The last summer that Nadia Boulanger, the legendary musical pedagogue, taught at Fontainebleau, I went there to study choral conducting with her. Starting with Aaron Copland, generations of American composers, conductors and instrumentalists had made the pilgrimmage to Fontainebleau or Paris (her winter residence) where in between lessons Boulanger acted as guru to Stravinsky, Bernstein and virtually every composer who had dabbled in neoclassicism. Yet despite her Who's Who list of protegees, she wasn't particular about choosing students. Anyone could go; you'd just be placed in classes according to your ability. So a sejour with Boulanger became a necessary rite of passage for those of us who'd heard tell of her, usually from someone who'd gone before us. And of these there were many. The composer and critic Virgil Thompson once observed, 'Every town in America has a church, a firehouse and a pupil of Nadia Boulanger.'
The following account of Boulanger's last summer teaching is drawn from memory with the exception of a few details, such as names of most students, which have been filled in by imagination.
Because of illness she missed the first class of the session. We wondered if this was it: Was she finally taking to her bed for good? But as was her custom, she rallied in time for the second class.
So on a Wednesday afternoon in July, right after lunch, forty of us sat in a classroom in the palace at Fontainebleau (loaned for the purpose by the French government who had taken a notoriously long time to recognize their exalted citizen), excitedly awaiting our audience with the woman I thought of as the most influential teacher since Mohammed. (I later read that Ned Rorem had called her, 'the most influential teacher since Jesus Christ.')
Most of us were students of her disciples. So we knew the legends which pointed to an asceticism and singlemindedness we could barely grasp:
After we'd been waiting on the edge of our literal seats for fifteen minutes, Boulanger was wheeled in. Blind, unaware she'd arrived, she was lurched over to the left. Naturally she was dressed in black. Her hands lay in her lap, too large for it now that the rest of her had shrivelled. Gnarled and inert, they were nonetheless recognizable from the photographs we'd seen of Boulanger in her fifties pointing out to Stravinsky some passage in a fresh score. The plain nails were those of hard-working hands, a religious, perhaps.
In the first row Louise Talma, my former professor at Hunter College, watched the progress of the wheelchair down the aisle with a fixed stare as though to communicate to the body within it her will to get it through the hour. A Boulanger student fifty years earlier, she'd become the first woman composer admitted to the National Academy of Arts and Letters and had been sought after as a collaborator by Thornton Wilder, making her the envy of her contemporaries among American composers. Since her student days she'd returned to Fontainebleau every two years to consult with Boulanger on her latest commission.
She wore a light grey suit in the style of a younger Boulanger. 'Mademoiselle's' acolytes tended to acquire her habits which, in both senses of that word, were modelled on a nun's. Talma's hair was a variant of Boulanger's chignon and her eyes, like Boulanger's in years past, expressed nothing beyond a fervent (some might have said fanatical) discipline. Her other features, like her room back at the hotel, gave no clue into character. They were simply there to function as she had been put on this earth to work. Her sturdy hands, a peasant's, were folded in her lap.
At the entrance of the god of Musical
Pedagogy, silence fell.
For Boulanger was a god to us. In the beginning was the Word but before the Word was the Sound whose mysteries she was closer to understanding than anyone alive. A pupil of Fauré at the age of eight, she was our link to d'Indy; through him to Rameau whose treatise on Harmony was the foundation of the principles of all Western music.
Strictly speaking, Boulanger didn't think of herself as God but she did have an unusually close relationship to Him. She went to Mass every day and into mourning annually for a week at the anniversary of the death of her sister, Lili, who had succumbed to T B at the age of twenty-four. And as often happens with nonagenarians (which she was that summer), the people of whom she spoke most affectionately -- Bach, Beethoven, Stravinsky, -- were all dead.
Humble in the face of the Absolute she could be ruthless to those of lesser stuff. While the histrionics of some of the Juilliard faculty were renowned, Boulanger expressed her disapproval in coldness which, unlike heat, can attain to an absolute degree. She adhered to an idiosyncratic variant of a well-known French adage. Her version went: 'I think, therefore it is.' Stories abounded of how she'd turned her back on an old student because he or she had experimented with electronic music. She also partook of the prejudices of her era which included favoring men. Upon mastering a difficult exercise, a student called Greta Simms found herself promoted to the rank of 'Monsieur Seem'.
According to rumor, a student had
once complained at the end of her lesson that she didn't feel well.
'You must overcome the weakness of the flesh,' Boulanger replied and sent the student home.
