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Loeb Exhibit Focuses on Nadia Boulanger

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Composition teacher Nadia Boulanger, left, poses with performers during a rehearsal. Boulanger's influence on American composers
is the focus of an exhibition at the Loeb Music Library.


November 13, 2008 - In an exhibition which opened last month, entitled "Nadia Boulanger and her American Composition Students," Sarah Adams, Keeper of the Isham Memorial Library in the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, and graduate student Elizabeth Craft explore the impact Boulanger had on 20th-century American composers.

Last week's opening was timed to coincide with part one of Crosscurrents, a two-part international conference dealing with the connections between musical communities in Europe and North America, particularly the U.S. The first part of the conference was held at Harvard last week, the second will be held next May at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universit├Ąt in Munich.

Though also well-known as a composer and conductor, the Loeb exhibition focuses on Boulanger's work as a teacher and constant advocate for American classical music. As a professor of composition, first in France, and later in the U.S., at Harvard and Radcliffe, Boulanger influenced generations of American composers, and taught a veritable who's who of American musicians, from Aaron Copland to Quincy Jones.

"She's a figure that bridges American and European music," Adams said last month. "There was a period of time when almost every major American composer went to Europe to study with her."

Though French by birth, Boulanger in 1921 helped found the American Conservatory at Fontainbleau in 1921, a school initially founded to improve the quality of U.S. military music, and which grew into one of the pre-eminent centers of study for American composers and conductors. By 1938, the school's reputation had become so distinguished, Boulanger was invited to the U.S. to teach, but not at Harvard.

Instead, Boulanger taught at Radcliffe for the spring semester of 1938, and later returned in 1939 to give a series of lectures. The clamor to get into her classes was so great, however, a number of Harvard students petitioned to be allowed to take classes at Radcliffe, a first in the school's history. That same year, Boulanger would become the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Boulanger would later return to the U.S. during World War II, when she taught at the Longy School of Music. Boulanger died in 1979, and a year later her collection of scores by her American students was donated to Harvard.

"It's an amazing collection of things," Adams said, of the collection, which includes more than 1,000 scores by some 270 different composers. "The collection, taken together, documents the range and depth of her connection to American music in the 20th century. In preparing this exhibition, it was hard to choose a representative sample, because there were so many interesting items to choose from."

The exhibition includes scores of Boulanger's students, including Virgil Thomson, as well as news stories about Boulanger's classes at Radcliffe and Longy, and photographs and correspondence documenting Boulanger's efforts to travel between the U.S. and Europe in the early part of World War II.

"She had a major impact on 20th century American music, having taught so many major American composers," Adams said. "Before Nadia Boulanger, people didn't talk about American music, per se. It was more that Americans looked to European models. She's a huge figure in American music."

The exhibit, "Nadia Boulanger and Her American Composition Students" will run through July 1, 2009 in the Richard F. French Gallery at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library.