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S'il arrive jamais (1909)

S'il arrive jamais

S'il arrive jamais
Que nous soyons, sans le savoir,
Souffrance ou peine ou désespoir,
L'un pour l'autre ; s'il se faisait
Que la fatigue ou le banal plaisir
Détendissent en nous l'arc d'or du haut désir ;
Si le cristal de la pure pensée
Doit en nos cœurs tomber et se briser,
Si malgré tout, je me sentais
Vaincu pour n'avoir pas été
Assez en proie à la divine immensité
De la bonté ;
Alors, oh ! serrons-nous comme deux fous sublimes
Qui sous les cieux cassés, se cramponnent aux cimes
Quand même -- et d'un unique essor,
L'âme en soleil, s'exaltent dans la mort.

Should it ever occur

Should it ever occur
That we unwittingly become
Pain, sorrow or despair
For one another; if it ever were
That fatigue or banal pleasure
Loosened up the golden bow of high desire;
If the crystal of pure thought
In our hearts should ever fall and break,
If, in spite of it all, I felt
Defeated for not having been
Sufficiently touched by the divine immensity
Of kindness;
Then, oh, let us embrace like two sublime madmen
Who under broken skies still hang on to the summit –
And in one soaring path,
Our souls bathed in sunlight, exaltedly go to our death.

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Nadia Boulanger and her immensely gifted younger sister Lili came from a family of musicians. Boulanger joined the Paris Conservatoire aged ten, studying harmony and composition, alongside private organ lessons. Gabriel Fauré, who taught her composition, encouraged and supported her.  The virtuoso Raoul Pugno championed her as a performer, often sharing the stage with her before his death in 1914.

Boulanger stopped composing around 1919 (the year of her sister’s death), after which she dedicated herself to teaching, becoming one of the foremost composition teachers within the twentieth-century art music traditions, as well as one of the first professional female conductors. Her influence was international, not least because she lived and worked in the USA during World War II.

She energetically promoted the music of her sister and students, especially Stravinsky. An important patron between the wars was the indefatigable heiress Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac, who created conducting opportunities for Boulanger in the 1930s. In addition, she contributed to the 20th-century rediscovery of early music. By the end of her life, she had gained many honours.

Boulanger and Pugno co-composed the song cycle Les heures claires (1909) to poems by the great Belgian poet Émile Verhaeren, as well as an opera La ville morte. She wrote over thirty songs, favouring chromatic and modal harmony. Her choice of poet ranged from established favourites such as Heine and Verlaine (one setting each), to important contemporaries like Maurice Maeterlinck.

A list of her songs is below:

- Five Songs (Soleils couchants/Paul Verlaine, Cantique/Maurice Maeterlinck, Élégie/Albert Samain, Prière/H. Bataille, Was will die einsame Träne/Heinrich Heine), 1909

- Les heures claires (Le ciel en nuit s’est déplié; Avec mes sens, avec mon cœur; Vous m’avez dit; Que tes yeux claires, tes yeux d’été; C’était en juin; Ta bonté; Roses de Juin; S’il arrive jamais,)1909-1912

- Mélodies, 1910

- Seven Songs (Soir d’hiver/Nadia Boulanger, L’Échange/Camille Mauclair, Chanson/Camille Mauclair, Le Couteau/Camille Mauclair, Au bord de la route/Camille Mauclair, Doute/Camille Mauclair, J’ai frappé/J.-F. Bourguignon), 1915 (oder 1916)/1922.

All her songs are recorded and available in recent editions.

© Natasha Loges, 2022

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