Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), younger sister of the more famous Nadia Boulanger, was a brilliant and precocious French composer who dazzled the world of European music at the beginning of the 20th century. At age 19, Lili Boulanger became the first woman to win France’s Prix de Rome. In her short career, Boulanger advanced the impressionism of her era, finding her own voice in music that’s expressive and luminous, moving and enchanting. Debussy descriptively described her music as "undulating with grace."
To place Boulanger’s music in context, the album offers songs by prominent French composers who had a connection to her music: Fauré, Ravel, Debussy, Messiaen, and Honegger.
Clairières dans le ciel, Boulanger’s 1914 cycle of 13 songs based on poems by Francis Jammes, shows her talent for bringing poetry to life: Through sophisticated harmonic language, mood-evoking chromatics, and her careful choice and use of keys, her music reflects and enhances her chosen texts. Ms. Michaels describes Clairières as "a major work in the vocal literature, comparable to the other cycles everyone knows. In this genre, I would rank her with Schubert." Ms. Michaels says that preparing the piece was "a huge undertaking" because of its length, technical demands on the singer, ensemble challenges, and extremes of dynamic range and pitch. Ms. Michaels and pianist Rebecca Rollins rehearsed and performed the cycle for two years before recording it. "The music always more than repaid our efforts," Ms. Michaels says.
Boulanger’s four other songs on the recording represent slightly different periods in her seven-year career. Reflets (Reflections) is from 1911 and bears some affinity to Fauré. In Attente (Expectation) and Le retour (The Return), both from 1912, her harmonic language is already more complex and chromatic, enhancing her warm, lyric writing. In contrast, Dans l’immense tristesse (In an Infinite Sadness, 1916), in B-flat minor, conveys the anguish of the lyrics through dark sonorities and dissonant harmonies.
Fauré, represented by three songs on the album, was a Boulanger family friend and an important influence on Lili Boulanger. She never met Debussy, but they knew each other’s music (as evidenced by Debussy’s glowing comment.) Ravel met Lili Boulanger in Fauré’s classes at the Paris Conservatoire, and his aesthetic can be heard in her skillful, colorful writing for piano, as well as for orchestra. Honegger and Messiaen postdate Boulanger in their musical output, but they had meaningful connections to her, and their music suggests possible directions hers might have taken, had she lived longer.