Richard Stoker and Nadia Boulanger

Writing in 1976, the composer Richard Stoker remembers his studies with Nadia Boulanger between 1962 and 1963, when he made his first visit to 32 rue Ballu in the ninth arrondissement – and his meetings with her since.

The first thing one notices about Nadia Boulanger is her delicate refined perfume, the next is her dress – neither of the Twenties, nor of the Sixties but timeless and above all, her own. When she speaks a slightly Americanised-English is noticeable but it is at all times musical, concise and pointed, with much warmth and precision. She gives you her full attention, listening carefully to all you have to say with a remarkable concentration and patience.

You immediately gain confidence from this attention and you begin to feel a worthwhile person in your own right. I am sure that this one of her great secrets as a teacher; no one is too unimportant for this attention and a few moments speaking to her is enough to treasure for a long time to come. Any merit you may have, in your work or in your personality, is immediately noticed, drawn out, and encouraged. I believe as a teacher Nadia Boulanger discovers the latent talents of her pupils, however small these may be and concentrates on them as a gardener would on a delicate hot-house plant, the result being a new self confidence and growth of creative character. Next she endeavours to assist you to find the true direction that your work should take. To do this, she makes you aware of the contemporary climate in art and encourages any personal traits and original ideas you may have to come to the fore. She is first and foremost an ideas person, just as Schoenberg was an ideas man; indeed it is my opinion that Boulanger and Schoenberg have been the two great composition teachers of this century so far.

One notices in one’s studies with her the remarkable capacity she has for drawing on tradition and making her observations on it new and always vital. She is a highly cultured person with consummate, innate taste and (more important to a creative pupil) she has a subtle and intuitive critical faculty together with a view of life and art which is refined and spiritual. As an influence on the art of music, the legacy of Pound and Auden in literature, and Picasso in painting is comparable to hers. Indeed the views of Auden, together with those of Stravinsky and Valéry, are quoted very often in her lessons. Chagall and Braque are mentioned amongst painters, and her appreciation of painting and sculpture is almost equal to her understanding of literature and music. (Another parallel, this with Schoenberg). One other important facet of her teaching is how she relates the arts in a positive and intrinsic way. It is apparent how much she emulates and honours the great but neglected writer Paul Valéry: she quotes freely from him and from his writings at almost every lesson and I get the impression – when speaking with her- that she regards music as a higher form of poetry. She obviously reveres Valéry even more than Stravinsky and this is possibly because Valéry has gone further than anyone in trying to unravel and throw some light upon the difficult area of Aesthetics; a subject extremely difficult to explain and evaluate due to its intrinsic obscurity.

Nadia Boulanger’s lessons were conducted in a patient, chatty style. She was very careful to underline all points she felt to be of significance, often repeating a sentence or quotation three times so that it would be remembered. In teaching this is not a bad way: a pupil may need some points of reference in the future when he has lost the almost parental care of a devoted teacher. Her classes were entirely different: here, she never minced words and said one thing at a time- take it or leave it. I am certain that a composer would not gain much from her classes alone, but they are a useful adjunct to her individual tuition.

At the classes, held on Wednesdays, she would analyse works from all periods, often with live performers there to play examples. I well remember a three hour session spent on an exploration of Mozart’s great G minor quintet. Nadia concentrated on the first eight bars showing how the rest of the music was contained here. It was as if we were witnessing the composer’s pre-conscious/conscious processes for the first time. Another memorable occasion we sang through the whole of Stravinsky’s Threni, a favourite work of hers and possibly the composer’s masterpiece.

A class devoted to Fauré’s Nocturnes I remember, for it was exciting to hear her talk so engagingly about her own teacher’s work. She has never suffered fools, and I well remember a class taken up with a discussion of the fugal answers in Bach’s 48. A student interrupted her, asking, "But how, Mademoiselle, will this help us extend our repertoire." This received no answer. Much of this was due to a shortage of time. Nadia Boulanger often said to me how the ideal lesson should be of one to three day’s continuous duration, in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere. "But", she said, "As this is by no means an ideal world, it is impossible," and then "there is never enough time, we must each make use of every second we are given."

Nadia Boulanger has certainly used every second of her time and all who have been lucky enough to come in contact with her, and many who haven’t have benefited. Not only has she devoted her long life to pupils and friends, but she has devoted it to her sister Lili’s music and memory (An exceptionally talented composer, Lili became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome). Nadia holds every year a very moving memorial service to her sister and mother, at which some the most beautiful French vocal and organ music can be heard.

In her teaching Nadia Boulanger sets great store by the quality of attention and concentration needed for all one’s work. On this subject she liked to quote St Augustine: ‘Intelligence is to the soul what eyes are to the body; therefore it is necessary to have eyes, but it is not enough, you must look, but it is not enough, you must see.’ Then she would add herself: "It is so difficult to listen to something and hear it".

