Nadia Boulanger and the Stravinskys: A Selected Correspondence.
In her newest book on Nadia Boulanger and the Stravinsky family, Kimberly A. Francis uses selected letters between Boulanger and the Stravinskys to create a narrative that seeks to clarify the relationship between the French pedagogue and the Russian composer and his relatives. Francis asserts that in doing so she pushes back against Robert Craft's dismissive account of Boulanger's involvement in Stravinsky's life and career (that she was only a proofreader); argues that Boulanger's interest in the composer was entirely platonic; and examines Boulanger's connections with the women of the Stravinsky family.
Francis does repudiate Craft's dismissals of Boulanger, but she does this much more effectively in her previous book, Teaching Stravinsky: Nadia Boulanger and the Consecration of a Modernist Icon (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), rather than through these letters. Her second argument, that the relationship between Boulanger and Stravinsky was platonic, is based on Alexandra Laederich and Remy
Strickler's research into Boulanger's private life and a claim that Boulanger's passionate language in her letters to Stravinsky is, despite appearances, utterly platonic. This latter claim would be stronger if Francis had compared Boulanger's language to Stravinsky with that of her letters to other composers and those whose work she supported; as it is, the letters can certainly be read as indicative of Boulanger's nonplatonic interest in Stravinsky, while his clearly do not reciprocate. On the final point, that it was the Stravinsky women who "facilitated and nurtured the lines of communication between Igor Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger in the early 1930s", the letters included here are simply too few and too superficial to support this reading (p. 4). Despite the mixed results in Francis's stated goals for the book, this collection is an important addition to the literature, not just on Stravinsky and Boulanger, but in documenting a common manifestation of gender roles in music in the twentieth century in which male composers used the admiration, connections, and goodwill of female colleagues to assist them for free and promote their careers. In particular, it offers additional support for Virgil Thomson's claim that "Nadia bullied women, but she served men", a critical issue in understanding Boulanger and her influence (Virgil Thomson to Leonie Rosenstiel, 14 May 1982. Gilmore Music Library, Yale University, MSS 29 Series 3, Box 28, Folder 29).
Not long after Boulanger accepted Igor and Katherine Stravinsky's son Soulima as a composition and analysis student, Katherine Stravinsky asked Boulanger to intervene in Soulima's love life, encouraging him to end a relationship that the family felt improper. Boulanger's social engineering with her students knew no bounds, and in addition to her teaching Soulima, this request for involvement in the family's affairs allowed her to begin a relationship with all of the Stravinskys. From there, Boulanger made herself available to Igor Stravinsky as a colleague, a champion of new music, and, above all, an enthusiastic volunteer editor and proofreader. Writing that Stravinsky and his music were "constantly present" (p. 23) in her mind and heart, Boulanger worked to become indispensable to Stravinsky. For his part, Stravinsky used
Boulanger's connections with patrons to obtain commissions, her knowledge of publishers to make his work more quickly available, and her teaching to make his work better known to both French and American performers. She obtained guest teaching and conducting engagements for him, and even paid him out of her own salary for classes he taught to her students (p. 36). Boulanger benefited from this by being able to teach Stravinsky's works--and sometimes premiere them--before anyone else, and was able to bring Stravinsky to the Conservatoire Americain for masterclasses, raising her own cachet among her students and potential students, and establishing her as an expert on his works. She was also able to direct Stravinsky's attention to her most promising students, although in reality this mainly consisted of her telling him who to select out of the yearly applicants for the Lili Boulanger Memorial Fund prize and other competitions she oversaw rather than the composer actively mentoring or assisting students in their careers.
But this exchange was hardly equal, and the language of the letters affirms this disparity. While Stravinsky's letters are often businesslike and occasionally border on the curt side, Boulanger's are full of lavish expressions of admiration and affection. Her letters praise the activities of the Stravinsky family, describe her despair during World War II, note how sad she is when she cannot see the Stravinskys for long periods of time, discuss her latest reading and prayers, and repeatedly state her devotion to the family and Igor in particular. In 1938, she practically begged to be allowed to promote his work in the U.S., writing: "I have so connected my life with your work this year that I would give anything--if you do not come--to have the remarkable privilege of making the concerto known here" (p. 43). The surviving reply is a telegram from Stravinsky stating that the score was being sent to her; a follow-up letter focuses on Stravinsky's payment for the work. This kind of exchange is common throughout the letters: Boulanger writes about her emotions and her thoughts of him, but Igor's letters to her are almost entirely what one might write to an agent: "I'm sending you a score, please proofread it; here is a copy of a newly published piece, please send me money to cover the cost of it; have you heard Prokofiev's new symphony?; please let me know how the audience likes the concert of my works you are putting on".
After serving as Stravinsky's lead cheerleader for twenty years, Boulanger only reluctantly began to withdraw from her role when, as Francis notes, "Stravinsky began to place a renewed premium on rebranding himself as a post-tonal composer" (p. 191). Stravinsky became ever more brusque with Boulanger, and his letters ceased to comment on his compositional process. Stravinsky became less tolerant of Boulanger's practice of sending large groups of her students to his rehearsals, less interested in her thoughts on his use of serial techniques, and less likely to rely on her for reports on the reception of his works and related matters. To learn about his health at the end of his life and other personal matters, Boulanger had to rely on correspondence with Igor's son Theodore, whose letters are some of the most genuinely touching of all of the Stravinsky family's. While Boulanger continued to correspond with Stravinsky until his death, she was less involved in his career. Their later letters, though, retained much of the same dynamic established in the 1930s: Boulanger's lavishly affectionate language contrasts starkly with Stravinsky's more business-like prose.
Francis's work in this collection offers a new springboard for further research on Boulanger and the Stravinskys, but even more importantly, illuminates the kinds of entitlements and expectations Stravinsky--like many men of the period--had of his supporters and the vast amounts of uncompensated emotional, intellectual, and physical labour Boulanger provided for him in their shared goals to make him the success that he became.
Kendra Preston Leonard
Silent Film Sound and Music Archive