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Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was such a tremendously influential teacher that, as Jeanice Brooks writes, ‘By the end of her life … a pilgrimage to Paris to study with her had become a near-obligatory rite of passage for aspiring American musicians’. Even the blockbuster film Love Story has a heroine who talks of her plans to study with Nadia Boulanger. As this book forms part of a series called ‘Musical Performance and Reception’, readers eager to discover more about her composition teaching or her personal manner may be disappointed, but nevertheless what we have here is invaluable.

Boulanger was the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia, BBC Symphony and Hallé Orchestras. We may judge her interpretations for ourselves by listening to the CDs listed in the helpful discography. Perhaps the most startling aspect of her conducting career is her programme planning, described on page 144 as ‘Audacious Juxtapositions’. A typical concert included music by Dowland, Mozart, Hindemith, Roussel, Copland, Boyce, Monteverdi and Bach. For Boulanger teaching was a compulsion and her highly intelligent programming amounted to a demonstration of connections across the centuries, rather than adherence to what she considered a ‘pedantic’ chronological ordering.

In the excellent introduction we also learn that Boulanger was passionate about early music yet ‘resistant to historically informed performance practice’ (for instance, she was reluctant to use a harpsichord). Brooks also connects her devout catholicism with her belief in music’s spiritual power. Throughout her life she organised concerts for worthy causes.

Boulanger vigorously championed Stravinsky’s music and 25 pages are devoted to her preparations for, and world premiere of, the Dumbarton Oaks concerto, including her score annotations.

Errors include Dégas, Messaien (four times) and Mozart’s concerto (!) for two pianos K448 (page 277), but this well-researched, conscientiously written book is recommendable.

PHILIP BORG-WHEELER Read the full review on Agora Classica

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