Nadia Boulanger: Mademoiselle (1977)

On the occasion
of Nadia Boulanger's 90th birthday
Nadia Boulanger is the most famous
music teacher of the 20th century.
Today, aged 90, she still teaches
pupils from all over the world.
Paul Valry wrote about her:
''N. Boulanger
sometimes allows me the illusion
''that I understand something
of the subtleties
''and skillful arrangement
of great music. ''
Here now is Igor Markevitch.
First of all,
one must bear in mind
her double origins.
On her father's side,
the French intelligentsia,
the French Academy,
the Rome Prize.
On her mother's side,
a Russian princess' family.
Hence a certain tension,
two poles which represented
- knowing Nadia as I did -
a permanent feature of her character,
of her activity,
and even of her physical appearance.
When I first came to her
as an adolescent,
I was struck by her charming profile,
by the pince-nez she wore
like a Herr Professor.
I think she wore it deliberately.
In those days, in order to exist,
a woman had to assert herself.
She probably wore that pince-nez
so that she'd be taken seriously
as a real Professor.
One thinks one is in B minor.
But no, it doesn't stay put...
With the same motive...
Each chord opens a perspective.
We are here
in Nadia Boulanger's Paris flat.
The piece she is working on
is Mozart's C minor Fantasy.
She tries to kindle
her pupils appreciation
of its surprising harmony.
He plays slowly. Rightly so.
He listens.
It seems we were in E flat minor...
a streak of tenderness:
B major.
C sharp in the tenor voice!
It's better than it was.
Then G, no!
D major! G major, sorry.
Then, a different kind
of expression...
Something else.
Some minor mistakes...
again B minor.
A rest on the dominant.
Tonic! Dominant !
Tonic !
No, 4th degree!
Tonic, dominant,
we know for sure we are in B minor.
And then...
- Then what?
- We are in D major...
Since you're playing, that's
the least we can expect of you.
So, here we are in D major.
The ear,
which heard: f, b, f, b, f,
and suddenly...
This D major modulation
is not simply a D major modulation.
Can one actually define that?
I am using words such as tenderness
or tension. It's all wrong.
It is what the music itself is...
They have come by the thousands
to study with her.
Some of them became famous.
Pianists such as:
Dinu Lipatti,
Idil Biret,
Daniel Barenboim,
Jeremy Menuhin.
Composers like Penderecki, Berkeley,
Aaron Copland,
Jean Franaix,
Virgil Thompson,
Walter Piston,
Roger Sessions,
Elliot Carter,
Andrzej Panufnik,
Michel Legrand,
Pierre Schaeffer,
and Igor Markevitch,
the conductor
of worldwide reputation.
During my first year with her,
we would study a Bach Cantata
every week.
She revealed these works to us
in an extraordinary way.
We had the feeling
that until then
we had remained on the surface,
that we suddenly penetrated
their inner meaning,
their very structure.
I remember
my fellow student,
Sviatoslav Stravinsky,
the son of Igor, saying:
''It is as if the work at hand
suddenly became as deep as the sea.''
Indeed, we all had that feeling.
All these works acquired
a new dimension,
a new depth,
that we might never
have been aware of,
had she not played them
to us.
It went so far
that when we brought her
a score we had written,
she was able,
while sight reading it,
to correct mistakes
that had eluded us.
She had a prodigious eye,
and an ear
which were absolutely remarkable.
The accuracy of her ear
seems to have struck
all the great musicians
who knew her. Leonard Bernstein:
Yesterday, I visited her.
I brought her a new song of mine.
She insisted:
''Play it to me, please.''
And I started.
''Ah, that B flat in the bass! No!''
I am 58,
but I was like a child,
a 21 year--old student
who had come to work
with Mademoiselle.
That was the 1 st lesson
I ever had with...
Because I never was her pupil.
And she said: ''Ah, that B flat'',
and she began to live again
at that moment,
we had already been talking
for an hour
about many things.
About Mozart,
Berg, Schnberg,
when she insisted:
''Please, play me the song
that you brought.''
And she picked out that note.
Why did she object to it?
