Although Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) is considered one of the most important French composers of the early twentieth century, her music is rarely performed. On Friday 10 November Du fond de l’abîme will sound in AVROTROS Vrijdagconcert. An extraordinary opportunity, because this setting of psalm 130 is heart-wrenching. Boulanger completed it in 1917, a year before her death. The American conductor James Gaffigan will lead the Dutch Radio Choir and Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. The concert is broadcast live on Radio 4.
The first – and only – time I heard Du fond de l’abîme live was in 1993. Then the same broadcasting ensembles were conducted by Ed Spanjaard in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. I was studying musicology at the time, but no teacher had ever mentioned the name of Lili Boulanger. Also during the rest of my studies she got zero attention. But what music! Du fond de l’abîme is a powerful, intense lament of a human being pleading for a glimmer of light. I remember even now how, during the performance, I got goosebumps all over and felt my hair roots tickle.
Ill but resilient
Lili Boulanger was born in Paris in 1893 as the second child of the Russian princess and singer Raïssa Mischetzky and the French composer Ernest Boulanger. Even at the very tender age of two she showed great musical talent, which her parents cherished. At the same age, however, she got pneumonia, which severely damaged her immune system. Boulanger would remain sickly throughout her life and be dependent on the care of others.
That’s why she mainly received private education, at first from her parents and her sister Nadia, who was six years older. From the age of five she regularly went along with Nadia to her lessons at the Paris Conservatoire. There she also read music theory and studied organ with Louis Vierne. Moreover she learned to sing and to play the violin, cello and harp. She compensated her delicate constitution with an iron perseverance; in her short life she realized an impressive oeuvre.
Gift for melody
Boulanger received composition lessons from George Caussade and Gabriel Fauré, among others. The latter was particularly impressed by her talent and often brought her songs. She studied these carefully and wrote a lot of vocal music herself, yet also her purely instrumental compositions excel in melodiousness. After Nadia had made several unsuccessful attempts to win the Prix de Rome, Lili decided to have a go at this much coveted composition prize. The family honour was at stake since their father had won it in 1835.
Her first attempt failed, but in 1913 her cantata Faust et Hélène was indeed crowned with the Prix de Rome. Le Monde Musical wrote: ‘Her work ranks far above that of the other applicants. It holds everyone in its grip, even on a first encounter.’ Despite her bad health, she left for Rome to work in the Villa Medici for a year. She also signed a contract with the renowned Italian publisher Ricordi.
The outbreak of the First World War forced Boulanger to return to Paris. There she set up the Comité Franco-Américain du Conservatoire National. Together with her sister Nadia she raised funds to give both material and moral support tot musicians at the front. Her music also attests of her commitment to the fate of soldiers. For example in Pour les funérailles d’ un soldat for baritone, choir and piano three-handed, which describes the burial of a soldier, including the associated tribute.
In 1916 Lili Boulanger returned to the Villa Medici in Rome. There she started the opera La princesse Maleine, based on a fairy tale in which war plays a central role. She wasn’t able to complete it, but did compose the famous Vieille Prière Bouddique. The Buddhist text begs for freedom and tolerance between people. In particular, it calls for the peaceful coexistence of Aryan and non-Aryan people. As if Boulanger had premonitions of the impending horrors of the Second World War.
Composing with death on her heels
An outbreak of the intestinal tuberculosis that had plagued her for years forced her to return to Paris again in mid-1916. From that moment on, she knew she wouldn’t have much longer to live. Although she was confined to bed most of the time, she continued to work with admirable perseverance. She dictated her notes to Nadia and in 1917 she completed her setting of psalm 130, Du fond de l’ abîme. She dedicated this moving work for alto, tenor, two choirs, organ and orchestra to her father.
She had lost him in her sixth year; Ernest Boulanger was already 77 when Lili was born. She never completely managed to overcome her grief, which also found its way to Du fond de l’ abîme (‘From the abyss I cry to you, Oh Lord’). The profoundly experienced and forcefully expressed despair clearly betrays her Russian roots, while the sheer beauty of the music at times outshines Debussy’s best works.
The piece opens with dark harmonies and ominously rumbling timpani; a tuba and a cello play a Gregorian melody. Agitated rhythms and strong dissonances suggest both despair and anger. There are heartrending outcries of the choir on the names ‘Jahweh’, and ‘Adonai’. It is impossible not to be carried away by this highly personal outcry, which reverberates through the concert hall like a tidal wave.
With Du fond de l’abîme, Lili Boulanger wrote her own requiem, as it were. Not long after completion she died, only 24 years old.
In 1993 the 3rd International Women Composers Festival was dedicated to Boulanger. An extensive programme book features many articles: Vom Schweigen befreit.