Finally coming on DVD, the extraordinary documentary from acclaimed director Bruno Monsaingeon on the legendary Nadia Boulanger, one of the most important figures of the musical world from the 20th century whose teaching profoundly shaped the musical landscape of the past century. A breathtaking portrait.
NADIA BOULANGER – MADEMOISELLE
A film by Bruno Monsaingeon
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 38 in D major, "Prague"
The ORTF Philharmonic Orchestra
Igor Markevitch, conductor
Picture Format: NTSC 4:3
Sound Format: Dolby Digital 2.0 (film) / LPCM 2.0 (Bonus)
Region Code: 0 (All Regions)
Menu Languages: French, English
Subtitle Languages: French, English
Running Time: 75 min
No. of DVDs: 1
R E V I E W S:
This film was made to commemorate Nadia Boulanger’s 90th birthday. If there’s a perfume of hagiography about it, why not? Nadia Boulanger was a Grande Dame, and was treated with reverence. Watching this film is like looking through a time warp into a world that no longer exists. The film is in black and white for one thing, and camera techniques formal, even for the era in which the film was made. It’s quite a shock to realize the film and the events being recorded took place only 30 years ago.
This isn’t necessarily a problem as Mme Boulanger herself seemed like a figure preserved in an eternal past. Her mother was Russian aristocracy, her father a composer who’d won the Prix de Rome. She heard Stravinsky in his early Paris days, and he remained the defining musical figure of her life. Even in her old age, she dressed and acted as if she were still in an earlier era. Indeed, it was an image she cultivated for it gave her authority in an era when a lone woman without great means needed a persona to succeed. Indeed, Igor Markevitch says, in the film, that she cultivated the image of "Herr Professor" with her pince-nez and rigid posture. She was a superb teacher; her formidable reputation itself attracted students from all over the world. Being accepted by Mme Boulanger conferred instant credibility, by sheer association. She launched careers. She became a phenomenon, worshipped fervently, but also with an element of awe and fear. Alan Kendall, writing her first biography, titled it "The Tender Tyrant".
Mme Boulanger taught thousands in her time. Some were permitted one to one classes, others just crowded into her salon on Wednesdays, the overflow standing outside in the lobby. So much has been written about these sessions, that it’s wonderful to be able to see what they were like, and to hear her in action, in real time. Every surface in her apartment seems cluttered with turn-of-the-century knick-knacks, yet her mind is razor sharp and clear. She talks over the music as she guides a young pianist. He’s extremely cute, bright-eyed and enthusiastic. She clearly dotes on him but she’s strict: nowadays teachers don’t use put-downs or grab kid’s wrists, but this was another era. He’s so adorable that I tracked him down. He’s now a professor in a college in the US Midwest.
She had a formidable ear. Leonard Bernstein played her one of his songs in the course of a social visit. Part way through she hears a note she objects to. He’s 58 years old, but he feels like he’s 21 again and still a student. She was right, too, about the note. She was, he says, half blind and almost immobile, but "what form !...she radiated light".
Stravinsky had said of her "She hears everything". She says of him, that he had a "sense of the sacred", and plays a few notes from the Firebird on the piano to demonstrate. He was always serious, she says, even when he was having fun. He made her go and hear his Circus Polka in New York. The music is played against a backdrop of 19th century circus illustrations. Soon after, we see the manuscript of the Symphony of Psalms, and hear excerpts, and as a special treat, we hear and see Kathleen Ferrier sing Brahms’s Sapphisches Lied. What the film skirts around, though, is how Mme Boulanger felt about music written since Stravinsky’s youth, or for that matter, his late period. Her pupils always stressed that she did listen to Schoenberg and discuss modern music, but her silence, one might say, is deafening. Of course, there’ll be many who’d be glad to bypass the 20th century, but that’s an artistic dead-end. Music grows and lives. Mme Boulanger herself was well aware of the sterility of retrograde thinking. "Today", she tells the camera, "we are in a fascinating time, where everything is questioned, … some will find a way to say something, others will have nothing to say, but that has always been the case". In their own time, she says, Monteverdi and Debussy were demonized.
Yet Mme Boulanger’s influence went far, particularly in the United States from which many of her best known students hailed, such as Virgil Thomson and Aaron Copland. She taught several English composers, too, such as Lennox Berkeley, but relatively few French or German. If you relied only on this film, you’d think Messiaen didn’t exist, for example, as if they existed in parallel worlds. Poulenc gets a mention because he socialised with her patronne. Yet Mme Boulanger was no reactionary. In comparison to her, Bernstein comes over far more hidebound and self-defensive. She’s sharp, even at 90. Asked what the key works of the 20th century include, she says, quick as a flash, "Wozzeck". People get into habits, she explains, but "habits are not traditions".
One day, perhaps, there’ll be more in-depth analysis of musical life in France after 1914. It’s something worth examining as French musical culture is distinctive and unique. There isn’t, for example, the plethora of concert halls and orchestras one finds in Germany or England. The 18th century salon tradition continued well into Boulanger’s time and indeed continued later. Boulez’s Domaine Musical, for example, was created to bring together musicians and audiences interested in hearing new music - including Stravinsky, who had rarely been played during the Occupation. When Mme Boulanger is criticized for being a "Little Sister of the Rich", courting the aristocracy, that was more or less what had to be done in those times. Also, because the world is so dominated by the English language, it is important to get "past" what we assume we know from English-language sources. Until such time, though, this film fills a useful function, especially when read together with Alan Kendall’s book, which still remains an important reference because he’s well informed and objective. Unfortunately, it’s out of print, so grab any copy you find.
The bonus film is a historic treat, too: Markevitch conducting the ORTF orchestra in Mozart’s Prague Symphony in 1967.
-- Anne Ozorio, MusicWeb International