Forget genius – musical devotion is about love.

“Can you live without music?” is the question from Nadia Boulanger, the legendary music teacher. When she talks about the fear of encouraging too many people, this is the teacher who taught Daniel Barenboim, Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones, Philip Glass, Astor Piazzolla — and the list goes on.

And this isn’t “those who can’t, teach” — on the contrary, Boulanger broke ground for women at the conductor’s podium, taking the baton in front of a number of the world’s best orchestras and premiering the likes of Stavinsky and Copland.

But, for all those moments when you might give up music, you know you’re in love when music is the thing you can’t live without. And that inability to be discouraged is maybe what is infinitely more valuable than whatever anyone imagines genius to be. (That’s not an inability to be frustrated – but an inability to be truly discouraged. There is a difference, naturally.)

Must watch (other lo-fi videos abound, so get ready for a YouTube hole):

  • Graham Metcalfe

    Thanks for the posting. She was an amazing person and unbelievably influential to modern music.

  • An interesting take. Boulanger explicitly made this statement about selecting people to “encourage”, which makes sense given her role and position.
    She was certainly at the centre of a very important context for certain approaches to music, particularly in a long period of transition over “Western Art Music”. It must have been positively delightful to gain her insight, at the time. During my studies in musical asthetics, in the mid-1990s, a similar attitude was still dominant.
    There’s also a lot to be said about other attitudes which can be heard around the world. Including those which embed music in broader phenomena (a concept of music as a separate practice is a relatively rare thing in human diversity).
    Plus, we can discover other aspects of musicking, including the social dimension of playing together or the hedonistic pleasure of playing with music. Many people whose lives intersect with music would likely be rejected by Boulanger, as her social agency revolved around a specific set of ideas surrounding music and art. But the same way language can serve for riddles and puns as well as philosophy and love song, music needs not be limited to a given sphere of agency.

    It could be useful to think about the current money-obsessed context and ask people if they’d still get involved in music if they were convinced there’s no money to be made from it. It could help situate some rather distinct positions. Those who keep fame and fortune at the back of their minds as the ultimate goal of their musicking have different needs from those who’d play music no matter what. Since music has been heavily commodified, there have been many discussions of the business models behind music. But music will likely remain a big part of human life even if it makes no financial sense behind musicking.

    • Ashley Scott

      Excellent points, the world of musical contexts of situation & the roles of creating, performing & listening in people’s everyday lives & occasions that are socially defined. That’s my clumsy way of saying I don’t think I have anything to add to your comment.

    • No, fair point. And I notice that this general attitude also was transmitted to other composition teachers I had (several of whom had a direct line to her, so that may not have been coincidence).

      I would look at it this way:

      It’s pretty stunning when Stravinsky’s own composition teacher says they have no idea of what “genius” is, just to name one example. It’s at the very least a provocative statement.

      But the other half of this point revolves entirely over two questions she doesn’t answer – what constitutes a life in music, and what constitutes commitment to it (from the person who says it’s like marriage but who also says she doesn’t really know how marriage works).

      Maybe embedded in these provocative statements is a certain amount of uncertainty, combined with a certain amount of privilege from being surrounded by people with a particular brand of success. And those two things are indeed part of almost any way of examining music careers and passions.

      I certainly am not of the opinion that commitment hinges on economic commitment – that is, “don’t quit your day job” may not say *anything* about your passion for music.

      The inability to be discouraged resonates, though.

      I think you hit right on all the potential pitfalls of accepting this at face value, and I hope this is a conversation we continue. It’s a conversation that *needs* to happen, and it seems that it tends to revolve around the financials of streaming or other superficial measures and not what actually makes people fulfilled in music making.

  • Ashley Scott

    I’d argue about the scope of Boulanger’s influence on Euro art music – I think that depends upon your view of the significance of different practices & movements.

  • Robert McKenna

    No love for her composition? I only recently discovered her as a composer through a chamber music night on international women’s day. A sad loss to composition in my opinion. She most certainly “could” as well as teaching of course.

    • Graham Metcalfe

      Very lyrical, and quintessentially “French.” That’s a good thing. 🙂

    • Oh, excellent point — and yes, I was likewise slow to discover her own compositions.

      Actually, I think there’s something unique in experiencing music from someone who taught this much, in that it does make you self-aware in a special way. (A lot of the above composers taught, too, but what makes Boulanger special is that all *those* people had her in common.)

      You know, another thought occurs: I’ve never heard anyone make the comparison with electronic music. But in terms of raw inspiration and influence, I think people like Max Mathews were on Boulanger’s level.

      Okay, so all of this spawns potential for some different articles (even though a thorough investigation of Boulanger’s music is not really CDM material!)

  • chaircrusher

    My mother always talks of Boulanger as a primary inspiration in believing that she could be come a composer. My Youtube troll for Boulanger came up with a recording of her conducting Fauré’s Requiem.

    (as an irrelevant aside, when I was younger I disliked the quality of old recordings like this, but now I really love them. Having been at live unamplified orchestra concerts, I think that the darker tone of them is closer to what you actually hear)