People and Genres

29 Lili Boulanger

In this chapter you will

  • be introduced to a great composer if you’re not already acquainted with her
  • meet her famous sister as well
  • consider the challenges that female composers faced in the twentieth century
  • have the opportunity to ponder why amazing music is neglected in performances in our time

Lili Boulanger died tragically young. One can scarcely imagine what the scope and significance of her works might have been if she had lived longer. Yet the works she created during her brief life are impressive and noteworthy both generally and in connection with the subject of this book.[1] Although universally referred to by her nickname, “Lili,” her full name was Marie-Juliette Olga Boulanger. Lili is almost always mentioned in connection with her sister Nadia. Nadia Boulanger taught music in Paris and mentored a number of famous composers. She taught and impacted the lives of such a large number of students, particularly from the United States, that American composer Ned Rorem has described her as “the most influential teacher since Socrates.”[2] Another American composer, Virgil Thomson, wrote in a tribute to her that it was a matter of American legend that every town had a “five and dime” store and a student of Nadia Boulanger.[3] In 1913, Lili became the first woman to win the Prix de Rome, one of the world’s most prestigious awards in the arts, which was instituted in the seventeenth century (and abolished in the twentieth). Soon after Lili died at the untimely age of twenty-four, Nadia ceased composing, evaluating her own works as “worthless.”[4] In comparing their lives as well as considering them together, we get a clearer sense of how each succeeded in navigating a musical world in which there were still many obstacles for female composers.[5]

Listen to these two psalm settings (Psalm 24, “The Earth Is the Lord’s,” and Psalm 130, “Out of the Depths”) by Lili Boulanger, which would be remarkable under any circumstances but seem all the more so when we consider how young the composer was when she wrote them.[6]

Robert Dimery writes, “Lili’s Catholic faith imbues her three psalm settings for chorus and orchestra with a fervent intensity. Psalm 24 has a feeling of wondrous joy, the modal harmonies adding a primitive, ancient quality. Her setting of Psalm 130 (aka ‘De Profondis’/‘Du fond de l’abîme’) possesses a sense of mystery fitting for a mystic vision of God’s presence.”[7]

For Further Reading

Beer, Anna. Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music. London: Oneworld, 2016.

Boulanger, Nadia, “La musique religieuse.” La Revue musicale 4, no. 11 (1922, special number devoted to Gabriel Fauré): 104–11. Translated in Jeanice Brooks and Kimberly Francis, ed., Nadia Boulanger: Thoughts on Music. Rochester NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020.

Brooks, Jeanice, and Kimberly Francis, ed. and trans. Nadia Boulanger: Thoughts on Music. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2020.

Perkins, John. “An Analysis and Orchestral Reduction of Psaume 130 (Du fond de l’Abime), by Lili Boulanger.” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 2009.

———. “A Historical and Pragmatic Approach to Lili Boulanger’s Psaume 130, ‘Du Fond de l’abîme’: Part 1.” Choral Journal 50, no. 10 (2010): 8–18.

———. “New Solutions for Lili Boulanger’s ‘Psaume 130, Du Fond de l’abîme,’ Part 2.” Choral Journal 50, no. 11 (2010): 18–26.

Potter, Caroline. Nadia and Lili Boulanger. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.


  1. A brief timeline and introduction may be found in Diane Peacock Jezic, Women Composers: The Lost Tradition Found (New York: Feminist Press), 139–46.
  2. Ned Rorem, “Nadia Boulanger (Composer, Conductor),” Bach Cantatas, accessed September 12, 2022,
  3. Virgil Thomson, “‘Greatest Music Teacher’—at 75,” Music Educators Journal 49, no. 1 (1962): 42–44 (here 42).
  4. Lizzie Davis, “Ever Heard the Music of Lili Boulanger, One of the 20th Century’s Most Exciting Composers?,” Classic FM, June 25, 2021,
  5. On this, see Anna Beer, Sounds and Sweet Airs: The Forgotten Women of Classical Music (London: Oneworld, 2016), 247–61.
  6. The first recording is from 1968 of the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Chorus, conducted by Nadia Boulanger. The second features the City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus Orchestra and BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier. For an analysis of Lili Boulanger’s psalm settings, see Caroline Potter, Nadia and Lili Boulanger (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006), 91–102.
  7. Robert Dimery, Cult Musicians: 50 Progressive Performers You Need to Know (London: White Lion, 2020).


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The Bible and Music by James F. McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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