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Nadia Boulanger as Teacher by Lennox Berkeley

Editorial note:-

Lennox Berkeley studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris form 1927 until 1932. The present article was written towards the end of this period for the January 1931 issue of the Monthly Musical Record. It is well known that the ‘Paris Years’ were extremely influential on the composer’s subsequent career. Not only did he learn a great deal from Boulanger, but he had the opportunity to meet many great composers including Maurice Ravel, Francis Poulenc, Igor Stravinsky, Darius Milhaud, Albert Roussel and Arthur Honegger. It is hardly surprising that critical opinion often alluded to the ‘Gallic flavour’ of much of Lennox Berkeley’s composition. It certainly explains his attention to detail and the fine craftsmanship of virtually all his subsequent compositions.

Little of Lennox Berkeley’s music from this period is regularly played although there is quite a catalogue of chamber, piano and choral music from these years.

In considering a great teacher of composition, one wonders to what extent composition can be taught at all; for examples spring to one’s mind of musicians of great knowledge and impeccable technique who fail completely as composers, and others full of talent and ideas who fail equally for lack of training and musical workmanship. One can only conclude that teaching in composition is useless in the case of people who have insufficient natural ability, but indispensable to those who have talent.

Although a certain amount can be achieved by a man of great musical gifts without study, I know of no great composer whose talent alone has sufficed. All have had to go through the mill and master a certain amount of theory. Nor is this all: a young composer requires somebody who is capable of guiding his faltering steps, and of showing him how to develop his ideas and to present them in an intelligible form.

Nadia Boulanger is more than a teacher of counterpoint and fugue, and by this I do not mean merely that she also teaches the piano and the organ and lectures on musical form and interpretation, but that she is a teacher of the art of music as a whole, and has a positive genius for the training and development of the aesthetic sense of a composer. She infuses into her pupils that power of self-criticism and discipline which is so essential to the composer.

Let us consider her attitude towards music in general. The first thing that strikes us is the extreme catholicity of her taste. She loves passionately all good music, whether it be light or heavy, simple or complicated. A good waltz has just as much value to her as a good fugue, and this is because she judges a work solely on its aesthetic content. To judge a work of art from other than the purely aesthetic standpoint is a failing to which I think English people are particularly prone. I therefore stress purposely this point in considering Nadia Boulanger’s attitude towards music in general. Some people think that because you like Stravinsky you cannot also like Beethoven, or that an admiration of Johann Strauss is incompatible with a love of Bach. To Nadia Boulanger such an attitude would be incomprehensible.

Different composers are different people, and their music has a different use. You cannot say that a comic opera is not as good as a Mass, any more than you can say that a saucepan in not as good as a top-hat, or that a tea-pot is not good because you cannot have a bath in it. In other words, the only thing necessary is to know whether or not a work is good music, and not allow any other consideration to trouble your judgement.

As regards Nadia Boulanger’s method in general, the chief points are: the study of the works of great masters (chiefly for form and orchestration), the writing of musical exercises, and the submitting to her of compositions. With regard to the first point, her system is to lecture at the piano on some work or series of works which the pupils have previously analysed by themselves. For instance, we have studied recently in class Beethoven’s piano sonatas and string quartets, a large number of Bach’s church cantatas, some early polyphonic music, Stravinsky’s ‘Les Noces,’ and works by Debussy and Ravel.

The musical exercises are the ordinary series involved with the study of counterpoint and fugue. These have to be done with absolute correctness, and if wrong, have to be done again until they are right.

It is, however, the advice given for actual composition that is the most valuable part of her teaching. Here the important thing to note is that she is very severe, but extremely impartial- that is to say, she is severe in condemnation of the least technical flaw or failing in unity of style, but impartial in that she admits any innovation that will come off. It does not matter what style you use so long as you use it consistently.

This question of style is indeed a vital point, and it is the bugbear of the beginner or amateur composer. Anybody with talent can have good ideas, but very few can write a big work on a big scale and yet preserve that unity of style which is essential to any good work of art.

Nadia Boulanger teaches that the composer must first be a good workman, who knows his job, and that then only is he free to write what he likes, and to realize what ideas he has; that it does not matter how much drudgery you go through to gain that freedom, for a man must lose his life in order to find it, and in music he must lose his originality and personality in order to find them. Moreover, there is no risk in the case of a man who has really got something to say that he will become dry and pedantic through a severe technical training. It is true that a certain period of difficulty is often experienced by a composer who, having written a certain amount by the light of nature, applies himself to the study of theory. Whereas everything that he wrote seemed good to him before, now nothing does; and he stops and asks himself, "What would the books say I ought to do now?", and the natural flow of the music is impeded. But this is only a phase. Little by little he begins to do the right thing subconsciously, and his acquired knowledge becomes a second instinct. Thus, in the experience of most people, the process is justified.

There is little more that one can say. It is extremely difficult to give an adequate idea of a great teacher, or to summarize those qualities which make any particular teacher a great one. The fact is that the chief quality is something indefinable, and unless one goes into the question of the psychology and moral character of the person concerned, one is obliged to leave it at that. I suppose you may say that a great teacher is one who possesses the power not only of imparting knowledge to people in such a way that they retain it, but also of making them catch a positive enthusiasm for the acquiring of that knowledge.

I think that the word enthusiasm gives us the key to Nadia Boulanger’s power – it is a most infections enthusiasm, and it is supported by an immense erudition, a keen intelligence and an open mind.

The Monthly Musical Record January 1 1931 [transcribed by John France The Land of Lost Content - English Music Blog ]

With thanks to ‘The Lennox Berkeley Estate’ for permission to reprint this article.




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