Nadia Boulanger and the French Influence in Today’s Music Education

Nadia Boulanger and the French Influence in Today’s Music Education

Music institutions in “interesting times” often turn to outside influence and perspectives to stay relevant. Music integration, popular music, and tech are all avenues institutions and music educators turn to for inspiration.

The Aspen Music Festival and School, however, have turned to history, and to one place in history in particular. Paris, France has long been looked to as a center of culture. Since the middle ages, Paris has produced myriad famous musicians, composers, and institutions. Now Aspen is looking to this rich history to inspire the next generation of musicians in the United States.

“We realised, looking at Paris, how many cities would there be where you have that richness through so many periods?” said composer Alan Fletcher, who is president and CEO of the festival. “Paris has been important to the world of music for centuries… I don’t see there being any decline [in this pattern]– there is, though, a decline in the way American musical life responds to Paris.” (source)

Students performing at the Aspen Music Festival and School in 2014

Aspen’s music teachers are looking for clues to the prolific abundance of musicians coming from Paris in the 20th century by looking at one music teacher in particular. Nadia Boulanger was a French composer, conductor, and teacher in Paris in the first half of the 20th century. Boulanger was perhaps best known for her years of detailed advice to Stravinsky, whose works she brought around the world as a conductor. She boasts a pupil roster which includes the names of musicians and composers such as Aaron Copeland, Philip Glass, Quincy Jones, Igor Markevitch, and Burt Bacharach. She influenced generations of young composers from her principal base for most of her life was her family’s flat in Paris. (source)

Then, as now, Paris was a city that produced “art for art’s sake”. This is the approach teachers at Aspen are attempting to return to by considering Boulanger’s influence on some of the most important artists of the last century.

“For the French, there is much more about mood and color and texture,” Fletcher says. “I think it is completely plausible that young American composers will say, we care more about the French way.”

Nadia Boulanger, composer and conductor.

There can be no question that Nadia Boulanger has been the most influential teacher of music in this century. Even a very abbreviated list of those who have studied with her, both in Paris and during her several visits to this country, demonstrates the way in which her principles have spread throughout the world of music into at least three generations of composers. (source)

Will the “French way” of art for art’s sake take root in today’s new generation of musicians and composers? If we are to believe Boulanger herself, it seems that it must in order for music to flourish in this country. Remarked Boulanger:

“The art of music is so deep and profound that to approach it very seriously only is not enough. One must approach music with a serious rigor and, at the same time, with a great, affectionate joy.”


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