Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger (1893-1918) , known as “Lili”, was a French composer who was the first female winner of the Prix de Rome composition prize. Her tragically early death meant that the world lost one of the potentially great composers of the 20th century.
Lili and sister Nadia were born into a musical family. Their grandmother was a famous soprano, their father a composer who had won the Prix de Rome in 1835 and their mother, Countess Raissa Myshetskaya, a professional singer. Both sisters showed signs of musical talent at an early age and studied composition with Gabriel Fauré when they were very young.
Nadia began at the Paris Conservatoire at the young age of 9, and Lili accompanied her when she was well enough – she was in poor health and dependent upon others physically for most of her lifetime.
Nadia’s ambition was to win the Grand Prix de Rome, which had illustrious former winners including Berlioz, Bizet and Debussy. Despite focussing upon this goal for four years, she only ever received the second prize (although many said that her entry was in fact the best and that it was misogyny which prevented her from winning the main prize) and eventually abandoned this dream and focused upon teaching and performing. She went on to become a well-known composition teacher who worked with many of the leading composers of the 20th century, including Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and Philip Glass.
Having decided that her health meant she was unlikely to marry, Lili’s mother and sister questioned what Lili might do to support herself. She decided that she wanted to pursue composing as a career and win the Prix de Rome. Her first attempt was in 1912, but she had to withdraw due to illness. In 1913 she tried again and became the first woman to win the prize, as co-winner with Claude Delvincourt, for her cantata, Faust et Hélène. This success led to a contract with one of the most important music publishers at the time, Ricordi, providing a regular income.
The next five years were spent in poor health whisht she composed and worked with her sister to support the French soldiers during World War I. She wrote to a friend, whilst ill with bronchitis, “I feel discouraged because I understand that I would never be able to have in me the feeling that I have done what I would like to do.”
Despite her discouragement, Lili was prolific in her short career, producing over 50 works. D’un matin de printemps (“Of a Spring Morning”)was one of the last pieces that she was healthy enough to copy out herself before she died at age 24 in 1918. Different arrangements were produced including a version for violin, for flute, and for piano, another for piano trio, and another for orchestra. Although she finished the piece, her sister Nadia reportedly edited the works to add dynamics and performance directions.