It was raining and the student died of pneumonia. Thereafter Boulanger always inquired anxiously about the health of her students.
Mlle A, secretary, long time companion and now guide of the wheelchair, leaned over and whispered that they'd arrived in the classroom. She was a frayed, distracted woman with strands of wiry hair which was losing its color along with its form as it escaped numerous bobby pins. She wore beige socks and a skirt and blouse that looked as though she'd picked them up at a jumble sale. When she crossed the palace courtyard, she hugged the wall like a nun in her cloister, holding her sweater close regardless of the heat. She smiled uncertainly at students; if one addressed her, she shrank back, startled.
Boulanger's hands moved slowly like
a medium's in her lap. One hand attempted to rise and gave up. Her speech
was also slow and hesitant, with a quality of the Beyond.
'Thank you for coming such a long way, from so many different countries. I hope you will work very hard and learn many things.
'Mlle Dieudonne, to whom I am most grateful, has told me you are good musicians. Is Mr Engel, Engelho -'
'Engelhart,' Mlle Dieudonne articulated, leaning towards the wheelchair.
'Engelhart. Is Mr Engelhart here, please?'
Mlle Dieudonne looked into the audience with the unblinking eyes of a bird. Small and stooped, she wore a grey shawl which, by concealing her arms, added to the avian effect. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe, she had so many students, she did not know what to do, especially since Boulanger's decline. Her teaching load had doubled and following in Boulanger's footsteps, she often taught til eleven o'clock at night. Dieudonne was in her eighties.
'Mr Engelhart? Come, please,' she
goaded a dark, eager-eyed boy who was making his way out of the third row.
'Le voici, Mademoiselle,' she said, as Arthur Engelhart sat at the piano.
'Can you tell me, Mr Engelhart, how many notes are there?'
'You mean in an octave, Mademoiselle? Twelve.'
'No, that is not it.'
'Well I'm not sure I understand what you want. An infinite number?'
'No, no, no.'
'Well there are eighty-eight keys on the keyboard.'
'No,' groaned Boulanger. It was hard to be intimidated by such a spectacle but Arthur did want to allay the old woman's frustration.
The other students turned to each other pantomiming incomprehension across the room with shrugs and open, empty hands. Somebody suggested loudly enough for the audience to hear that they could use a calculator to figure out all the notes written since Gregorian chant. A chubby girl curbed her giggles, the effort turning her pink as a ham.
'Somebody else! Bring. Me. Some. Body. Else.'
Mlle Dieudonne, who had begun to doze, awoke, startled, and froze like a squirrel who senses he is being watched. Then, like an animal who lives in a constant state of emergency she acted, grabbing Joseph Kaufman in the first row with a strength that, he later said, amazed him.
Joseph was distinguished from the rest of the student body -- a body whose scruffiness was typical of students who've been away from home for a week in high summer -- by his suit which he wore out of respect for Boulanger although his fellow students often reminded him that she wouldn't be able to see it.
As he sat down, a hand rose from the medium's lap and reached shakily for the keyboard. Hitting two adjacent notes it fumbled, then rose again to descend onto a note a fourth below. The spirit having tapped out its message, the hand withdrew slowly to come to rest once more in Boulanger's lap.
'Mr Kau -, Mr K -, do you know how
many notes there are?'
'Well, Mademoiselle, I, too, thought an infinite number.'
'No,' Boulanger moaned. Mlle A soothed her and turned the wheelchair to take it back to the apartment. Boulanger did not protest or perhaps even notice.
As soon as she rounded the corner, pandemonium broke out in the classroom.
'Mr Kuh -, Mr Kuh -' croaked one boy in imitation of the scene that had just taken place. Another boy did a grotesque parody of a monster drawling incoherent, preposterous demands. Mlle Dieudonne played a thundering chord to bring us back to reality and spent the rest of the period on a tortuous musical dictation which sobered us up in no time.
The following week Boulanger held the class for conductors in her apartment. In the interim Emile Naoumoff, her latest protegee who had been allowed out of his native Bulgaria to study with her when he was eight, told us the answer to the question: 'How many notes are there?' There are seven, all other notes being variants of the original scale. Sixteen that summer, Emile served as de facto teacher to the rest of us who were mostly in our twenties. Boulanger had once observed that Emile could perform musical feats that had stumped Stravinsky.
We were a group of nine, waiting outside the palace with the excitement of young people going for the first time to see the Old Country about which they've heard stories all their lives. Our ardor had not been allayed by the sorry spectacle of our first class with Boulanger. As some line in some movie pithily has it, we knew who she was.
