The absolutely underestimated: Lili Boulanger

100 years ago a great artist died. By which I do not mean Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Klimt, Karl Marx or Ingmar Bergmann. Following the just passed world women´s day, I decided to write about a woman: the composer Lili Boulanger!

Just a couple of days ago, I was talking about Lili Boulanger and how she is rarely performed on stage. Then I happened to go to a concert at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Romantic composers were on the programm: Janine Jansen played Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and César Franck. Jansen played great. She found the perfect tempi and gave the violin a very soft sound, combined with strong outbursts. The audience was absolutely quiet and applauded frenetically. So, she played an encore. And: surprise! It was the Nocturne by Lili Boulanger. As if I would have guessed.

The young composer Lili Boulanger wrote this piece in 1911, at an age of only 18. She wrote it just before she even begun her formal studies in composition and finished it in just two days. It still is one of her most famous works.

A young composer who died too early
Lili Boulanger

The composer was born in 1893. Her musical talent already showed at an early age. By the time she was six years old, she was sight-singing songs with the composer Gabriel Fauré at the piano. She also studied with her older sister, Nadia. Also, her parents brought musical education to the family. The young woman composed only a very few oeuvres and died far too early, in 1918, only aged 24.

Influences and role models

Lili Boulanger was widely influenced by the composers Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner. In the Nocturne, everything relates to both of them. She definitely took the first few notes from Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, and inserted them into her own composition. Also, she used short phrases from Wagner’s Tristan. However, the Nocturne is a brilliant composition by the young composer.

The Nocturne was first written for flute or violin and piano but has been orchestrated in a following version. Unfortunately, the orchestral transcription was never published and has been lost.

What followed

In 1912, one year after the Nocturne, Boulanger won the Prix de Rome. Shortly after that, she became very ill. She suffered from chronic illnesses, beginning with a case of bronchial pneumonia at age two that weakened her immune system, leading to the “intestinal tuberculosis” that ended her life at the age of 24.

Prinzregententheater in Munich

What impact Lili Boulanger’s work really has, is hard to say. But when Janine Jansen played the last notes of the Nocturne, the whole audience was enchanted. And this is a good enough reason to look at this absolutely underestimated composer closer.

 

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The perks of standing first row

This post is not about theatre, concerts or exhibitions. It more or less is a summary for all cultural events. In general one gets up, leaves the house and finds oneself sourrounded by other people, with similar thoughts and feelings about the event one goes to. The stage is the most important place in the location. Position counts! People seek for the best view or sound, or whatever. It´s all about standing in the first row! In events,  as well as in life!

But why is this so? Are we nor civilized beings, who should be able to talk to each other, instead of fighting for a superior stand?

This is why following you find my general thoughts concerning the perks of standing first row.

All the time we stand in between something. Our whole life tends to go between rows. When going out, it seems we have to compensate this fact: wherever we go, there always is the need of being first.

Not only in concerts or cultural events. It already starts with being on the subway. Once the doors open everyone seems to need to get in there as soon as possible. Our brain, under these circumstances, does not realize, that it even slows us down. Being inside first does not help the train go faster. It even slows down the process of people entering.

This same first row problem is valid for concerts

When I entered the concert hall Zenith in Munich the other day, to see Ben Howard, it already was quite crowded. People were jostling to see and hear best, not thinking about others. Everybody had payed the same fee and just happened to be there at different times.

This article title clearly contributes to the movie “The Perks of being a wallflower”. Though it deals with the exact opposite. People tend to become very pushy once it´s about their personal advantage.

Ben Howard in Munich

This obviously does not count for everybody, but for many many guests of events.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, except for: Be kind! It´s not about being first in row, but first in YOUR life!

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String quartets in the Allerheiligen Hofkirche

Allerheiligen Hofkirche

On a grey November Sunday morning I followed an invitation to hear a chamber music matinee in the Allerheiligen Hofkirche in Munich. It has been absolute ages since I have been to a string quartet concert. Coming from a musical family, with a cellist as a sister I enjoy chamber music, especially having played the violin as a teenager. So my knowledge of the repertoire is pretty good, even though I am no expert. The program, however, offered a new hearing for me: Béla Bartók‘s String quartet Nr.5, Sz 102. That got my interest going.

The venue: Allerheiligen Hofkirche

This is such a wonderful venue, that I must write a bit about it. The Allerheiligen Hofkirche was a Catholic church and it was built between 1826 and 1837. Following a visit to Palermo and the admiration of inner frescoes there, the then crown prince Ludwig decided to have a church built in a similar style as part of his Residenz. Leo von Klenze, the architect followed the crown prince’s wishes, extending his inspiration to the Marcus Dome in Venice. The interior with its vaults covered coloured frescoes was built in a Romanesque style while the facade was more gothic. This was the first church built in Bavaria after the secularization in 1803, hence its name “All Saints”.

During the Second World War, the church, the Residenz and the National Theater were very heavily damaged. Unlike the Residenz, it was left to deteriorate for years before a decision was taken. First wanting to tear it down, the city then decided to renovate it following a huge uproar by the citizens of Munich. The renovations started in 1972 under the leadership of Hans Döllgast. After his death in the 1980s, restorations continued with new cupolas and work on the facade. Then from 2000 to 2003 work on the interior was taken over by the Architects Buro Guggenbichler und Netzer before it was finally opened to the public.

The damages made to the church are visible as a testimony. The frescoes are left in their spare segments, the pillars have lines where they were put back together. All this was done very respectfully and beautifully. This gives the hall a wonderful atmosphere, which is enhanced through the warm and indirect lighting and through the red bricks. And so it is that the Allerheilgen Hofkirche became a Hall. It is no longer used as a church but as a concert venue, it’s acoustic being excellent, and as a venue for special events.

The performance

Beginning this program is Dvorák’s string quartet Nr. 14 in A flat Major op.105. The cello starts with a slow introduction. It is leading the others before moving on to an allegro appassionato movement. Dvoràk started writing this quartet when leaving the United States after 3 years there to move back to his beloved Prag. This is his last string quartet. Wonderful piani, colours, interaction, all played sensitively and beautifully by the musicians. The quartet players are members of the Bayerische Staatsorchester: Johanna Beisinghoff, Julia Pfister, Monika Hettinger and Anja Fabricius. It is a pleasure to watch them play.

The second half is Bartók’s string quartet Nr. 5 Sz 102, and this for me is a discovery. I never really thought of Bartók’s music as being full of humour. This piece changed my mind fully. I just love the pastiche classical section in the last movement, the playing with “out” of tune effects, the glissandi and jazzy rhythm in the cello pizzicati. Bartók only needed a month to compose this piece in the summer of 1934. The first performance was then on 8th April 1935 in the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington. This work has all that is so typical of Bartók, the accented rhythms, the complex harmonies. It is also so playfully modern experimenting with sound effects, sound landscapes. A wonderful work.

Postlude

Walking out in the grey November mist with the afternoon ahead of me, I couldn’t help but smile. The impressions of the morning were going through my mind… the discovery of Bartók’s quartet, the excellent playing of the musicians, the so wonderful atmosphere of the Allerheiligen Hofkirche… All this made it a wonderful start to that Sunday.

 

 

 

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