The teasingly ambiguous title of Kimberly Francis's book gives us some clues as to the part played by Nadia Boulanger in Stravinsky's career. Boulanger was a champion of Stravinsky's music, both as the teacher of her own students and in what would now be termed public engagement, and she taught his younger son Soulima from 1929. But Francis also makes the bolder claim that “For all intents and purposes, [Boulanger] taught [Igor Stravinsky] how to view his own music; her analysis opened his eyes to his work. She helped him articulate his voice and the mechanisms underlying his ‘technique.’ She also taught him about presentation, the direct relationship between the score's appearance and its legacy” (p. 248).
While Robert Craft considered Boulanger simply to be “a prodigious proof-reader” (quoted p. 9), Francis instead provides “a feminist account of Boulanger's professional interactions with Stravinsky, his family, and his music” (p. 9). She follows Suzanne Cusick and others in her wish to shed light on “woman's work and the culturally feminine so that they cease to be marginalized and devalued, but might be re-interpreted as important elements of musical culture” (quoted p. 9). Francis chooses to view the Boulanger-Stravinsky relationship through the lens of Pierre Bourdieu's theory, referencing particularly the concepts of cultural capital, consecration, and agency. Yet the theoretical framework is handled with a light touch after the introduction: Boulanger's relationship with Stravinsky and his wider family is fascinating in its complexity, not reducible to a theory, and Francis never bends the evidence to fit her chosen model.
From 1921 Boulanger taught at the École Normale de Musique in Paris; she was assigned a music history class in 1929, and from 1935 was named professor of composition. In this context “Boulanger fought for the institution to hire Stravinsky as well”—successfully. However, “his salary was to come out of hers” (p. 85) and the class was billed as a “Course in Musical Composition by Mlle Nadia Boulanger supervised by M. Igor Strawinsky” (p. 86). In Stephen Walsh's words, “it is clear that [Stravinsky's] real function was simply to legitimize her appointment in the eyes of the lay world,”1 given that she had the dual disadvantage in that period of being a woman and no longer active as a composer.
Boulanger relished the international character of the student body (unlike that of the Paris Conservatoire) at both the École Normale and the Conservatoire Franco-Américain, the summer school with which she was involved from its foundation in 1921 until her death in 1979. She was also a sought-after private teacher, and it was in this capacity that she taught the young Soulima Stravinsky. She first became close to the family as a surrogate aunt who cultivated a good relationship with Soulima's mother and grandmother. (It is clear that she was less close to Vera Sudeikina, Stravinsky's second wife.) It would be interesting to know to what extent Boulanger's background helped her to ingratiate herself with the family; Boulanger's mother was Russian, though Nadia and her sister Lili were not brought up to speak the language. By 1930 she was close enough to the Stravinskys to accompany them to Brussels for the premiere of the Symphony of Psalms. But she did not automatically side with senior family members in disputes: Boulanger was an ally of Soulima in his relationship with an American woman of whom his parents disapproved, inviting the young couple to dinner and on outings.
While there is little detail in Francis's book about Boulanger's impact on Soulima Stravinsky, her extensive correction of his piano-vocal score of the Symphony of Psalms suggests she was not overly impressed by his musical skills. She drew closer professionally to Igor Stravinsky when she acted as copyeditor for this work, though there is no evidence of her having been paid for her services. Boulanger made an extensive analysis of the Symphony of Psalms for her students (some of which is on the book's companion website) that exemplifies her consecration of Stravinsky as a contemporary genius.2 Her analysis tends to focus on what both Francis and Jeanice Brooks refer to as the “interaction between structure and surface” in the work (p. 60). The class notes of Boulanger's student Louise Talma are an invaluable source for Francis in this context. Talma highlights a focal “resonance chord,” which in fact is an octatonic collection, though it is not labeled as such by Boulanger. Taking her cue from Talma, Francis refers to Boulanger's “proto-octatonic interpretation of the Symphonie des psaumes,” though “Boulanger's octatonicism is highly centric and goal-oriented, the chromatic pitches serving as a means to heighten tension and release rather than a rejection of the fundamental circle-of-fifths relationship that underlies goal-directed music” (p. 62). Francis argues that there is a connection between Boulanger's “proto-octatonic” analysis and Arthur Berger's 1963 analysis of Stravinsky's musical language. Berger studied with Boulanger from 1937 to 1939 and is referred to by Francis as “the man who defined ‘octatonicism’ in his seminal Perspectives of New Music article, ‘Problems of Pitch Organization in Stravinsky’” (p. 63).3
Boulanger played a key part in promoting Stravinsky's music to her pupils and a wider public, though when they both lived in Paris before World War II their relationship was cordial but not particularly close, and they always used the formal “vous” in correspondence. She was financially useful to Stravinsky in Paris, “organizing premieres, coordinating commissions, and creating master editions” (p. 70), and she hosted the private premiere of Perséphone. As the war approached, Boulanger attempted to act as an agent for Stravinsky in the United States, a role in which she was only partly successful. She negotiated the commission for the Dumbarton Oaks concerto, having met Mildred Bliss on her first trip to the United States in 1937, but later efforts to secure a commission for the Symphony in C were fruitless in a more challenging financial climate. Stravinsky was, however, offered the Charles Eliot Norton chair at Harvard for 1939–40, thanks to Boulanger's lobbying.