In early 1963 my lesson time was changed: my teacher had visited Francis Poulenc on the day of his death. She told me later how he had looked ‘so peaceful’, and how this charming man- who had spoken well of everyone, at all times- had been her friend. I then learned that she had no time for the affected or artificial in a person, and on this count Jean Cocteau did not come off too well. She had little admiration for Gide, the man, either, although she respected some of the work of both writers. She had a high regard for both Paul Dukas and Oscar Wilde, both of whom she said were, ‘highly intelligent.’

Following on from this she said her greatest pleasure was to hear two intelligent men in conversation. In England she respected Yehudi Menuhin (whom she has known since boyhood) and also Lord David Cecil.

I would hate to give the impression that her lessons lacked humour: she once said. ‘Some of my American pupils are so unbelievably unobservant. I had taught an American girl for well over a year, almost every week, when one day – looking up from the piano- she said, ‘but, Madame, you’ve got an organ’". Now this instrument almost fills the farther end of her studio.

Her memory is also remarkable. At my first lesson I told her how, three years before, I had entered a composer’s competition of which she had been a judge. "What was the work?" she asked. "A String Trio". I replied. "Yes, it had a yellow cover", she said to my amazement. Her teaching hours were long. I remember one lesson began at eight on a dark Monday morning, another at nine on a Sunday night. On this particular night the excellent English pianist David Wilde came out of her studio at nine looking surprised to see another pupil waiting outside! Most of my lessons were conducted at tea-time and I was privileged to take some tea with her. Once I praised the china tea, only to find a small parcel waiting for me at the end of my next lesson. It contained two packets of the same blend.

Another time she gave me a copy of ‘Mr Stravinsky’s latest score’ direct from Boosey & Hawkes’s press; this I had to analyse in detail for our next lesson. Often at tea-time she was still opening her post; once she was very moved to learn that one of her pupils was to marry; she told me what he had written with tears in her eyes: ‘my future wife will be blind yet I only hope I am worthy of her.’ This was one of many examples I had of her deep and humble humanity.

At another memorable lesson, being between works- an awful state, this, for a composer- she played on the piano the whole of Stravinsky’s Persephone, narrating all the salient points over the music. (Nadia Boulanger never touched the piano keys when reading one of my scores, preferring to sit in front of the keyboard in silence).

The power of her personality is such that many of her remarks come to me at odd moments and whilst working on a score (the most useful moments); many of here sayings are filled with a powerful irony, perhaps a trait of which the French are masters. The depth of this irony is often difficult to plumb but with perseverance it is greatly rewarding and, if fully comprehended, permanent.

Nadia Boulanger understands the creative process, and the many difficulties a creator comes up against, better than anyone I have met. It is a measure of her regard for her own pupils that she referred to me, in any introduction, as Mr Berkeley’s pupil from London, and never as her own pupil. Indeed Sir Lennox’s teaching has been in every way comparable with her own, as one might expect considering he has been one of her first and finest pupils and has become a practising composer of great distinction. As a measure of the high regard felt by pupil for teacher, I once asked sir Lennox if he sent his works to Nadia: ‘Only the best ones.’ He replied.

I cannot end without a mention of her many Stravinsky references: one in particular sticks in my mind. She had been present, as on many occasions, at one of Stravinsky’s rehearsals. This time he was conducting the solemn and reflective end to the Symphony of Psalms when, to her surprise she saw a fireman remaining motionless in rapt attention. ‘What do you learn here?" she had asked. "Much, Madame, when this one conducts". "But do they talk music with you?" she had enquired. "No, Madame, when they talk to me they talk fire; yet when someone can conduct something so slow, so solemn, so reflective for so long, I call that greatness.!" She had told Stravinsky this later: "Well, that paid fore the concert", he had replied, deeply moved.

With young musicians she can at times be a little tough, but she means well. I find the following quite revealing. At a seminar a young musician was to play a sonata to her. "You have prepared the first movement?" she asked. "Yes, Madame", was the reply. "Then sight read the second for me!" Luckily the young musician managed this feat very well and in so doing the young player’s true musicality was revealed; a good test, this.

She adores children and if any very young ones are in her vicinity, they soon find themselves seated on her knees. Her life has been devoted to others in so many ways, but I think it is the composers who have the most to thank her for. Not all the performer-pupils have realised what they owe to her guidance, or have understood her far-reaching generosity and skill. Some of them are so impatient to improve their repertoire and compete with one another, often having ill-equipped techniques, that I feel sure a great many of her well-intentioned suggestions miss the mark. But one day they will no doubt realise what she has offered them, as so many musicians of the calibre of Menuhin, Lipatti, Cuénod, Wilde and Szeryng have already testified.

I well remember Sir Arthur Bliss saying to me before I left England to study with her: "Don’t believe all she says.’ It was very hard not to!

Ó Richard Stoker

This piece first appeared in "Books & Bookman" December 1976 pages 52-54 Volume 22 No.3 Issue No.255. The magazine is now, sadly, defunct.

This material was also include in Richard Stoker’s Autobiography – Open Window-Open Door published by the Regency Press in 1985

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