She never celebrated her 25th birthday. At one point, she interrupted her composing career to look after the families of musicians in the French army.
At the death of Lili Boulanger in 1918 (from Crohn's disease), history was poised to play one more fiendish trick on the reputation of the perennially obscure composer of some of the greatest music of her time.
Her formidable older sister Nadia was about to embark on the most fabled pedagogic career in all of 20th century music, acting as a touchstone for Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson, Jean Francaix, Elliott Carter, Walter Piston, Philip Glass (yes, Philip Glass early on) and countless other composers, including her friend Igor Stravinsky, with whom her relationship may have been pivotally influential.
For the next half century, then, Lili Boulanger would always be the tragic, sickly, short-lived kid sister of the most powerful woman in 20th century music. While Nadia Boulanger was alive (she died in 1979), Lili Boulanger's music would always orbit around her sister's reputation and would always depend upon on it for whatever light and warmth the musical world could provide.
And after Nadia Boulanger's death, Lili's music might well be doomed to recede into the half-light of history. Not only was she born a woman in a world whose expectations for a jeune fille would never equal those for a young male composer, she was, in early death, the lesser sibling of one of the century's greatest background figures.
Once feminism put the subject of overlooked female artists on the table, she might, with luck, find a place in some reconfigured equal-gender canon. Even so, it might still be hard for her to escape inevitable charges of special pleading. A separate case would need to be made for Lili Boulanger.
That general obscurity, in fact, is the unjust eclipse the music of Lili Boulanger has existed in until now. Finally, almost 90 years after it was written, the great music of Lili Boulanger has received a performance commensurate with its magnificence. It is one of the great discs of the year.
In a brilliant pairing with Stravinsky's great masterpiece, the Symphony of Psalms, John Eliot Gardiner has led the London Symphony Orchestra and Monteverdi Choir in three of her psalms settings and the "Vieille Priere bouddhique" ("Old Buddhist Prayer").
The result is historic. Though the world of marketing can always be counted on to seize on splashy performances of the familiar as Classical Disc of the Year, you can't underestimate the claims of utterly magnificent music that, quite literally, has never been well-recorded before now. Even the previous sister-supervised recordings by Igor Markevitch under Nadia Boulanger's watchful eye didn't have a tenth of the power of these performances by Gardiner.
It is now, perhaps, time for this sickly, studious woman to take her place as one of her time's great figures. I don't think you can listen to this performance of these psalm settings -- the proclamatory fanfares of Psalm 24, the haunting beauty of Psalm 124, the large scale "Du Fond de l'abime" (Psalm 130) -- and not wonder why no one has done anything like it before.
Why on earth, in other words, did it take this long for someone to present Lili Boulanger's Psalms on an entirely equal footing with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, one of the most praised and oft-performed masterworks of 20th century music? The answers -- her gender, her dominating sister -- seem utterly ridiculous when you listen to the music, which is stunning.
There is absolutely nothing like it anywhere. It looks backward to Debussy's "Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian" and Faure's Requiem (Faure was Nadia Boulanger's most important teacher) and forward to Carl Orff's "Carmina Burana" and the neo-classicism of the 1920s and '30s.
But it is very much its own music beholden to nothing or no one -- grandiose, savage, sumptuous, yearningly melodic. It is French, it is Russian (their mother was Russian), it is modern, and it is archaic, even primordial, all at the same time. And the only thing you can find about it in most musical reference books ascribes it solidly to the French musical mainstream.
What has been all too easy until now has been the burial of her music under her all-too-short biography -- the proper bourgeois life of a younger sister whose career never went beyond study and prizes.
We are, even now, in the otherwise good notes to this milestone disc, offered Boulanger's places of study -- her curriculum vitae -- in lieu of a biography. (And too, annotater Roger Nichols throws in a little sideswipe at the fourths and fifths of Psalm 24 running the risk of "degenerating into Hollywood epic." Condescendingly, he offers that her "gifts . . . might even so have qualified her for a Hollywood career had she lived.")
And yet you listen to the magnificence of this music for chorus and orchestra and you can't help looking up in awe at your stereo speakers and wondering aloud "My God, Who WAS Lili Boulanger?" She's been dead for 94 years and we still don't have anything close to a worthy answer yet.
We have -- finally with this utterly amazing disc -- the beginnings of one. It is, gloriously, enough for now.
The Music of Lili Boulanger
Her "Du Fond de l'abime," Psalms 24 and 129 and "Old Buddhist Prayer" performed along with Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms by the Monteverdi Choir and London Symphony Orchestra under John Eliot Gardiner and issued by Deutsche Grammophon.