She was a child prodigy, talented musician, and a gifted composer, but she lived less than a quarter-century and was nearly forgotten afterwards.

So who was Lili Boulanger, and why should we be interested in her work today?

I’m glad you asked. In this series, we’re going to take a trip back in time to discover some of the world’s best composers.

We’ll learn who they were and how they shaped music as we know it today.

This is Lili’s story.

Who

Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger, more commonly known as Lili Boulanger.

What

A very artistic composer of orchestral, choral, and chamber music with a flair for creative instrumentation and colorful harmonies.

When

August 21, 1893 – March 15, 1918.

Lili’s short lifetime spanned the late Romantic and early Modern periods of music history. She was a contemporary of Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Gabriel Faure, and Darius Milhaud.

Where

Lili was born in Paris, France, and spent most of her life there.

She also spent some time composing at the Villa Medici in Rome.

She died in the French city of Mezy-sur-seine.

Why It Matters

Lili’s early death ended what would have likely been a long and brilliant compositional career.

Scholars and other composers have called her work graceful, delicate, beautiful, and genius.

She often used harmony more for decoration than for structural purposes in her music. That was a distinctly late Romantic/early Modern idea that other composers would continue to develop later on.

Lili’s works have been favorably compared to Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, Darius Milhaud, Oliver Messiaen, and Igor Stravinsky.

This puts her at the forefront of the early avant-garde composers who pushed music to its limits and opened up new possibilities for those who would follow in their footsteps.

In 1913, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome prize with her cantata Fauste et Helene.

This success landed her a contract with an Italian publishing house.

She went on to write several more song cycles, set three Psalms to music, and begin an opera, La Princess Maleine, which was left unfinished at the time of her passing.

Her biggest influence was on her sister, Nadia Boulanger, who was also a composer.

Turning her efforts to teaching after realizing she could not match the extent of her sister’s talent, Nadia eventually became the teacher of Aaron Copland, Thea Musgrave, Leonard Bernstein, and many more, leaving an irreversible mark on Modern music.

Nadia also set up a compositional prize, the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund, in honor of her late sister.

Lili’s efforts paved the way for future female composers, and she is considered to be one of the greatest women composers of all time.

Other Interesting Facts

Lili was the daughter of Countess Raissa Mischetzky of Russia and Ernest Boulanger, also a composer.

Her father was in his upper seventies when she was born. He died when she was six.

Lili was considered a child prodigy by her music teachers. She played the piano, organ, violin, cello, and harp.

She was also a gifted singer and had perfect pitch. She later studied music at the Paris Conservatoire.

Lili and Nadia helped care for wounded soldiers during World War I.

Her health was never good. She contracted pneumonia at age two and nearly died from it. Her immune system never completely recovered from the damage.

Throughout her life she suffered from infections, measles, and intestinal tuberculosis. This illness is now called Crohn’s disease, and it eventually claimed her life at the age of twenty-four.

The last piece that Lili ever composed was a setting of the old Latin text Pie Jesu.

In English, the lyrics translate to “Merciful Jesus, grant them rest. Grant them rest everlasting.” She dictated it to her sister, Nadia, from her deathbed:

For a long time after Lili’s death, her music was overlooked. She was mostly remembered for her poor health and early passing.

Eventually her work was rediscovered and she became more well-known. Her music was recorded for the first time in 1960.

She is said to be the favorite composer of American jazz musician Herbie Hancock.

And that is the story of Lili Boulanger. What do you think of her? Leave a comment below!

Other Composers Featured in This Series:

Antonio Vivaldi, J.S. Bach, George F. Handel, Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, Erik Satie, Scott Joplin, Dmitri Shostakovich

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