L. BOULANGER: Psalm 130, “Du fond de 1’abime”. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Vieille Priere Bouddhique. Pie Jesu.

by Walter Simmons



L. BOULANGER: Psalm 130, “Du fond de 1’abime”. Psalm 24. Psalm 129. Vieille Priere Bouddhique. Pie Jesu. Igor Markevitch conducting the Lamoureux Orchestra and the Elisabeth Brasseur Chorale; various vocal soloists. EVEREST EVC-9034 [AAD]; 47:25. Produced by Bert Whyte and Seymour Solomon, under the supervision of Nadia Boulanger.

I will not use this space to recapitulate the basic facts, (hopefully familiar by now, surrounding Lili Boulanger’s tragically brief career, but will direct the less-informed reader to Fanfare 18:4, pp. 138-9, where I offer some background information, while discussing a fine Hyperion disc that includes the masterful cycle of thirteen songs, Clairieres dans le ciel. That disc, along with this important Everest reissue; are the two definitive Boulanger recordings, as of this writing. 

The material on this disc was originally recorded in 1960 and was released on LP by Everest shortly thereafter. It was that LP that stunned me, the brilliant musicologist Christopher Palmer (whose life also ended prematurely, a victim last year of AIDS), and many other listeners into the realization that here was a compositional voice of compelling distinction. The five works offered here were all completed between 1916 and 1918, the last three years of Lili’s life, and represent her compositional talent at its finest. The 24-minute setting of the Psalm 130 is generally regarded as her masterpiece, while the other works, though less ambitious in scale, are of comparable quality. Their sensibility most closely resembles th e contemporaneous choral works of, say, Florent Schmitt and Arthur Honegger — ironically, the robust, virile outgrowths of Impressionism. Taken together, this music strikes one with the strength and confidence of expression and the depth and maturity of its vision.

Du fond de 1’abime“is a work of tremendous seriousness and power, arresting right from its lugubrious opening, with massive sonorities and a harmonic language that wrenches and expands the already-expanded tertian harmony of Impressionism with gut-wrenching dissonance. At times the emotional intensity is overwhelming. Its only weakness is a vague sense of formal imbalance, resulting from a tighter structural focus and dynamism in the first half of the work than the second, so that it seems to be reaching a conclusion well before it actually does. While its tremendous impact is clearly felt in this performance, there is much room for improvement. The orchestral playing is quite rough and scrappy and the sound quality was somewhat below par, even in 1960. A work like this, harmonically dense and with such fullness and richness of sonority, requires a fine modern recording. A programming idea I have mentioned previously in these pages is to present Boulanger’s setting alongside two other post-romantic interpretations of the same psalm: one for orchestra alone by the Czech Vitezslav Novak and the other for cello (or doublebass) and orchestra by Italian-American Vittorio Giannini. Although this would make for a rather somber CD, contrasting musical cultures and sensibilities would create a fascinating juxtaposition. 

Perhaps even more fully realized than “Du fond de 1’abime” is the setting of Psalm 129. Forceful and intense, it is a six-minute masterpiece, but would also benefit from a more competent performance and a more modern recording. The brief setting of Psalm 24 for large chorus, brass, timpani, harp, and organ has a neoarchaic flavor, making its impact with a power and vigor that strongly recall Florent Schmitt’s 1904 setting of the Psalm 47. Vieille Priere Bouddhique is a haunting piece whose whole-tone-flavored chief motif lends an exotic tinge to the setting of an unidentified text intended as a sort of universal prayer. Pie Jesu is the composer’s final work, dictated from her deathbed. Scored for boy soprano, organ, and strings, it is a plaintive search for inner peace, only achieved at the very end. 

One effect of the feminist perspective on musicology has been the resurrection and subjection to the most charitable scrutiny of music composed by women of the past that had previously been neglected, presumably because of the biases of a male hegemony. The result has been some extravagant claims that could only be tolerated within an intellectual climate in which ideology is permitted to subvert critical candor. I want to distinguish my advocacy of Lili Boulanger from this patronizing reverse discrimination, although recent interest in her work may be attributed partly to these trends in academic musicology. Although Everest’s recording appeared some 35 years ago, it is only during the past 15 years or so that her work has been given serious consideration. If you missed this recording the first time around, be sure to grab it now, while you can.