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Lili Boulanger sitting at the piano

Celebrating Women Composers

Lili Boulanger
March 6, 2024

Creators, performers, teachers, leaders, and trailblazers. In celebration of International Women’s Day on March 8, and continuing through the entire month, Noteworthy is profiling some of the groundbreaking and influential women composers whose extraordinary works and other accomplishments are only just beginning to receive the recognition they so richly deserve.

Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger (1893–1918), better known as “Lili”, was a wunderkind born in fin de siècle Paris to a musical family. By the age of 5, she had developed perfect pitch and was sitting in on lessons at the Paris Conservatory, where her father was a teacher, and her sister, Nadia, who was five years her senior, attended classes. Though Lili was eager to fully immerse herself in her musical education, chronic illness — beginning with a bout of bronchial pneumonia at age 2 — prevented her from doing so until she was 16. But she more than made up for lost time: after studying composition at the conservatory (where Gabriel Fauré was director), within three years, she became the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome, for her cantata Faust et Hélène. This achievement brought Lili international recognition, and her creative voice, which was influenced by impressionists like Debussy and Fauré, was praised for its uniqueness, complexity, and beauty. Unfortunately, her poor health and the onset of the First World War kept her close to home and slowed her artistic output. And though some of her most celebrated pieces were composed during the war, tragically, she would not live to see the end of it: Lili died of intestinal tuberculosis in 1918 at just 24 years old. Nadia, who became one of the most influential music teachers of the 20th century, would outlive her sister by more than 60 years.

Last September, Music Director Gustavo Gimeno led the orchestra in Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning) during the opening performances of our 2023/24 season and as part of our Free Community Concert. Composed in the year preceding Boulanger’s death, this pastoral tone poem — the companion piece to the more elegiac D’un soir triste (Of a Sad Evening) — is lively and intoxicating. Experience it for yourself when the impressive young talents of the Toronto Symphony Youth Orchestra perform it in April 2025 at the top of their 2024/25 season-finale concert.

The Toronto Symphony Orchestra performing Lili Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps (Of a Spring Morning) during the opening performances of the 2023/24 season.
Photo by Allan Cabral