Lili Boulanger

Composer and pianist (1893, Paris – 1918, Paris)

Lili Boulanger was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize and died prematurely at the young age of 24. Nevertheless, her works were surprisingly mature.

The younger sister of Nadia Boulanger, Marie-Juliette Olga ("Lili") Boulanger grew up in a family of musicians: her father, Ernest Boulanger, was a composer who was awarded the Prix de Rome in 1835 and was also a teacher at the Paris Conservatory. At the age of six, Lili already showed great talent as a pianist, especially with Gabriel Fauré, who played with her, discovering she had a perfect pitch. In 1909, she joined the Conservatoire de Paris under Georges Caussade (counterpoint) and Paul Vidal (composition); four years later, she competed for the Prix de Rome performing her cantata Faust et Hélène, and was awarded it by unanimous vote. Not only was she the first female winner of this competition, but also one of the youngest laureates: she was only 19.

She moved to Villa Medici (the French Academy in Rome), where she composed most of her works such as her Cortège for violin and piano and D’un jardin clair, as well as her Psalms (129, 130 and 24), which would not be concluded until 1917. Soon, war broke out and Lili had to shorten her stay in Rome, which was also interrupted due to illness. She kept on composing tirelessly until her death in 1918, of intestinal tuberculosis. On her deathbed, she dictated her last work to her sister Nadia: Pie Jesu.

5 key dates in the life of Lili Boulanger:

1909-1913: Trained in composition at the Paris Conservatory.

1912: Competed for the Prix de Rome, but during her performance she collapses due to her illness.

1913: Awarded the Prix de Rome. Her cantata Faust et Hélène is performed by the Colonne Orchestra.

1914: Moved to Villa Medicis.

1917: Composed the symphonic poems D’un soir triste (the last she was able to compose of her own hand) and D’un matin de printemps.

5 key works by Lili Boulanger:

1908: Ave Maria, for voice and organ

1912: Soleils de septembre, for choir and piano

1913: Faust et Hélène, cantata

1916: Dans l’immense tristesse, for voice and piano

1918: Pie Jesu, for voice, string quartet, harp and organ.

Musical document database, July 2014