The war years and the death of Stravinsky's first wife Katya led to a change in the relationship between composer and teacher, though not the change some of her former students had predicted. Boulanger's close friends Sister Edward Blackwell and Louise Talma had assumed that Stravinsky would marry her, notwithstanding his existing long-term relationship with Vera Sudeikina. While Boulanger's friends’ assumptions proved to be no more than wishful thinking, Francis does mention a mysterious visit Stravinsky made alone to Boulanger's country home in Gargenville in 1939. She states that “the documents certainly suggest that something happened between the Gargenville visit in 1939 and April 1940 that made subsequent communication between Boulanger and Stravinsky awkward and uncomfortable” (p. 118). What happened? The only evidence presented by Francis from the Gargenville stay is a dry-cleaning list including “two pairs of boxer shorts” (p. 103). One might, if inclined, read a great deal into those boxer shorts, but—to mix metaphors horribly—there is no smoking gun. What is clear is that their relationship became friendlier from 1942, at which point they often met at the California home of their friends George and Arthur Sachs. Proximity drew them closer, as did religion. Stravinsky's Sonata for Two Pianos was written for Boulanger and given a private premiere in 1944 by Richard Johnston and Boulanger herself in the Sinsinawa convent in Wisconsin, a retreat she often used. The Russian Orthodox Stravinsky visited the convent in the same year, and “after a year of sporadic involvement with the Sinsinawa nuns … turned to writing a Roman Catholic Mass” (p. 155), a work particularly favored by Boulanger.
But this closeness did not survive Boulanger's return to Paris in 1946. Although she established herself as the European expert on Stravinsky's music—Francis writes, “She organized and participated in ten different concerts [in Europe] between January 1947 and August 1949, all of which involved Stravinsky's music” (p. 171)—the shift away from neoclassicism in postwar Paris left her aesthetically adrift, and in the United States of the Cold War era “Boulanger's femaleness and rumored homosexuality became liabilities in a way they had never been before” (pp. 196–97). Less contentiously, Francis cites Carol Oja's remark that “‘neoclassicism’ often was posed as the antithesis of ‘experimentation’” (quoted p. 197). Stravinsky's growing closeness to Robert Craft was doubtless also a factor in his becoming distanced from Boulanger, though the main breach in their relationship was prompted by a professional disagreement. In February 1952 Boulanger wrote to Stravinsky requesting to perform extracts of The Rake's Progress, and Stravinsky not only refused permission but also withdrew his request for Boulanger to oversee corrections to the score.
Francis also shows that Stravinsky's adoption of serial processes drove an aesthetic wedge between him and Boulanger, though evidence from heavily annotated scores in the Boulanger collection at Lyon Conservatoire shows that she was more familiar with Stravinsky's serial output than has hitherto been believed. Annotations to Canticum sacrum (pp. 224–29 and online) include documentation of serial processes, though “One sees here that Boulanger conceived of the work as tonal” (p. 229)—an analysis that might just about work for the first movement but not at all for the rest of the piece. Francis is surely right that “[Boulanger's] powers of mediation failed her when it came to Stravinsky's late music” (p. 232). Later, Francis notes that Boulanger approached new music by Stravinsky “as others would approach a canonical work of Mozart, Beethoven, or Bach, applying her approach to the most valuable and yet vulnerable of new compositions. She did not need new analytical devices to do so” (p. 250). Evidence presented here relating to her analysis of Stravinsky's serial works suggests that perhaps she did.
Boulanger's relationship with the Stravinskys came full circle toward the end of the composer's life: she had begun as a family friend and ended up “gain[ing] access to Stravinsky through this woman-centered domestic space. Her correspondence with [his older son] Theodore about the health of the ailing composer bears witness to the varying degrees to which the children had grown to view her as a family member. Theodore in particular seems to have adopted her as a mother figure” (p. 235). We see Boulanger in Francis's book both in this traditional female role and as a professional whose dedication to Stravinsky's work was unshakable. Francis believes that “Her devotion to Stravinsky's music was a devotion to her own pedagogical work, a positioning deeply rooted in her own daily embodiment of musical life, of devotion to professional behavior that wished to do little more than educate others about music and to establish her brand of cultural capital” (p. 249).
While the book is generally well presented there are a number of flaws. Ida Rubinstein's surname is given a variety of spellings on pp. 70–71, and “the centenary of Rimsky-Korsakov” to which Stravinsky referred in a letter to Boulanger of March 18, 1944 (p. 148), marked not “the death” of his teacher, as noted by Francis, but his birth. The book outlines the shifting relationship between Boulanger and Stravinsky extremely well, using a wide range of sources, many of which are unpublished. But there is scant information about the way others perceived their professional relationship. One telling remark by the director of the École Normale, Auguste Mangeot, questioning the value that Boulanger placed on Perséphone despite its lack of a foothold in the repertory (p. 74), shows that she was not regarded as a disinterested observer of Stravinsky's music. It is also striking that Stravinsky was unwilling to acknowledge in public the importance of Boulanger's work beyond her pedagogical expertise, although Francis's book amply demonstrates that Boulanger's role as a mediator between composer and public was crucial to the development of his reputation. In fact, a remark in Chroniques de ma vie constitutes the “only words [Stravinsky] ever published about Boulanger”: referring to the international students at the École Normale, Stravinsky says that she is an “invaluable teacher” whose pupils “on returning to their own country, were engaged in spreading the excellent musical culture which they had acquired under these eminent masters [Boulanger and Isidor Philipp], and in successfully combating pernicious influences and base amateurishness” (quoted p. 88). On the question of her impact on his work, he is silent.
Although many aspects of the Boulanger-Stravinsky relationship remain tantalizingly unclear, “What is irrefutable … is that Boulanger's analytical work resonated with Stravinsky to some degree after 1932, and the pair discussed his music in some capacity such that Stravinsky endorsed and possibly even informed or was informed by Boulanger's analytical work” (p. 63). Kimberly Francis goes much further than any previous scholar in uncovering the twists and turns in the relationship between Boulanger and Stravinsky, though the wider relevance of her book lies in her proposal of a new paradigm for the study of women's participation in professional music making.