Yes, because that note
had already appeared...
in the right hand.
That B flat has already been heard.
She wanted something fresher...
Something like this.
And I thought:
this woman is incredible.
A grand lady of almost
90 years
who is almost blind,
who can hardly move,
but who is in such form !
She is ready
to make her criticisms,
as during all her life.
She was radiating light.
f, c, f sharp,
The bass line: c, e, a,
c, c...
Teaching musical analysis,
she dissects here,
the Kyrie from Stravinsky's Mass.
Stravinsky, who was her friend,
once said about her:
''She hears everything. ''
The tenor line:
c, c, c,
d, c, b,
b, b, b.
The contralto line:
Then, the whole thing:
The chorus:
In the thirties,
Stravinsky went through
a difficult period
we've now forgotten about.
Turning his back on the composer
of the Rite of Spring and of Noces,
Stravinsky moved
towards a sort of neo--classicism,
even going in the direction
of Weber, Bellini, or Tchaikovsky.
Many people have seen this
as a self-betrayal.
Nadia Boulanger was one of the first
to grasp the importance
of Stravinsky's evolution,
all the doors that it opened,
and to demonstrate,
analyse and unveil it to us.
You are one of the people
who were closest to him,
both humanly and musically.
Stravinsky was a great believer.
I don't know if you are aware of it,
but in his art
you sense the sacred.
When he does this for instance:
Igor Stravinsky,
The Firebird, Berceuse.
When this man,
who always accepted commissions,
decided to write a Mass,
as he had decided, years before,
to write Ave Maria,
the Lords Prayer and the Credo,
he was responding
with a ritual gesture to his faith
- the faith which determined
that if he played cards,
he would play seriously
as well as he could.
In all his actions
there was something serious,
even amidst frivolity or burlesque.
Just think of Circus Polka.
He was so happy when he was asked
to write Circus Polka.
When I saw him in New York,
he urged me to go and hear it.
He was euphoric at having succeeded
in writing Circus Polka.
But there was no confusing Circus
Polka and the Symphony of Psalms;
no mock religion,
no stagey signs of the cross!
''Will you accept that commission?''
I asked him.
''I can't,
it doesn't make my mouth water.''
Take Valry's verses:
''Whether I shall be
a tomb or a treasure.
''Whether I talk or keep silent
is up to you.
''My friend,
do not enter without desire.''
Valry says:
''Do not enter without desire''
and he:
''It doesn't make my mouth water.''
That desire defines any creator,
but what is the specificity
of Stravinsky's genius?
You cannot define it with something
that applies to anyone.
Quite! But then,
you simply cannot define it.
It is!
In an interview,
he was asked
to explain his technique.
He tried to stammer out something
but ended up saying:
''My nose is. My technique is.''
This Symphony is composed
to Gods glory
and dedicated
to the Boston Symphony
on the occasion
of their 50th anniversary.
I believe it is quite impossible...
Well, I can distinguish music
that is well made
and music that isn't.
Yet, what distinguishes
well-made music and a masterpiece,
that I cannot tell.
What you're saying is
that you know how to appreciate
good or bad construction in a work.
Yet, faced with a masterpiece,
you feel quite certain?
But you think there is no objective
criterion to define a masterpiece?
I don't know;
I won't say it doesn't exist,
but I don't know what it is.
How can you be certain then?
It all comes down to faith.
As I accept God,
I accept beauty, I accept emotion.
I also accept masterpieces.
There are conditions without which
masterpieces cannot be achieved,
but what defines a masterpiece
cannot be pinned down.
Johannes Brahms, Sapphische Ode.
Kathleen Ferrier, contralto.
We gathered every Wednesday.
Those Wednesdays
were quite something !
Her flat was crammed with pictures,
souvenirs, musical scores, furniture,
organs, pianos, several pianos.
In spite of this,
she managed to squeeze in
a good fifty people.
We would sit on each others' laps,
while studying
a specific musical problem.
At first, those attending
were only pupils.
Later on,
Nadia Boulanger's reputation
spread to other circles.
