French composer, conductor and teacher, Nadia Boulanger (1887 - 1979) conducting an orchestra at the Free Trade Hall, Manchester, 27th February 1963. (Photo by Erich Auerbach/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
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Dear Mademoiselle (Alpha)

Mademoiselle was not much of a composer, too set on correct form to allow the flight of inspiration


An unprepossessing Parisian teacher of piano and solfège received an unexpected career boost when the victorious General Pershing opened a French music school for Americans at Fontainebleau, near Paris, in 1921. Nadia Boulanger applied for an advertised vacancy and was appointed professor of harmony. Before long she was the go-to teacher for Americans in Paris, of whom there were a great many in the 1920s when the living was cheap and the romance abundant. The shy and unconfident Aaron Copland signed up for her first semester. George Gershwin applied for private lessons. In 1924, Boulanger was sent on a US tour to drum up more business, conducting Copland’s first symphony wherever she went.

Even more influential was a friendship she formed with Igor Stravinsky, a reciprocal arrangement in which the Russian exile sent her new private pupils whom she taught at the family home, at 36 rue Ballu, and she talked up, and conducted, his less than overwhelming neo-classical works.

Boulanger frequently missed lessons with migraine and toothache, or simply with a melancholy for her sister Lili who died in 1918 after dazzling acclaim as a composer. Nadia, who also composed, was daunted by Lili’s reputation.

Nadia was daunted by her sister’s reputation

Copland said: “Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music”. Other American students down the year included Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Murray Perahia and the hyperactive Hollywood composer Quincy Jones. As well as a couple of Argentines – Astor Piazzola and Daniel Barenboim – and the brilliant French film composer and chansonnier, Michel Legrand.

Nadia died in 1979. The present concept album brings together selections from famous students played, sometimes a little tentatively, by the cellist Astrig Siranossian and pianist Nathanael Gouin, with three pieces by Nadia Boulanger herself topped off by Siranossian with Daniel Barenboim at the piano. These are curiosities, no more. Mademoiselle was not much of a composer, too set on correct form to allow the flight of inspiration.

The most engaging pieces here are Paizzolla’s Grand Tango, Elliott Carter’s cello sonata and a medley by Monsieur Legrand that will send you whistling along your way to a Bossa Nova by Mister Jones. All good clean fun, but why nothing by Copland?

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