In 1913, Lili Boulanger became the first woman to win the coveted Prix de Rome, a composition prize previously won by the likes of Claude Debussy and Hector Berlioz. She died five years later at age twenty-four. Although her compositional output is small, it reflects an immense talent and creative genius.
Lili Boulanger was born in 1893 to a Russian mother and a French father, both of whom were musically inclined. She and her older sister, Nadia, both showed a precocious gift for music; however, while Nadia, five years Lili’s senior, was studying at the Conservatoire, Lili was learning the same compositional and performance techniques instinctively at home.
Her formal education was comprised mainly of private tuition, both with private tutors and with Nadia, whose gift for teaching became legendary and whose students included Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein. This was due to her fragile health, beginning with a bout of pneumonia when she was two years old, followed by “intestinal tuberculosis,” or what is today known as Crohn’s disease.
The Prix de Rome
Although Lili was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, she was not the first woman to enter. Female composers were allowed to enter the competition beginning in 1903; however, the first female competitors encountered numerous difficulties.
Since Prix de Rome finalists were all housed together to compose their cantatas, there were concerns as to the propriety of an unmarried woman (as they were required to be to enter) living alone in a house full of men. Nadia Boulanger entered the competition twice, but although her cantatas were lauded for their compositional merit, she did not win.
Lili entered first in 1912 and was compelled to withdraw due to poor health. In 1913, she won with a majority of the judges’ votes for her cantata Faust et Hélène. Scholars have postulated that it was in part Lili’s androgynous, frail appearance and her predilection for boyish attire that helped her win. Perhaps somehow the judges found it easier to reward a woman who did not appear as feminine—and thus as threatening–as her predecessors.
Lili’s victory at the Prix de Rome in 1913 made a splash all over the world, and she traveled to Rome to study and compose, a trip which was cut short by the beginning of World War I. During that time, she composed her 13-song cycle Clairières dans le ciel, on poetry by symbolist poet Francis Jammes. In 1916, she returned to Rome, where she worked on her opera for several months, but was forced to return to France because of poor health. She died in 1918 and is buried in Montmartre cemetery in Paris.