The Princess de Polignac,
who had commissioned
Pavane pour une Infante dfunte,
and Falla's Master Peter's Puppet
Show, and many other pieces,
asked me to write a Cantata.
Through me,
she became acquainted
with somebody
I was constantly referring to,
Nadia Boulanger,
whom I brought one day
to her mansion.
Thus, the whole Polignac family,
Prince Pierre de Monaco,
Marie-Blanche de Polignac, who was
herself a distinguished musician,
played the piano exquisitely,
had a lovely voice
and a vast musical culture,
discovered Nadia Boulanger.
They began visiting her,
bringing their friends to her place.
So that Nadia's Wednesdays
acquired a different status
and became a sort of place
of pilgrimage
where artists like Stravinsky,
Paul Valry
and Louise de Vilmorin
would gather frequently.
I was witness to that evolution
which gradually made of Nadia
Boulanger some kind of a legend.
Right after the end of World War II,
I visited Paris for the 1 st time.
I had naturally heard
about Nadia,
mainly through Copland
who was my teacher
and whom I adored.
He had of course studied with her
when he was in his twenties.
I was eager to meet Mademoiselle
in Paris,
and indeed I saw her
for the 1 st time
at one of Marie-Blanche de Polignac's
attended by such people as Poulenc,
Franois Valry...
many other important people.
It was very impressive
for the young chap that I then was.
And there was also Nadia
who sang duos with Marie-Blanche.
The mixture of their two voices
was incredible,
one very low,
the other reined and high pitched.
Nadia and I became friends for ever
on the spot.
I said: ''Aaron Copland'',
and she said: ''Walter Piston''
who was my teacher at Harvard,
and that was that.
I played
and she loved it.
She sang
and I loved it.
That was thirty years ago.
Since Fisk is leaving in a few days,
I'd like him to play some
of the Davidsbndler.
Thirty years later,
the Polignac Salon no longer is,
but the possible
Bernsteins of tomorrow
are still seeking
the advice of Mademoiselle.
Would you please play
the melody alone, nothing else.
Hold it! I will only tell you
that this is a D,
that it is in B minor.
I will tell you nothing more.
Here is the tempo.
Would you sing, please.
You don't know what you are doing.
Oh, Lord, forgive them !
What you are singing is beautiful
but I can hear nothing.
Only a heartrending kind of groan!
What happens...?
What does the present rhythm
with its hesitant character,
d, c, d, c,
followed by f, e, d, c, b, b?
Once more please.
All right...
But what happened?
These were eight bars.
What contributes to the
understanding of a musical phrase?
What contributes in music
to the understanding of the form?
We talk here about the music
of the past centuries.
Today, we are facing
a fascinating time
in which everything is questioned.
Some among you will find
an answer to these questions
with a new language,
which is not to be discussed,
approved or rejected.
Which simply exists.
Some will find a way
to make themselves understood.
Some make themselves understood,
while others try
to make themselves understood.
Some others don't have much to say
and try to say something.
That has always been the case.
In earlier times, the style
was so set that it yielded music
which was as useless
as it was intelligible.
Whereas in times of research,
when language is handled
by incompetent people,
the result is nothing,
pure vagueness within uncertainty!
So, when you compose,
I prefer you to be mistaken,
if you must,
but to remain natural and free,
rather than wishing
to appear other
than what you really are.
lf you carry out researches
in terms of sonority
or means of expression...
In order to...
I remember a day
when Stravinsky was dining here.
He took his neighbour at the table
by the lapels, violently!
His neighbour, crushed, said to him:
''But Mr. Stravinsky, I don't know
why we are talking like this,
''I agree with you.''
And Stravinsky exclaimed furiously:
''Yes, but not for the right reasons,
so you are wrong !''
So, one can have good
or bad reasons for searching.
lf you search to hide
your inadequacy, you are wrong.
But if you want to say what you are,
you owe it to yourselves.
That's why it's essential
for a teacher first of all
to let his pupil
play or write
as he wishes,
and then to be ruthless
on questions of discipline.
So for the period of time
we are considering,
which goes from Bach to Ravel,
for example,
what allows us to understand?
Harmony ?
