Lili Boulanger: the fragile, forgotten genius of classical music

"The mark of a completely feminine grace": Lili Boulanger
"The mark of a completely feminine grace": Lili Boulanger Credit: Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive

Throughout history, women composers have had one almost insuperable obstacle to overcome; their gender. The mere fact of being a woman was enough to ensure any female composer would be excluded from the profession, discouraged by being told to marry and have children, and if their music was played it would be constantly belittled or “damned with faint praise”.

Lili Boulanger, the centenary of whose death the Proms is celebrating this year, had something even more crushing than age-old prejudice to contend with: her health.

At the age of two, the infant Lili was struck down by bronchial pneumonia, and nearly died. From then on, her health was never good, and from her late teens onward she became increasingly frail, suffering from intestinal cramps and bloating and exhaustion, which may have symptoms of Crohn’s disease, or intestinal tuberculosis. The symptoms worsened during the dark years of the First World War, and she died in 1918 at the tragically early age of 24.

Given all that, it's a wonder Lili Boulanger achieved anything at all. Yet her achievement, given the shortness of her creative life, was extraordinary. She left behind a body of works that are technically perfectly assured, and yet far from conventionally correct. They have a special expressive atmosphere, which may owe much to her contemporaries, especially Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy, but which have a very particular tone and colour of their own.

It seems a miracle, but Lili Boulanger did hold a few cards in her frail hand. One was being born in Paris, the most culturally exciting city in Europe. The symbolist movement was flourishing in poetry and painting, the recently opened Opera house the Palais Garnier was nurturing a sumptuous form of romantic opera, and French music was undergoing a determined revival, inspired in part by the humiliating defeat of the Franco-Prussian war. Another was her immense and precocious talent, which revealed itself at more or less the same time as her illness.

It's a mysterious fact that illness can sometimes encourage the blossoming of unusual talent; think of the painter Matisse, who discovered his passion for painting when confined to bed as a child, or the Italian novelist Alberto Moravia, who had a similar awakening during a childhood illness.

Another advantage Lili Boulanger enjoyed was that her talent was immediately noticed and encouraged. She was lucky enough to be raised in a cultured household, bang in the centre of the ninth arrondissement in Paris, where many musical notables lived. Her mother Raïssa was a Russian princess, well-connected in Parisian society, and her grandfather Ernest was one of the earliest winners of the Prix de Rome, the prize for composers which launched many notable careers, including Debussy. Massenet and Bizet.

And there was her equally musical elder sister Nadia, who unlike Lili lived to a great age, and became from the Twenties onwards the most formidable composition teacher in Europe, apart from Schoenberg. Nadia was passionately devoted to her sister, and when she was told by her mother about Lili's illness, had a sort of awakening. “I walked into my mother’s room a carefree child; I left it an adult”, she wrote years later.

But Lili's best card was her own indomitable will. She was absolutely determined to achieve her goal as a composer, and wasn't afraid to call in favours from family friends, which included some of the most influential people in the Parisian musical world. And she wasn't going to let her illness grind her down. She liked a good time, and her letters often talk about partying until dawn (and then having to pay for it with a day in bed, feeling exhausted and wretched).

One gets the impression of a headstrong and impatient young woman who wasn't content to write salon songs, which was the genre that women were supposed to excel in. She had bigger aims in view. In 1913 she won the Prix de Rome, after her sister had tried three times and failed, and when she was looking for a subject for her opera had the nerve to approach the most famous playwright of the day, Maurice Maeterlinck. She asked permission to use his play La Princesse Maleine, a request Maeterlinck had repeatedly turned down from more famous composers. But to this unknown invalid young woman he said yes.

What persuaded him? The recommendation of Claude Debussy, with whom Maeterlinck had already collaborated, must have helped. But there was also a charisma about Lili, a combination of delicacy and determination which smoothed many paths.

Maeterlinck was clearly fascinated by her, and wrote to her to say, "I feel that the child-genius who must give a voice to La Princesse Maleine cannot pass away before having accomplished her work, which seems fused with her destiny." After a concert where her entry for the Prix de Rome was performed, a critic wrote "The frail grace of Mademoiselle Lili Boulanger moved the audience, softened by the sight of the touching group formed by the contestant and her sister...”

Lili Boulanger's sister Nadia, in 1963 Credit: Hulton 

Delicacy, illness, femininity – all these things fitted only too well with the conventional 19th-century idea women, which is that they were feeble creatures who would strain themselves if they tried to create something truly weighty and significant. The male critics of the era were determined to see Lili in that light. One of them described her song Envois de Rome as having “the mark of a completely feminine grace, perhaps a little melancholy, and a real sensibility…”  

When the critic of the New York Times heard her cantata Faust et Helene he was clearly struck by something in the music, but he couldn't repress his own prejudices. "Of the gifts of this girl there can be doubt… More’s the pity that she died so young, as she would surely have achieved a musical personality. But women composers are at best whistling hens.”

Not until 1960 do we find an estimation of Lili Boulanger that isn't hamstrung by the cliche of the "delicate woman", when Mark Blitzstein reviewed the first LP recording of Boulanger's music. "It is more than good," he wrote. "It is extraordinary. Make no mistake, here was an original talent….the music is masculine in its rugged force, utterly feminine in its purity and lyrical outpouring."

Well, you could say Blitzstein was simply adding one more gendered cliché to the mix, but it was at least a step in the right direction. Now we have a chance to judge Lili Boulanger’s music for ourselves. The Proms programme includes several pieces which show her remarkably wide range. They include her strikingly grand setting of Psalm 130, with its tremendous orchestral prelude which seems to rise up out of the abyss.

The song "For the funeral of a soldier" has a stark tragic feeling, which foreshadows Debussy's own cries of rage against the First World War, and shows Boulanger's gift for leading a piece to an unexpected yet somehow apt ending. At the opposite pole of delicious impressionistic lightness is her orchestral tone poem (on a Spring Morning), which at times is close to the misty world Debussy's Pelléas et Mélisande but in the end strikes a different, more sunlit note. Lili Boulanger spent a lifetime constrained by the prejudices of her society, and her own diseased body; in her extraordinary music we can hear her spirit fly.

Hear Lili Boulanger’s music in Prom 8 on July 20, Prom 41 on August 12, Prom 44 on August 15, and Proms at Cadogan Hall on September 3. Tickets: 020 7070 4441; bbc.co.uk/proms