Lili Boulanger, in just a few short years until her death in 1918 at the age of 24, composed orchestral, choral, and operatic works that, to me, bridge the three realms of existence: the underworld of our deepest thoughts, intuitions and emotions, the “ordinary” realm in which we live out each day, and the heavenly plane beyond our lifetime and comprehension.
Lili grew up in a musical family in Paris and began attending classes at the Paris Conservatoire when most children her age were in kindergarten. In 1913, when she was 19, she won the Prix de Rome and was the first woman to do so. As if this weren’t enough, she and her sister, Nadia, a noted teacher of composition, served as civilian organizers of efforts for French soldiers during World War I. She was ill for much of her life of Crohn’s disease.
Lili is not only notable for her musical achievements at a time when women’s artistic endeavors were more rarely encouraged than they are now, but also because the works she wrote speak so directly to all of us living in these times of great turmoil and greater possibility. The only way to really understand her work is to listen to it. What you will hear is bold and powerful, with banging drums and loud blasts of instruments and voice; evocative of a time of war and despair with atonal melodies; and also understanding of the sweetness of life, even as it is fleeting, with quiet meanderings of tone. Her music is wise beyond any one lifetime.
When I listen to Lili Boulanger, I hear a human voice of Kali and all the goddesses who bring together life, death, and rebirth. Her music is uplifting while also being terrifying in its truthful confrontation of both the end of her own life and the devastation of the World War during which it was written. We are also in a time of global destruction, though of different kinds, when violence is rampant and it is easy to allow hopelessness to seep into our beings. Yet, like that time, we also have great opportunity for creativity and compassion to shine a light on a new world. While she never lived to see the 21st century, her bold gaze at the great wheel of life helps illuminates the way into our future.
Lili’s work is available on many recordings. My own favorites are On a Morning in Spring (D’un Matin de Printemps) and what is perhaps a companion piece, On a Sad Evening (D’un Soir Triste). These were written in the last weeks of her life and seem to reflect both her reflections on the joys of life and its inevitable end in death. Listen also to Psalm 130 and see what it says to you.
If you wish to see Lili in heaven, you may look up in the sky and perhaps you will find asteroid 1181 Lilith, named for her.
Liner notes to Lili Boulanger: Faust et Helene, Chandos Records, 1999