Boulanger Takes Copland as a Student Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After winning a scholarship to a prestigious French music school, Aaron Copland reluctantly attended Nadia Boulanger’s class on music theory, thus beginning a relationship that had profound consequences for the development of American music.

Summary of Event

By the age of eleven, Aaron Copland was composing short musical pieces. As a teenager, he tried to attend as many concerts as he could. He then turned to the study of musical theory, realizing that this was the only way to become a professional composer. Rubin Goldmark Goldmark, Rubin became Copland’s teacher of theory from 1917 to the spring of 1921. Goldmark taught Copland the fine points of composition; Copland also studied piano under the tutelage of Leopold Wolfsohn and Victor Wittgenstein. Music;theory [kw]Boulanger Takes Copland as a Student (1921) [kw]Copland as a Student, Boulanger Takes (1921) [kw]Student, Boulanger Takes Copland as a (1921) Music;theory [g]France;1921: Boulanger Takes Copland as a Student[05240] [c]Music;1921: Boulanger Takes Copland as a Student[05240] Boulanger, Nadia Copland, Aaron Elwell, Herbert Piston, Walter Koussevitzky, Serge Thomson, Virgil

In the magazine Musical America, Copland read of a plan by the French government to establish a summer school for American musicians in Fontainebleau, France. The plan intrigued Copland, who immediately sent in his application. He was readily accepted—in fact, he was the first student to be signed up for the unusual teaching experience.

During the four years that he studied with Goldmark, Copland worked hard and conscientiously, never getting more than a glimpse of Goldmark’s other students. At Fontainebleau in the summer of 1921, his musical experience would be changed and enriched. Now he would be studying with other bright musical hopefuls. One such friend was Djina Ostrowska, Ostrowska, Djina a harpist who was the only woman in the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. After a great deal of urging and encouraging, Ostrowska persuaded Copland to attend one of Nadia Boulanger’s classes. Copland, however, believed that he had already studied enough theory. He later recalled his pivotal discussion with Ostrowska:

I said to her, “I’ve had three years of harmony. I’m not interested in harmony classes.” But she repeatedly urged, “Just go and see the way she does it.” So I allowed myself to be persuaded.

When Copland succumbed to Ostrowska’s promptings, he was amazed to find a teacher who was able to show him new ways of looking at harmony. He later wrote, “I suspected that first day that I had found my composition teacher.” As a result of this meeting, Copland became the first American student to study with the renowned French instructor, paving the way for other Americans to cross the Atlantic and study at Fontainebleau.

When Copland was introduced to Boulanger, she was already teaching harmony at the Paris Conservatoire. Music was Boulanger’s life; as well as having a full complement of students, she taught organ and counterpoint at the École Normale de Musique. During the summer, she taught twice a week at Fontainebleau. Even though Copland continued to participate in the musical experience at Fontainebleau, it was as a private student that he discovered the musical wealth that Boulanger represented. There was no formal examination to be accepted as a student of Boulanger. At Copland’s first meeting, he played a piece with a strong jazz idiom. Goldmark had considered it avant-garde, almost too modern for the time. Boulanger liked the piece, however, and invited Copland to return. Acceptance by a musician of such stature assured Copland’s success as a composer. During the three years he studied with Boulanger, Copland’s music matured and grew.

Boulanger led what appeared to be a somewhat austere life. She lived contentedly with her mother, who was of Russian aristocratic stock, in a Paris apartment. Each Wednesday afternoon, Boulanger and her mother entertained many musical greats. Copland was thus introduced to Boulanger’s inner circle of friends, which included Igor Stravinsky, Stravinsky, Igor Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, and Albert Roussel. Copland’s musical mentor happened to be Stravinsky, and the opportunity to spend time with a composer of such stature influenced him greatly. The musical milieu that surrounded the Boulangers’ apartment gave the young Copland all the confidence that any student could want.

While she was not the most obvious person to lead the development of twentieth century music, Boulanger was indeed in the vanguard of modern musical composition. Copland recalled that he would often see Stravinsky’s latest scores in her apartment; Boulanger also introduced Copland to the work of the innovative Viennese composer Gustav Mahler. In the summer of 1922, Copland and Boulanger studied Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth), Mahler’s latest composition.

Copland’s early compositions were usually modest in breadth and depth. Although he wrote with a strong jazz idiom, Boulanger’s teaching method caused him to write much longer pieces. Whenever possible, Boulanger arranged to have her pupils’ compositions played at local recitals. The celebrated American tenor Charles Hubbard, for example, sang two of Copland’s songs, “Pastorale” and “Old Poem,” with Boulanger at the piano—such was Boulanger’s enthusiasm for her students. Over the years he spent studying with Boulanger, Copland was encouraged to continue writing longer compositions, and soon he was writing two-page songs and three-page piano pieces. Copland responded to the encouragement and embarked on larger works that included the writing of full-length ballets that lasted as long as thirty minutes.