The connection between
the tonic and the dominant?
That is to say?
The cycle of fifths.
Yes, and what else?
The cycle of fifths
is nothing but successions:
I go from here to there,
and how do I get there?
How do I shape a phrase?
What allows me to...?
- Repetitions.
- Yes, repetitions, but...
- Expression?
- Expression is a result.
It's a word everyone knows
- Tonality?
- Tonality, yes.
What is its foundation by the way?
I was about to say the word,
it's awful.
One shouldn't anticipate.
Sing once again.
So, what have you been doing?
Cadences which characterize.
Cadences, of course cadences.
In other words, punctuation.
During the few bars
you have been singing,
what have you done?
From 1 to 5 and from 5 to 1 .
- So, what have you done?
- A question, an answer.
How a question and an answer?
Broadly speaking,
because this is never absolute,
what do you call that?
Ah, yes, a semi-cadence.
So what? Because it's easier
to call an umbrella, an umbrella,
a shoe, a shoe.
It doesn't lead to confusion.
So what?
It means going from the tonic
to the dominant.
- So, what do you call that?
- A semi-cadence.
That's it.
It is much more convenient
to call things by their name,
you see.
So here, you have a phrase
consisting of a few notes:
d, c, d, c, f, e, d, c, b, b, a
open the phrase.
d, c, f, e, d, c, b, b, a, b
conclude it.
And alongside this,
what is peculiar about this phrase?
Its rhythm?
Its rhythm is indeed peculiar,
and what else?
- Repetition...
- Repetition, and what else?
- The quietness...
- What else?
- The middle line...
- What else?
At the start,
he does d, c, d, c twice,
and then only once.
The 1 st time,
he extends the phrase
as far as the dominant,
as a kind of question:
d, c, d, c, f, e, d, c, b, b, a.
The phrase remains suspended.
But the 2nd time:
He takes time to do the cadence.
Would you play the 1 st phrase?
Too loud, the left hand !
Too loud, the left hand !
What happened?
Take off the pedal !
- We are in major.
- We switched to major.
Can we guess
what is coming next?
We don't know.
Do you remember what Valry said:
''The Gods kindly offer us
the 1 st verse.
''What is difficult
is to write the next ones
''which will be worthy
of their supernatural brother.''
Emile Naoumov
is a young Bulgarian.
He recently came to Paris
to study with Mademoiselle.
I had composed a minuet
which I played to her.
Then I also played
a Tchaikovsky piece,
The Sick Doll.
I played pieces
I had learned in Bulgaria.
I feel I was far away from the level
I've now reached with her.
I can understand and analyse
much better now.
You are composing a concerto?
Do you have any other projects?
I am writing a piece
for a symphony orchestra
after paintings by my grandfather.
I gave them for the New Year
to Mademoiselle Boulanger.
Is it a kind of Pictures
from an exhibition of our time?
Yes, it is of our time.
But I did not try
to imitate Mussorgsky.
When you accept a new pupil,
the first thing
is to try to understand
what natural gift,
what intuitive talent he has.
Often enough,
you'll discover this very easily,
if you really respect children.
It's a serious question.
Can one go ahead
and develop a child
in quite a different direction
from his parents,
without being certain that
this is a talent that should be
developed and stimulated.
You just can't give talent
to everybody.
That would be madness.
One must dare to choose.
Yes, but on what basis?
Is talent necessarily linked
to the quality of a man;
or can a great musician
be also a mediocre man?
Mediocre? No!
A great artist can be a dreadful,
vice-ridden person
- vices pay for human weaknesses,
but certainly not mediocre.
So in your teaching,
when a child or even an adult
comes to consult you,
what happens?
I make him work at solfeggio
with Mademoiselle Dieudonn.
You teach technique.
A ''draconian'' technique!
Can you give him
both technique and lan?
Ah no! He has to have the lan!
It seems to me the one quality
lacking in many people is attention,
which, essentially,
is a form of character.
With some people
there is such concentration
that everything becomes important.
While with others everything passes
and is forgotten.
They repeat their actions
from day to day.
No evolution is possible
because whatever is produced
immediately dissolves.
