You may have heard of Nadia Boulanger (1887–1979), legendary teacher to Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla, and many more. But did you know that Nadia had a younger sister, Lili (1893–1918), who was a talented composer? Let’s wrap up our discussion on women composers this month by looking at Lili and her work.
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The talented Boulanger sisters were born into privileged circumstances near the end of the nineteenth century. Musical talent ran in their blood, their grandmother was a celebrated singer and their father, a former winner of the Prix de Rome. It is no wonder that both girls decided to pursue music as a career. Nadia, feeling pressure to financially sustain her family following their aged father’s death, attempted several times to win the Prix de Rome to no avail. While the Paris Conservatoire allowed women to enter the competition at the time, it made it nearly impossible for them to win. Despite this, Lili got the idea to attempt the competition herself and, in 1913, became the first woman to win with her cantata Faust et Helene.
After winning this prestigious competition, Lili was launched into the musical world, having her works performed alongside the masters and quickly obtaining a contract with a music publishing company, who promised a steady income.
Having struggled with health problems since she was a child, Lili’s health began to deteriorate shortly thereafter. She passed away at the age 24, leaving the world to wonder what musical masterpieces could have been if she had lived a full life.