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Laney’s List #10  (11 min) 

There is no shortage of composers whose lives and work were cut short by an early death: Chopin 39, Gershwin 38, Mozart 35, Schubert 31. We know those names because they managed through skill and luck to get a foothold on posterity before they died. It’s intriguing to wonder what Chopin or Gershwin would have been writing at 40 or 50 and heartbreaking to know we’ll never know. But at least we have what we have.

Now consider a composer with all the skill but who died so young that we are forced to wonder what she might have been creating at 30. Or 28. Or 25.

Lili Boulanger may be the best composer you’ve never heard of. Born in Paris in 1893, she showed early musical talent and quickly developed a unique and compelling style as a composer, full of innovative textures and harmony. At 19 she won the Prix de Rome, the highest French honor for composers, the first woman to win the award. With it came a five-year stipend to live and work in Rome, but her failing health brought her home early, and she died of intestinal tuberculosis at 24.

Her death didn’t just silence a great composer. It was a cruel foreclosure on what would have been the first extensive body of large-scale composition by a woman.

It’s hard to find a field as male-dominated as classical composition, and not because women somehow lack the gene. You need a very specific and intensive education to become a composer, something women were often denied. You need time, which for women often meant freedom from domestic responsibilities. And you need to have someone take you seriously enough to mentor your talent, sponsor your concerts, publish your work, and occasionally hand you an entire orchestra to play with.

The fact that women composers until recently often had names like Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Clara Schumann, and Alma Mahler hints at the way they managed to get any hearing at all. But even these remarkable talents were generally confined to small forms — solo piano, songs, trios — and endured other restrictions. Referring to her brother Felix, Fanny Mendelssohn’s father told her in a letter that “Music will perhaps become his profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament.”

Even those who broke through to the larger forms often did so in a shadow. When Amy Beach wrote the first symphony by an American woman and had it premiered by the Boston Symphony in 1896, it was promoted as a symphony “by the wife of the celebrated Boston surgeon Dr. Henry Harris Aubrey Beach.” The score, the parts, and the program listed her only as “Mrs. HHA Beach.” Her husband disallowed any formal study of composition or income from her work and limited her to two concerts a year so that she could “live according to his status, that is, function as a society matron and patron of the arts”[1]

Lili Boulanger had found her way past the hurdles and through the maze. She was writing large-scale works of surpassing strength and originality and receiving the accolades of a composer on the cusp of a brilliant career.

Then she was gone.

Vieille Priére Bouddhique (Old Buddhist Prayer) is a setting for solo tenor, choir, and orchestra. Listen to the whole piece, but for a particular taste of what we lost, note the astonishing echoic texture and shifting harmonies at 5:32-6:00.

10. BOULANGER Vieille Priére Bouddhique (8:34)

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1 Chopin | 2 Scarlatti | 3 Hildegard | 4 Bach | 5 Chopin | 6 Reich | 7 Delibes | 8 Ravel | 9 Ravel | 10 Boulanger | 11 Debussy | GinasteraFull list YouTube playlist

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.