I first heard of Nadia Boulanger (1897-1979), the great French teacher of composition, from Peggie Sampson, who taught me the cello when I was growing up in Winnipeg, Canada. Peggie had studied with Boulanger in Paris and mentioned her name with a great deal of reverence. Boulanger taught almost every well-known and lesser-known composer of the 20th century including the American greats such as Aaron Copland, Samuel Barber and Elliott Carter. She was an uncompromising theoretician who believed once she gave her pupils the means, they would find the way. She had entered the coveted Prix de Rome, the great French composition competition as a young woman but failed to gain first prize, an honour that her younger sister Lili was the first woman to achieve. From that point Nadia saw herself as a teacher and hid away her compositions, instead concentrating on Lili's work. Lili, sadly died at a tragically early age but Nadia went on to nurture many great talents. The following quotations are from interviews that the documentarist, Bruno Monsaingeon, conducted with Boulanger. There is a strange mixture of nobility, humility, dedication and even obsession about these asservations, that I find extremely inspiring.
"I have the impression that the more I try to think of the essentials of music, the more they seem to depend on general human values. It's all very well to be a musician, but the intrinsic values which constitute your mind, your heart, your sensibility, depend on what you are. I believe that everything depends on attention.'
'I think in notes before thinking in words, because I didn't learn anything in the normal way. I learnt to read music first, before anything else, and when I was eight - I played music from the time I was three, reading in all the keys, and transposing, I had already worked through part of the treatise on harmony - my mother said to me one day, "Your eyes are getting a bit better, I think you would like to read". And we began to read casually like that.'
'You can squash people. One remark made in a certain way, on the other hand, can encourage and give confidence. One must tell the truth, but with a view to inspiring confidence and liberating the inner self; it is very difficult, and collective education doesn't allow for it. If I only dealt with groups of studnts, I would be obliged to submit them to a discipline which would be blind to individuals. Thus it's always necessary to have one-to-one contact, because no one is like anyone else. He is himself.'
'Do we behave as if this gift of learning, of retention, is a great favour granted to us, or do we let the days pass through like a sieve in which nothing remains? And is the residue in this sieve really an acquisition or just running water? Running water is water lost.'
Nadia Boulanger, Her Life and Work was performed at St Cuthbert's Church, SW5 and for the Boesendorfer series at St Mary Magdalene, Portland Place in 2014