Merel Vercammen on The Boulanger Legacy: ‘It was unthinkable not to include a work by Nadia, who devoted her life to the legacy of Lili’

When Merel Vercammen first played a piece by Lili Boulanger, she discovered that her sister Nadia had taught Grażyna Bacewicz, one of her favourite composers. Now there is the album The Boulanger Legacy, featuring works by the two sisters and students of Nadia, including Astor Piazzolla and Leonard Bernstein.

‘The seed for the album was sown in 2020’, says Merel Vercammen (1988). ‘The Dutch television programme Podium Witteman invited me and pianist Dina Ivanova to play Lili Boulanger‘s Nocturne on International Women’s Day, 8 March. This was just before the lockdown. I had known Lili Boulanger’s music for some time, but when I was forced to stay home because of the corona-measures, I decided to look into her further. While reading, I discovered that one of my favourite composers, Grażyna Bacewicz, had been a pupil of her sister Nadia. That sparked off the idea for a CD.’

Cover-boulanger klein

At that moment several fascinations came together, the violinist recalls. ‘Some years ago, I noticed that the ratio of men to women in music practice was definitely not fifty-fifty. So I started a small search for good composers who happened to be women. Bacewicz was one of the first names I found and I was immediately impressed. She was not only a great composer but also a very gifted violinist. – She composed seven beautiful Violin Concertos! I immediately decided to put some of her music on the album.’

Prix de Rome

She was also moved by the life story of Nadia and Lili Boulanger. Their father Ernest (1815-1900) was a composer and pianist and at 62 he married the much younger singer Raïssa Mychetsky (1856-1935). They had three daughters, the eldest of whom, Ernestine, died in infancy. Nadia was born in 1887, Lili in 1893. It is said that her father made Nadia, then six years old, promise to always take care of Lili. – As if he foresaw the misery that lay in store for her.

Both Nadia and Lili followed in the footsteps of her father, who had won the coveted Prix de Rome in 1835. Nadia was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire at the age of nine, Lili was already exceptionally musically gifted at the age of two. At this age, she contracted pneumonia, which severely damaged her immune system. She remained in poor health for the rest of her life and, due to this mainly received private lessons. From the age of five, she was allowed to join Nadia’s composition class at the Paris Conservatoire. Both sisters competed for the Prix de Rome. Nadia was awarded second prize in 1908, but five years later Lili was the first woman ever to win first prize. She died in 1918, at the age of 24. Father Ernest had already passed away in 1900.

American Conservatory

‘I find it a moving idea’, says Vercammen, ‘the six-year older Nadia who takes her talented younger sister under her wing from the start and, even after Lili’s premature death, remains tirelessly devoted to her musical legacy. Nadia even stopped composing almost completely and dedicated herself to helping other (aspiring) composers. She was a gifted pedagogue and for thirty years (from 1948-1978) headed the American Conservatory at Chateau de Fontainebleau near Paris. She had an enormous influence on the music of the twentieth century. Composer and music critic Virgil Thomson even joked once that every city in America has a department store and a student of Boulanger.’

Lili-and-Nadia-Boulanger

Lili and Nadia Boulanger

Yet only one of them, Leonard Bernstein, found his way to The Boulanger Legacy. How did the selection for the album come about? ‘It was quite a difficult job’, Vercammen admits. ‘But if you limit yourself to the repertoire for violin and piano, this diminishes your choices considerably. I absolutely wanted the Polish Bacewicz on the album, and the Argentine Piazzolla was an absolute must. Firstly because Nadia Boulanger had such a great influence on him, and secondly because his hundredth birthday was celebrated earlier this year. The American Bernstein is such an icon that he could not be missed, either. Along with the pieces by Nadia and Lili Boulanger, this meant the disc was full.’

Grażyna Bacewicz

Grażyna Bacewicz was at the top of Vercammen’s wish list. Why? ‘I think she is one of the most undervalued composers of the twentieth century, only in her homeland she ranks as a celebrity. Her pieces are lively and contrasting, and I discern a clear link with Lili Boulanger. She has a similar lightness, although sometimes a kind of madness emerges, as in the fourth movement of the Sonata no. 3. Sometimes her writing is very modern, at others one also hears influences from folk, then again Bacewicz writes real earwigs, like in the third movement of the Sonata. She composed this piece in 1948 and Dina and I found it the most fitting to the rest of the compositions. Moreover, Bacewicz represents the French sound among Nadia’s students.’

Astor Piazzolla

Le Grand Tango by Astor Piazzolla was released on single in March 2020. ‘It’s a great piece, which he wrote for the famous cellist Rostropovich, and was arranged for violin and piano by Sofia Gubaidulina. We wanted to put Piazzolla in the spotlight on the occasion of his 100th birthday on 11 March. This is better achieved with a single than by simply including his piece as one of several tracks on the album. Piazzolla is one of the gems in Nadia’s rich teaching practice, especially because she had such a decisive influence on his development.’

