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  • The Valise CorrespondenceA Reconsideration of Nadia and Lili Boulanger, Composers
  • Kimberly Francis (bio) and Hayley Berry

When Nadia Boulanger died, the executors of her estate donated an extensive collection of primary sources to the Bibliothèque nationale de France. The contents of a specific valise, or suitcase, were meant to be left unopened until 2011, and scholars are now gaining access to these sensitive materials. Most recently, Fiorella Sassanelli published a comprehensive inventory of the suitcase in her book Lili Boulanger: Frammenti ritrovati di una vita interotta (2018). Sassanelli's text also contains the transcription and translation from French into Italian of more than sixty letters exchanged between the Boulanger sisters from 1905 to 1917. This correspondence begs for an extensive English-language treatment. Doing so will cast new light on the Boulanger sisters' careers and provide details for understanding musical developments of the past hundred years.

Here, I focus on three series of letters exchanged between Lili and Nadia: one set from May 1913, one letter from 2 March 1914, and the series of letters written at the end of Lili's life.1 These letters pertain to two major works by Lili Boulanger: Faust et Hélène and La princesse Maleine. The first of these works has received little attention in the scholarly literature beyond a summary analysis by Caroline Potter. Annegret Fauser's discussion of women's participation in the Prix de Rome competition provides a thorough account of Lili Boulanger's public persona but does not touch upon the music of the cantata itself—understandably so, given the previous lack of sources.2 The valise letters make a robust discussion [End Page 132] of the work's genesis possible. The second of these works, La princesse Maleine, is arguably the most significant composition undertaken by Lili Boulanger and has already received extensive attention by Fauser. That said, to quote Fauser, her work was "necessarily speculative," even if it did allow scholars to "look into [Lili Boulanger's] workshop."3 To extend Fauser's metaphor, these newly available letters allow us to peer over Boulanger's shoulder during the commissioning process. The letters pertaining to Faust et Hélène provide unprecedented evidence concerning Lili Boulanger's compositional methods, her processing of dramatic texts, her navigation of competition politics, and her calling upon the support of professional women within her orbit, most importantly, Nadia Boulanger. The letters pertaining to La princesse Maleine speak to Lili Boulanger's professional ambitions, her striking awareness of gender constructs, and her navigation of the professional world as guided by her older sister's advice. I present these two sets of letters as glimpses of Lili Boulanger's process along with unprecedented details of the sisters' synergistic creative process, showing that, above all others, Lili Boulanger placed immense emphasis on the opinions of her older sister. The Boulangers truly were, to borrow Potter's description, "sister composers."4

This correspondence calls for the celebration of a unique professional model in Western art music whereby two women assumed responsibility for the maturation and support of one another's creative talents. These letters bring to life a woman-centered artistic space, providing one model of women's creative development. Thus, I argue that on a broader, historiographical scale this dialogue offers a unique way of thinking about women's creative lives, especially two women whose artistry contained the additional rich influence of sisterhood.

Prix de Rome, 1913: Politics, Prejudice, and Persuasion

Lili Boulanger first entered the Prix de Rome competition in May 1912 without advancing to the final round.5 The following spring she returned, carrying wellwishes and advice from numerous prominent French musicians, including Paul Vidal, Raoul Pugno, Charles-Marie Widor, and her teacher, Georges Caussade.6 The assignment in 1913 was without surprises: write a cantata on a scene from Gounod's Faust, with text by Eugène Adénis. The valise letters reveal three major themes regarding Boulanger's process: (1) her outright courting of the judges' favor; (2) her subtle manipulation of dramatic texts; and (3) her reliance on her sister's guidance and professional influence. Overall, this project tells us a great deal [End Page 133]



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