A few weeks back, we looked at female composers, reflecting on how music history, like most histories, is dominated by male figures. We discussed the compositions of pianist and composer Clara Schumann, who stepped back from her musical career to champion her husband’s work (the composer Robert Schumann).
Have you ever heard of the phrase “behind every great man is a great woman”? The expression is a little outdated now, because of course both women and men are capable of their own accomplishments, but in essence it suggests that women have a hand in the successes of men. In music history, the woman who perhaps most encapsulates this expression is Nadia Boulanger, one of the greatest music pedagogues of the twentieth century.
Nadia Boulanger was responsible for teaching some of the best composers and conductors of the twentieth century, including Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, Leonard Bernstein, Daniel Barenboim and Sir John Eliot Gardiner, to name just a few!
She was the first woman to ever conduct the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, and also one of the first to conduct New York Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra.
Sadly, after the death of her sister in 1918, Nadia composed very little. Today I am sharing the first movement of her Three Pieces for Cello and Piano, which she composed in 1914.
You can also follow along with the sheet music here.
Three Pieces for Cello and Piano
Movement 1: Modérné
This movement features a hauntingly simple cello melody with a fluid and gently rocking piano accompaniment. This accompaniment has a very Impressionist texture. The cello plays con sordino (muted) and the pianist uses the una corda pedal (soft pedal).
Who was Nadia Boulanger?
Juliette Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a French composer, conductor and music teacher. She was born into a very musical family and studied at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of nine. She was a very talented composer, but after her sister’s death in 1918, she vowed never to compose again, much to the dismay of her peers, including Faure. She chose instead to teach composition and to conduct. She taught in prestigious music schools and conservatories in France, England and the United States, and her students became some of the most famous performers, composers and conductors.
What is Impressionism?
Impressionism was a movement in music (and art) that emerged in France in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Impressionist music is characterised by tone colour, fluidity, atmosphere and unusual harmonies.
I really miss face-to-face lessons with my pupil Jamie. He always shares the best school gossip, breaks out into spontaneous improvisation, plays Dance Anthems by ear or turns up in a top hat and tails – what’s not to love?! Here he is performing Stitches by Shawn Mendes. Well done my little genius!