Mlle A lowered the palace key in a basket from the second floor window. We let ourselves in and went upstairs where she led us into the living-room.
It was 4pm and the high-ceilinged room, with long windows that looked onto the palace garden, was already steeped in shadow. My memory, into whose gaps cliché has flowed, has furnished it with tables and walls that are cluttered with pictures of friends from another era; even older pictures of family. Signed 'With Admiration' or 'Affectionately' were intense publicity shots of pianists; conductors in an ecstatic swirl of hair; photos of Boulanger receiving an honorary doctorate or being received by de Gaulle.
These served as reminders that thirty years before Boulanger had been a woman of the world as well as of the Spirit. When a student became too nerdy, losing herself in music, Boulanger would provide an antidote: an invitation to a tea at which would be Bernstein with his librettist or lover; or writers whose names the student knew only from newspaper accounts to which she now wished she'd paid more attention. The conductor Andrew Litton once said that when, at the age of thirteen, he played for Boulanger she asked him to recite any poetry he knew. He couldn't and understood that he should broaden his cultural horizons. When he told this story I thought, 'I would have asked you to climb a tree or throw a ball.'
Boulanger sat in her wheelchair looking other-worldly, as the blind sometimes do. Mlle Dieudonne leaned over and whispered that we'd arrived.
'Good afternoon,' Boulanger said.
'We will begin by conducting in 4/4 time. I will give you the tempo: Bah,
bah, bah, bah.'
She intoned a moderate tempo, conducting. We followed her lead.
'You must not vary the tempo no matter what else happens,' she went on, conducting steadily as though the beat were a pendulum which, having been set in motion, would continue, unchanging, forever.
Her own hand returned to her lap as we continued conducting.
'For next time you will study the first three exercises of Hindemith. We will also study Bach Cantata Number 4. What beat are you on?'
'Two,' someone replied.
'No! That was three! You are slowing down!'
She gave us other exercises which were designed to cultivate independence of the various compartments of the mind: dividing a beat into 3, 5 or 7 equal parts doing one beat with one hand, another with the other and still other beats with each foot. We aspired to have the right hand not know what the left was doing. They were tasks essential for a conductor and any good musician but felt more like disciplines demanded of the Buddhist priesthood.
The next time we saw Boulanger was three weeks later. Mlle Dieudonne led us into the bedroom where Boulanger lay in a pink bedjacket on a cloud of lacy pillows.
'Les élèves sont arrivés,' Mlle Dieudonne said, bending towards Boulanger's ear. ('The pupils have arrived.')
Mlle A came forward from the corner to adjust the pillows. Boulanger's hand moved in the outline of an attempt to raise herself.
'I am honored to make your acquaintance,' she said to us. 'Do you play piano?'
We looked at each other in confusion. Did she think she was addressing only one person? Several of the students were primarily conductors. Others played violin or cello. One played French horn. One sang. I was the only one whose first instrument was piano. The third member of Boulanger's entourage, Louise Talma, pushed me forward.
'Yes,' I said.
'Play the first Prelude of Bach.'
'Do you mean the C Major from the Well-Tempered Klavier?'
<< -- 7 -- Jenna Orkin THE LAST CLASS
I'd never studied the piece but it is well-known and harmonically simple. Also Emile gestured that he'd come with me and whisper any chord I might not remember. Ms Talma frowned disapprovingly at this but decided against waging a pantomime battle.
'Well? Why don't you begin?'
Mlle Dieudonne turned around with a resigned sigh and went to Boulanger's bedside like a motorized doll that goes back and forth between walls, retracing its path til someone turns it off or the motor runs out. Louise Talma looked dismayed: Boulanger had lost her perfect pitch. There followed an anxious conference of whispers.
'Play any fugue you would like.'
She had no voice left; not even a whisper; only air shaped into words which died as they left her lips. We listened in polite silence dominated by the embarrassment one feels in a courtroom for a witness who has been unmasked, her puny, shivering self revealed.
'I am sorry for this pathetic scene. A tragi-comedy.'
She had been blind for several years but this seemed only to intensify her vision of the unseen. Like a star whose light won't reach us for millennia, she spoke not to the people we were then but to the people we would become over the course of a lifetime.
'You are all good musicians. I hope you will work hard. For Miss Talma and Mlle Dieudonne.'
We hung our heads and looked at the floor. For now the embarrassment was for ourselves.
Copyright © 27 February 2005 Jenna Orkin , New York City, USA