A portrait of Lili Boulanger in 5 works

Everything about Lili Boulanger hinted to a great and promising musical career, but the composer was sadly taken prematurely by an illness at the age of only 24.

A portrait of Lili Boulanger in 5 works
A portrait of Lili Boulanger in 5 works , © Getty / Apic

Born on 21 August 1893 in Paris, Lili Boulanger displayed a strong musical disposition from an early age. Before even being able to read or write, the young Lili was able to sight-read the scores of her first professor, Gabriel Fauré. As an adolescent, she composed several short works for piano before joining the composition class at the Paris National Conservatory. 

Lili Boulanger passed away on 15 March 1918, at the age of only 24, leaving behind nonetheless an important catalogue of works, often mysterious and sombre, works that her older sister Nadia never ceased to promote throughout her career.

Faust et Hélène

Four years after being admitted to the Paris National Conservatory, Lili Boulanger was awarded the prestigious Prix de Rome, the first ever woman to be awarded a prize by the demanding and notoriously conservative, if not misogynist, jury.

Awarded at the age of 19, Lili Boulanger was also one of the youngest recipients of the Prix de Rome, a particularly impressive feat when considering her physical state already weakened by her illness. So severe was her illness that one year earlier, in 1912, she was forced to withdraw her application due to a series of health problems. 

Lili Boulanger was awarded the Prix de Rome for her cantata Faust et Hélène, a work for three solo vocalists, choir and orchestra, with a poetic text written by Eugène Adenis, himself inspired by Goethe's second Faust.

Clairières dans le ciel

Like every winner of the Prix de Rome, Lili Boulanger was required to move temporarily to the Italian capital, to the Villa Médicis. Though her trip was cut short following the outbreak of the First World War, the composer began a prolific period of musical composition, writing numerous works amongst which her song cycle, Clairières dans le ciel (1913-1914).

For her first and only cycle, Lili Boulanger selected a series of poems written by her contemporary Francis Jammes. Parfois, je suis triste ; Si tout ceci n’est qu’un pauvre rêve ; Parce que j’ai souffert, Elle est gravement gaie… [Sometimes, I am sad; If all this is but a dream; Because I have suffered; She is solemnly gay]. Sombre and melancholic, these texts put to music are somewhat surprisingly entitled Clairières dans le ciel [Clearings in the sky].

Du fond de l’abîme

Inspired by biblical and mystical subjects, Lili Boulanger composed three psalms, amongst which Du fond de l’abîme [From the depths of the abyss], one of her longest and most important works. The text chosen by Boulanger is from the De profundis, a Catholic prayer in which the mortals ask God to forgive their sins.

The psalm's long introduction is frightening and dark, as if plunged deep into the depths of the Earth, in the depths of the abyss. The organ, timpani, and cellos push us even deeper, before the violins and choirs resonate like a cry of despair, bringing us slowly back towards the light.

D’un matin de printemps

Though the musical works of Lili Boulanger are mostly solemn and sombre, a reflection of her sad fate, she is also capable of surprising softness and hope. Exactly one year before her death, in 1917, the young composer wrote D’un matin de printemps [One spring morning], a work for piano, flute, violin, and cello, perfectly illustrating the wonder of the awakening of nature.

D’unmatin de printemps is one the rare joyful works by the composer, whose sonorities occasionally echo those of Claude Debussy, one of the most influential composers of the early 20th century who also passed in 1918, only ten days after Lili Boulanger. 

Pie Jesu

Diagnosed with intestinal tuberculosis, Lili Boulanger sadly passed away at the age of only 24. Before her untimely death, she dictated to her sister Nadia her final musical ideas, later to become her Pie Jesu

A poignant choice rich in meaning: drawn from the Requiem mass, the Pie Jesu is a prayer for the dead, but also a text full of hope and comfort. "Grant them eternal rest" were therefore the final words uttered by Lili to her sister

Nadia Boulanger, composer and renowned pedagogue, spent her entire life promoting the musical works of her late sister. In 1965, she founded the Association des amis de Lili Boulanger (today the Centre International Nadia et Lili Boulanger), whose objective is two-fold: to promote the music of Lili Boulanger but also to encourage and support the musical talents of tomorrow. An initiative orientated towards the future with which the name Lili Boulanger shall forever be associated.