Then, there are people
who take 20, 40,
50 years to find
what they are looking for.
So, before encouraging anyone,
you must find out whether
they're capable of loving,
of interesting themselves
in what they're doing,
whatever it may be,
for its own sake.
This is the fundamental distinction
between people,
it makes some
extraordinarily active,
and others
what I call ''sleepers''.
Let the sleepers lie
- there is no point
in waking them up.
They are nice,
happy with themselves;
unobjectionable as people;
they are what they are.
I had the good fortune
to be brought up
by a remarkably intelligent mother.
She wasn't musical,
but knew how to bring up a child.
She adored me - she had lost
a child before I was born,
so I was a miraculous new arrival -
but she loved me enough to be
dispassionate in her judgments.
One thing she could not tolerate
was a lack of attention.
From the first I grew up
with this absolute attentiveness,
vital to self-awareness.
Whether I had it in my nature,
or whether that can be developed
is asking me too much.
But that quality is something
that has struck you
with all the artists you have met?
Well, so much order is required
to produce a work!
Think of it: in order
to write those million notes,
to organise them, well or badly,
the order required
is simply fantastic!
Nadia has always insisted
on the quality of ideas.
The chosen note: for her,
it has always been
the most important thing in music.
That b flat in the bass line,
she didn't like it
because it wasn't well chosen.
At the present time,
when music is written
with so many notes
that you can't make them out.
Cocteau said:
''True tears are not drawn
from our eyes
''by a sad page,
''but by the miracle of a word
in its proper place.''
The chosen word
which no other word can replace.
It's amazing
how everyone does the same thing,
and nothing comes 999 out of 1000;
but one of them will say
something unforgettable.
So, where are we? It is not within
reach, it is beyond explanation.
As I said earlier on,
whether we want it or not,
whatever we do seriously
- I don't care
if I'm going to shock some of you -
is the demonstration of God.
You may prefer not to call him God,
but the supreme power,
or number one.
This is mere playing on words.
It is something that is given.
There is this marvelous word:
''Gift.'' He is gifted.
When Faur
with his southern accent said:
- he was so respectful, so loving -
''He is gifted'',
he meant: ''Here is a child
who was born with a sign.''
The one who has it
is naturally not faulty
but has an awesome responsibility.
Because if he has
an extraordinary gift,
an extraordinary technique,
but has no character,
everything goes to waste!
One day,
I had to dismiss two pupils;
I didn't want to carry on.
Both very gifted and intelligent.
One did not have
much technique though.
Very gifted and intelligent,
but no character.
Without character, one can't expect
anything from anybody.
We must be very careful.
You are going to be teachers,
or performers.
As performers,
you have to play with honesty,
not to express yourselves,
but to give expression to the work;
not to try to say
my Beethoven Sonata,
my Chopin Scherzo,
but a Scherzo, not even by Chopin...
a Scherzo that was given Chopin
to write
and that no longer needs Chopin
to be a masterpiece.
It no longer needs a performer,
or a listener.
It needs nothing.
It is just floating in the air,
ablaze with light.
Then, you look at it or you don't.
Piano piece
by Jean-Louis Haguenauer
The range of her activities,
her open--mindedness,
her rigor, her vast knowledge,
the quality of those she has guided
are such
that N. Boulanger
has exercised a major influence
on music
in the 20th century.
Is she the founder
of a school of thought?
I am not a member
of the ''Boulangerie'',
as it is called in the United States.
That word ''Boulangerie''
is rather interesting.
It appeared,
with a somewhat ironic overtone,
in the... how does one say that?
- In the fifties.
- In the fifties, yes.
When serial music
became very powerful.
There were new leaders,
new guides, new ''Fhrers'',
like Stockhausen,
Pierre Boulez.
That changed
the whole musical ambience.
The coterie of Nadia's pupils
was suddenly called
the ''Boulangerie'',
and relegated.
But what is important
is that Nadia's influence remains,
because music is eclectic
as is testified
by the fact that tonality
is to be found everywhere,
even in Penderecki.
Those principles
on which she always insisted
prove to be more important
than ever.
