Nadia Boulanger influenced generations of Americans with her teaching. She passed away in 1979, but she and her curriculum are highly respected in the American music world and at the European American Music Alliance in France. The following article was submitted by Molly Joyce, an American composer who studied Boulanger’s method.
If I were to ask what Aaron Copland, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones have in common, what might your response be? Perhaps their mutual discipline of music, as composers, and as Americans? However there is one additional facet which they share: all studying with the legendary French pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger.
Boulanger was active as a composer, conductor, and teacher. She came from a musical family, and her sister Lili is also highly recognized as a composer. Nadia Boulanger achieved early honors as a student at the Paris Conservatoire. However, believing that she had no particular talent as a composer, she gave up writing music and became a teacher. In that capacity, she influenced generations of young composers, especially those from the U.S. and other English-speaking countries.
The students lived in Paris for many of their formative years to study with Boulanger, and many became leading composers, soloists, arrangers, and conductors, including Copland, Glass, Jones, and Elliott Carter. She primarily taught at the American School at Fontainebleau outside Paris, and her teaching style was based on objective skills rather than subjective leanings, emphasizing technique of counterpoint, ear training, and harmony. Boulanger was also the first woman to conduct major orchestras in America and Europe, including conducting world premieres of works by Copland and Igor Stravinsky.
Boulanger passed in 1979, however her legacy continues well to this day. I first engaged with her classic curriculum at the European American Music Alliance summer program directed by Philip Lasser, a current faculty member at The Juilliard School. The course sees musicians worldwide coming to Paris each summer to engage in Boulanger’s training that focuses on discovering one’s musical ear. Such curriculum includes intensive coursework in the fundamental tools of musical understanding, choral singing, and musicianship classes, and the program has served more than 1,000 students since starting in 1995.
I was also fortunate to advance such training with undergraduate studies at Juilliard, including ear training with Mary Anthony Cox, a legendary instructor who studied with Boulanger at Fontainebleau from the age of 15. Ms. Cox brought Boulanger’s instruction back to the U.S., and for nearly 50 years influenced a great lineage of musical artists coming through the school.
As an American composer, I continually awe at the renowned legacy of Boulanger on such a diverse and wide variety of American composers, ranging from the modernism of Elliott Carter to minimalism of Philip Glass. I continually strive to learn and embrace the craft and technique in her legacy pedagogy, and greatly value the teaching of objective skills and technique rather than subjective styles and standards. A goal which I believe crosses artistic disciplines, leads to greater foundation and dialogue overall, and represents the unique connection of American and French relations.
Molly Joyce’s music has been described as one of “serene power” (New York Times), written to “superb effect” (The Wire), and “impassioned” (The Washington Post). She has received support from New Music USA, Foundation for Contemporary Arts, Headlands Center for the Arts, Embassy of Foreign Artists, Swatch Art Peace Hotel, The Watermill Center, and her work has been presented at TEDxMidAtlantic, Bang on a Can Marathon, Danspace Project, and in Pitchfork and Red Bull Radio. Molly often sings and plays with her vintage toy organ, an instrument she bought on eBay and loves for how it engages with her disabled left hand, and she has collaborated across disciplines including with visual artist Julianne Swartz, choreographer Jerron Herman, director Austin Regan, and writer Marco Grosse. She studied at The Juilliard School, Royal Conservatory in The Hague, and Yale School of Music.