Skip to content
BSO, Pops, Tanglewood, and Symphony Hall Logos

D’un Matin de printemps

Lili Boulanger's D’un Matin de printemps is a brief, nuanced piece combining joyful high spirits with poignant introspection.

Marie-Juliette Olga Lili Boulanger was born in Paris, France, on August 21, 1893, and died in Mézy-au-Seine, France, on March 15, 1918. Along with D’un Soir triste (“Of a Sad Evening”), D’un Matin de printemps (“Of a Spring Morning”) was begun in spring 1917 and completed early the following year; although she continued writing nearly up until her death, illness necessitated the help of her sister Nadia in notating some of the works that occupied her last months. The piece also exists in chamber-music versions for either flute or violin with piano and for piano trio (violin, cello, and piano). The score used in this week’s BSO performances is an edition by C.F. Nieweg.

The score of D’un Matin de printemps calls for an orchestra of piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets in A, B-flat bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, sarrusophone or contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, 2 percussion (triangle, suspended cymbal, small snare drum [or castanets]), harp, celesta, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). Duration is about 5 minutes.

Lili Boulanger’s D’un Matin de printemps (“Of a Spring Morning”) was composed, along with its companion piece D’un Soir triste (“Of a Sad Evening”), during the last months of the composer’s short life. By this time, Boulanger had already made a name for herself as the first woman ever to win the prestigious Prix de Rome and was lauded for her unique compositional voice among her fellow Impressionists. At only 24 years old she lay stricken with terminal illness, her sister Nadia by her side and the German bombardment advancing on nearby Paris. Her final works convey the intimate and mature compositional voice that, even under such circumstances, continued to explore color and harmony. In particular, the vigor of D’un Matin de printemps, completed two months before her death, belies her fragile condition.

Boulanger was born on August 21, 1893, in Paris to a family of musicians: her mother Raïssa Mischetzky was a performer, her father Ernest a composer, and their friends included Gabriel Fauré. Her older sister Nadia is perhaps the most famous of the family, remembered especially for her mentorship of a multitude of international composers (including Aaron Copland and Ástor Piazzolla). Boulanger contracted bronchial pneumonia as a toddler, leaving her in a weakened state, and from that point on she suffered from chronic bouts of intestinal tuberculosis, which would eventually lead to her death. Due to her condition, Boulanger studied privately rather than enrolling fully at the Paris Conservatoire. Once she became determined to pursue the Prix de Rome, however, she joined Paul Vidal’s composition class in addition to studying with Georges Caussade. Her father Ernest had won the Prix in 1835, and Nadia had taken second place in 1908; Lili’s first attempt in 1912 was cut short due to illness. On her second try, in 1913 at age 19, she won—the first woman ever to do so. It was a triumph for women composers everywhere, and the international acclaim and resulting contract with the Ricordi publishing company nudged aside the curmudgeonly criticism of the péril rose (“pink peril”), or the supposed threat marked by this milestone of progress.

The prize included a residency at the Villa Medici in Rome, but Boulanger was forced to leave early due to the start of the First World War. She would return in 1916, but again was prevented from completing her stay, this time because of illness. In spite of such major setbacks, she produced some of her best-known works during these years, completing in Rome the song cycle Clairières dans le ciel (“Clearings in the Sky”) and some of her Psalm settings, and she also began her opera La Princesse Maleine, based on a play by Maurice Maeterlinck. Back in Paris, she was active in helping with the war effort, founding the Comité Franco-Americain du Conservatoire National with Nadia to support musicians involved in the conflict.

In 1917, when the war made it too dangerous to stay in Paris, Boulanger removed to the town of Mézy with her mother and Nadia. It was clear that her health was rapidly declining. She devoted herself to her final compositions, including ongoing work on La Princesse Maleine, which she never finished. The number and variety of pieces she worked on during this time would not seem to suggest that Boulanger was approaching the end of her life; the scores themselves reveal the truth, however, written with faint and unclear handwriting as she composed in a weakened state. The companion pieces D’un Soir triste and D’un Matin de printemps were the last notated by her own hand, completed in January 1918. She dictated her final piece, Pie Jesu, to Nadia, who kept vigil at her bedside. Lili Boulanger died a few weeks later, on March 15, 1918. Nadia would go on to have a long and illustrious career, but would always remain her sister’s greatest champion as she worked to preserve her legacy. [When Nadia made her debut as organist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky in February 1925, performing Copland’s Organ Symphony, the program also included Lili’s Pour les Funérailles d’un soldat; when Nadia conducted the BSO in 1962, she programmed three of Lili’s Psalm settings for chorus and orchestra.—Ed.]

Almost exactly three years after Boulanger’s death, D’un Soir triste and D’un Matin de printemps were premiered on March 13, 1921, at the Paris Conservatoire with the Concerts Pasdeloup orchestra, Rhené-Baton conducting. Each work exists in multiple versions, with D’un Matin de printemps written also for violin and piano, flute and piano, and piano trio. The two pieces are based upon the same theme, which hovers above and below E before ascending and developing further. In D’un Soir triste, this theme trudges heavily to convey an inconsolable despair, but there is a hint of something brighter on the horizon in the work’s very final moments. Picking up where this gentle suggestion of hope leaves off, D’un Matin de printemps does indeed feel like dawn breaking, bringing with it renewed vigor.

Matin’s brisk opening is underpinned by light eighth notes in the strings, providing momentum as solo flute enters with the main theme. Like much of French music of the time, winds feature prominently, imparting vibrancy with their bright timbre; occasional melodious string passages add a lush texture. This spring morning is not without shadows of its own, however. After brass and percussion join in for a brief resounding of the ensemble, the energy of the opening sinks into a murkier state. Boulanger masterfully employs color and texture to continue this seamless ebb and flow between two realms. One is bright and alert, with each restatement of the main theme in solo winds acting as a call to attention and restoring the faster tempo. The other is dreamlike, marked mystérieux, with ghostly violin and celesta heightening the effect. Eventually the initial energy returns in full in a series of flourishes, a final glissando on harp marking a brilliant close.

Pamela Feo

Pamela Feo is a part-time Lecturer at Boston University, specializing in fin-de-siècle French music, and an arts administrator with the North End Music & Performing Arts Center. She was the Tanglewood Publications Fellow in 2013.