Nadia Boulanger,
you have witnessed what
has happened in 20th-century music.
In your youth, you knew
what were then considered
the ''audacities'' of Gounod,
whose audaciousness
obviously rather escapes us;
you knew Stravinsky
and practically all the important
people in 20th century music.
How would you define the basic
trend of music in that century?
Oh well, the answer is easy
because there are some big dates.
Even if you limit yourself
to 5 or 6 works of reference,
you have Pellas, Les Noces
- whether you like them or not -
you have Wozzeck,
Bluebeards Castle,
you can enumerate...
You have the Symphony of Psalms.
You have works
that answer for the times.
Technically speaking,
hasn't the 20th century
introduced a radical departure
in ways of writing music?
Do you think this will seem
such a great split in fifty years?
When Pellas was premiered,
people heard the orchestra tuning up
and thought it was Pellas.
When we began playing
Monteverdi again,
it was thought to be dreadful.
And when my dear father
was writing
his charming opras-comiques,
- very well written
but in pure French tradition -
the press wrote:
''What a pity that Mr. Boulanger,
''after his brilliant Rome Prize,
''gave himself
over to German technique!''
So, what does that mean?
There are such prejudices,
there is..
a dreadful danger of habit.
Now habits are not traditions.
People now realize...
Debussy has already gone
through his purgatory.
Faur is still in the shade:
he's one of those
who never have a large audience.
But it is very striking to see
that today's young people realize
that this supreme distinction,
this supreme sobriety,
this true classicism,
are very important.
And God knows
how long it will take
for all of this
to acquire a new importance,
to lead the way to a new classicism,
because fortunately
history never repeats itself.
Can one establish a hierarchy
among composers?
It seems to me difficult
to award degrees:
''You are no. 1 , and he, no. 3.''
I find that difficult.
Still, you must think that Beethoven
is more important
than Max Bruch, for example...
You are getting
into deep waters there!
You are saying:
the Himalayas
or the Butte Montmartre!
You can't compare Montmartre
with the Himalayas.
I must honestly say
that I hardly think
of Max Bruch at all,
whereas I've rarely spent
a day without thinking of Beethoven.
In a fit of bad temper
you could be anti-Beethoven
one day.
Against! Yes,
which is a manner of loving,
but never indifferent.
You've never been shocked
by a pupil,
by a work fundamentally new
in relation to what you appreciate
in music?
I don't know what you mean
by the word ''shocked''.
You might use the word ''struck'',
but the word ''shocked''
implies refusal...
-Yes, rejection.
Whereas ''struck''
means expectation.
It's very different to confront
a work you don't know yet,
or a work
in which you have
to recognise some worth,
while secretly saying to yourself:
''that's a trend
I would never follow.''
That's a matter of personal taste.
Cannot culture allow us
to go beyond personal taste
and see the beauty of an object.
I might not want to buy it,
but I can see that it's beautiful.
Where you not struck
by her openness of mind?
I will answer you
by evoking one reminiscence.
There was a time
when she told me
that she was studying intensely
the Schnberg treatise
because some of her pupils
were eager to study
the twelve-tone techniques.
Instead of saying
''that's far from my taste,
I don't like it'',
she turned her attention to it
in order to help them.
When I started,
the great new thing was Hindemith.
Well, Nadia was one of the first
to bring Hindemith
into the classroom.
Hindemith in those days
was something totally new.
A new horizon.
There might be some theories
of musical technique
that correspond more
to your own taste than others?
lf it were a matter
of my own principles,
that would be important
because of the work I could do.
But I am incapable
of writing anything valuable.
I realised at twenty
that I wasn't a composer.
On what ground?
That was so obvious!
The music I have written
is what I call useless.
Not even bad,
because I knew the craft.
But this chapter
is of no interest at all.
Thus my preferences
are of no account.
I only hope
a certain approach to grammar
and to the form of language
goes beyond personal taste.
To what extent?
I am not entirely certain
on this score.
To what extent
are you not influenced?
I do hope though
that I have never liked something
that was worthless,
that deserved to be rejected.
I hope, but I may be wrong.