Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) was a French composer. An immense musical talent from a young age, she became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913. Despite suffering chronic illness, she composed prolifically, creating substantial, potently expressive works for choir, voice, piano, chamber ensemble, and orchestra, and was at work on an opera when intestinal tuberculosis claimed her life at only 24 years old. Her distinctive style bears qualities typical of early 20th century French music, influenced, notably, by Gabriel Fauré and Claude Debussy in her synthesis of tonal and modal harmony, combined with her imaginative use of instrumental colour and layered textures.
Born Marie-Juliette Olga in Paris, August 21, 1893, Lili Boulanger grew up in an eminent musical family; her father was French composer Ernest Boulanger and her older sister Nadia, also a composer, later became a significant teacher to many of the 20th century’s leading composers (and a tireless advocate for Lili’s music). Her musical talent showed at age two and was nurtured with lessons in violin, piano, voice, and harp. Although her fragile health condition (due to a weakened immune system from bronchial pneumonia contracted in 1895) precluded her from receiving a complete education at the Paris Conservatoire, she studied composition privately with Georges Caussade. In January 1912, she was admitted to Paul Vidal’s composition class, and after failing to win the Prix de Rome that year, won it in 1913 with her cantata Faust et Hélène. This led to her signing a contract with the publisher Ricordi, who, guaranteeing her a monthly income, enabled her to focus entirely on composing.
During her first residency in Rome, Lili completed several works, including the song cycle Clarières dans le ciel. The outbreak of World War I forced her to return to Paris, where she and Nadia established the Comité Franco-Américain du Conservatoire National to provide support—sending material goods and forwarding mail—to musician soldiers. She went back to Rome in February 1916, where she made progress on several large-scale works, including her opera La princesse Malein. However, by the end of the year, she was greatly weakened by illness and was home in Paris again, where she spent her final years finishing compositions she had begun earlier. She died on March 15, 1918, in Mézy-sur-Seine.
By Dr. Hannah Chan-Hartley