The story has been told many times: Piazzolla showed his scores to Nadia Boulanger, who found them lacking in originality. Asked what he was doing in Argentina, he played her one of his tangos on bandoneon, whereupon she is said to have exclaimed: ‘This is the real Piazzolla, never leave him again!’ After this, Piazzolla developed the so-called ‘nuevo tango’, a mixture of the traditional Argentine dance form, classical music and jazz. ‘I like that’, says Vercammen. It shows how much Nadia Boulanger searched for the strong points of a composer, even if he or she wrote music that differed completely from hers. She even taught Quincy Jones, the producer of Michael Jackson’s Thriller!’

Vercammen klein

For the recording of Le Grand Tango, Vercammen and Ivanova sought help from bandoneon player Leo Vervelde. ‘We tried to imitate his sound in rhythm and articulation, to capture the pulsating power of tango. Dina plays it in a beautifully propulsive way, it is her favourite piece. Even though Piazzolla wrote this work for the classical cellist Rostropovich, I myself have occasionally borrowed effects from the typical tango violin style. For example, the chicharra (cricket sound that arises by bowing briefly and rhythmically on the other side of the comb) and latigo (‘whip’, a short glissando effect). I dared take these liberties because Piazzolla was a great advocate of musical freedom. The music is accessible and at the same time has a great melancholic quality. Dina and I made the choice for Le Grand Tango unanimously.’

Leonard Bernstein

Leonard Bernstein is represented with the only Sonata for Violin and Piano he ever wrote. Vercammen: ‘He composed it in 1939, even before he studied with Nadia Boulanger, but we recorded it anyway because Bernstein often consulted her after his studies. Moreover, he was one of the last people to speak to her before she died. The Sonata is a series of variations on a theme, in which we hear how a young composer with great qualities plays with form and tries to relate to the modernism of the time. The more often Dina and I play it, the more enthusiastic we become. Bernstein was obviously very pleased with it himself, for he reused themes in his ballet Facsimile and his Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety.’

The Boulanger Legacy opens with music by Lili and ends with a piece by Nadia Boulanger. ‘Once the idea had taken hold, I decided to record all three pieces Lili wrote for violin and piano, starting with her brilliant Nocturne from 1911, though it was originally composed for flute and piano. It was unthinkable that Nadia would not be represented, but unfortunately she never composed anything for this combination. So we made our own arrangement of the first part of her Trois pièces for cello and piano from 1914. – Which in turn was an arrangement of her triptych for organ of the same name.’

Patron

Nadia Boulanger’s music is often labelled bland, but Vercammen disagrees: ‘The Trois pièces have something icy and contemplative about them, which suits the violin very well. The melody line seems to come from afar, and is so penetrating that you wonder how she would have developed, had she not stopped composing. There are also gems among her songs, such as Soleils Couchants.’

The album came about thanks to a patron, says Vercammen: ‘He wishes to remain anonymous, so I won’t reveal his name. I got to know him during the presentation of my album The Zoo in 2019, after which he invited me to a house concert. When his mother passed away, he decided to set up a foundation with part of the inheritance, which offered me the chance to record this CD. It’s great that there are people like him, who are eager to make new things possible out of their passion for music. Like Nadia Boulanger, they must be cherished!’

This article appeared first in De Nieuwe Muze, May/June 2021

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About Thea Derks

I am a Dutch music journalist, specializing in contemporary music, and a champion of women composers. In 2014 I wrote the biography of Reinbert de Leeuw (3rd edition in 2020) and in 2018 I published 'Een os op het dak: moderne muziek na 1900 in vogelvlucht'.
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3 Responses to Merel Vercammen on The Boulanger Legacy: ‘It was unthinkable not to include a work by Nadia, who devoted her life to the legacy of Lili’

  1. Pingback: Soprano Elise Caluwaerts: ‘The songs of Alma Mahler are grand, intense and compelling’ | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  2. Pingback: The Hague String Trio releases CD Celebrating Women! | Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks

  3. rita monkovich says:

    Thank you for sending such an interesting material that added to my knowledge on the stuff significant novelty. Yearning to the news in this field with impatience . Take care .

    ‫בתאריך יום ב׳, 28 ביוני 2021 ב-20:59 מאת ‪Contemporary Classical – Thea Derks‬‏ :‬

    > Thea Derks posted: ” When Merel Vercammen first played a piece by Lili > Boulanger, she discovered that her sister Nadia had taught Grażyna > Bacewicz, one of her favourite composers. Now there is the album The > Boulanger Legacy, featuring works by the two sisters and students” >

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