterpoint, keyboard harmony, score reading, and all the related skills. Most music school curriculums are unable to provide enough time to master these skills at the level she demanded. EAMA seeks to impart this information to its students and represents the most organized and thorough program available at present. Its founder and director, Dr. Philip Lasser, looks at music as a language, with a grammar and syntax. By focusing on these things, questions of “style” or “innovation” or “avant-garde” or “reactionary” become irrelevant. This is very much Boulanger’s approach.

Recent Comments

  1. Prashanth M

    In one of the documentaries on Astor Piazzolla, he speaks extensively about how his music changed due to Madame Boulanger, and how he wouldn’t have achieved his musical identity without her help. Hope to see some of that story in this book too.

  2. […] The Oxford University Press blog has an interview with composer David Conte and his experiences working with Nadia Boulanger.  Read the full conversation that Conte had with musicologist Kimberly Francis here. […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *