Lebrecht’s Album of the Week: Dear Mademoiselle (Alpha)

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An unprepossessing Parisian teacher of piano and solfège received an unexpected career boost when the victorious General Pershing opened a French music school for Americans at Fontainebleau, near Paris, in 1921. Nadia Boulanger applied for an advertised vacancy and was appointed professor of harmony. Before long she was the go-to teacher for Americans in Paris, of whom there were a great many in the 1920s when the living was cheap and the romance abundant. The shy and unconfident Aaron Copland signed up for her first semester.  George Gershwin applied for private lessons. In 1924, Boulanger was sent on a US tour to drum up more business, conducting Copland’s first symphony wherever she went.

Even more influential was a friendship she formed with Igor Stravinsky, a reciprocal arrangement in which the Russian exile sent her new private pupils whom she taught at the family home, at 36 rue Ballu, and she talked up, and conducted, his less than overwhelming neo-classical works.

Boulanger frequently missed lessons with migraine and toothache, or simply with a melancholy for her sister Lili who died in 1918 after dazzling acclaim as a composer. Nadia, who also composed, was daunted by Lili’s reputation.

Copland said: ‘Nadia Boulanger knew everything there was to know about music’. Other American students down the year included Elliott Carter, Leonard Bernstein, Philip Glass, Murray Perahia and the hyperactive Hollywood composer Quincy Jones. As well as a couple of Argentines – Astor Piazzola and Daniel Barenboim – and the brilliant French film composer and chansonnier, Michel Legrand.

Nadia died in 1979. The present concept album brings together selections from famous students played, sometimes a little tentatively, by the cellist Astrig Siranossian and pianist Nathanael Gouin, with three pieces by Nadia Boulanger herself tossed off by Siranossian with Daniel Barenboim at the piano. These are curiosities, no more. Mademoiselle was not much of  composer,  too set on correct form to allow the flight of inspiration.

The most engaging pieces here are Paizzolla’s Grand Tango, Elliott Carter’s cello sonata and a medley by Monsieur Legrand that will send you whistling along your way to a Bossa Nova by Mister Jones. All good clean fun, but why nothing by Copland?


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About Author

Norman Lebrecht is a prolific writer on music and cultural affairs. His blog, Slipped Disc, is one of the most popular sites for cultural news. He presents The Lebrecht Interview on BBC Radio 3 and is a contributor to several publications, including the Wall Street Journal and The Standpoint. Visit every Friday for his weekly CD review // Norman Lebrecht est un rédacteur prolifique couvrant les événements musicaux et Slipped Disc, est un des plus populaires sites de nouvelles culturelles. Il anime The Lebrecht Interview sur la BBC Radio 3 et collabore à plusieurs publications, dont The Wall Street Journal et The Standpoint. Vous pouvez lire ses critiques de disques chaque vendredi.

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