August seems to be shaping up as the Month of Musical Heroines! Today we look at Lili Boulanger (Marie-Juliette Olga Lili Boulanger), born on August 21, 1893.
Lili was a child prodigy, born in Paris to a very musical fmaily--her older sister Nadia became a composer and composition teacher, her mother Raissa Myshetskaya was a Russian noblewoman who married her Paris Conservatoire teacher Ernest Boulanger (who was 77 when Lili was born, and died in 1899), and her grandparents were cellists and singers. Lili started going with her sister to classes at the Conservatoire when she was only 5, sitting in on music theory lectures and learning the play the organ as well as singing, piano, violin, cello, and harp (was there an instrument she couldn't play???). She was encouraged by her family and their circle of musical friends (including Faure), and at only age 19, in 1912, she competed in the prestigious Prix de Rome (though had to withdraw early because of illness).
The next year she went on to win the Prix de Rome for her composition titled Faust et Helene, becoming the very first female composer to win. She was noted for the "colorful harmony and instrumentation and skillful text setting" of her compositions, which often center on themes of grief and loss. She is considered a great influence on many composers even today.
But her life was interrupted by chronic illness, starting at only the age of 2 with bronchial pneumonia that weakened her system, and intestinal tuberculosis (now called Crohn's Disease) that led to her tragic early death. She didn't let it get in the way of her passion for travel, as she lived in Italy for long periods of time. World War I forced her home to France, where she and Nadia organized efforts to nurse and support soldiers as they returned from battle. She also used this time to finish works previously abandoned and complete some of her most famous pieces, including the beautifully sad Pie Jesu and the opera La princesse Maleine, which remained unfinished.
Lili died at the age of 24 on March 15, 1918 and was buried at the Cimitiere de Montmartre in Paris (her sister was buried next to her when she died in 1979).
The one biography I have of her life is The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger by Leonie Rosentiel. The Boulanger Foundation can be found here, with lots of info on both sisters' lives and work.