Although it was tempered by her love of music, Boulanger’s strictness (no student of hers ever arrived late for class more than once) became her trademark. Recognizing that his life as a student had to end and that he was ready to earn a living as a composer, Copland concluded his formal studies with Boulanger in 1924. Despite this break, however, Boulanger still remained a strong influence on Copland’s musical life. She introduced Copland to Serge Koussevitzky, the renowned conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra; Koussevitzky, in turn, introduced many of Copland’s works to the American public and thus was influential in ensuring his success as a composer.


Copland was the first of many young American composers who studied with Boulanger; he was followed by, among others, Virgil Thomson, Melville Smith, Herbert Elwell, and Walter Piston. Although Copland was the first of these to study advanced composition, Thomson and Smith came to Paris to study with Boulanger shortly after Copland did. Boulanger had a gift for helping composers explore the richness of musical literature, and time and again her students, particularly Copland, would draw from the lessons he learned from her. Clearly, Boulanger also saw great promise in Copland and his colleagues. During a conversation with Virgil Thomson at the inauguration of the school for Americans in Fontainebleau, Boulanger mentioned that the United States was on the verge of producing some great music. While many of her European contemporaries shunned American music, Boulanger had the foresight to see it as an increasingly important part of the twentieth century music scene.

Because of the devotion Boulanger inspired in her illustrious students, her influence on major American composers is unquestioned. The ways in which that influence manifested itself in the musical mainstream of the United States is less easy to determine, however. One clue may lie in what happened after Copland completed his formal training with Boulanger: She continued to give her opinion on the compositions shown to her as well as to introduce Copland to important musical figures, one of whom was Koussevitzky. In Copland’s discussions with Koussevitzky, the conductor suggested that Copland write an organ concerto. Koussevitzky was soon to take up the post of conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the piece would feature Boulanger as soloist on the organ. The end result was that the 1924 premiere of Copland’s Symphony for Organ and Orchestra was performed by the New York Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Walter Damrosch. Copland was still a relatively unknown composer, but the concert brought him to the attention of the American music public, which was quick to acknowledge and appreciate the strong American idiom in his music.

Damrosch and Koussevitzky continued to premiere Copland’s work as well as that of other Boulanger students. The strong connection that had been formed between the Paris musical community and those of New York and Boston only enhanced the standing of American composers. Just as she had done in Paris, Boulanger continued to influence American music through her connections with influential composers and conductors.

Another important student of Boulanger was Walter Piston. While studying with Boulanger, Piston acquired a fine sense of counterpoint and was exposed to a great deal of new music. On returning to the United States, he accepted an academic position at Harvard University. When Edward Hill brought Piston to the attention of Koussevitzky, Piston’s works were premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. During Piston’s association with Koussevitzky, eleven of the composer’s works were performed for the first time, and Piston received several prizes and honors. Meanwhile, Piston was also writing. His Harmony (1941) Harmony (Piston) soon became a standard text in music schools and was followed by Counterpoint (1947) and Orchestration (1955). His teaching, although similar to Boulanger’s, was less pedagogic and aimed more at pointing out general principles of music. During his time at Harvard, Piston met some noted composers, among them Leonard Bernstein. Koussevitzky had also had Bernstein as a student, and Copland and Bernstein also became close friends. These relationships formed important links in Boulanger’s vast musical network.

Boulanger moved to the United States during World War II and taught at Wellesley College, Radcliffe College, and the Juilliard School of Music. Although her teaching methods remained much the same as when she taught at Fontainebleau and the École Normale de Musique, few of her students in the United States went on to become notable composers. Still, Boulanger continued to wield tremendous influence, and her effect on the development of many of America’s most important composers assured her a lasting legacy in American music. Music;theory

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Copland, Aaron, and Vivian Perlis. Copland: 1900 Through 1942. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984. This is a firsthand account of Copland’s early years, particularly his time in France. Perlis fills in the gaps in Copland’s narrative; originally, Copland had granted Perlis interviews that became the basis of a two-volume set on the composer.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Copland: Since 1943. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989. Completes the work that was begun in Copland: 1900 Through 1942. This extremely well-written volume concentrates on the influence Copland had on the musical world. Photographs, while not lavish, are well documented.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kendall, Alan. The Tender Tyrant: Nadia Boulanger; A Life Devoted to Music. Wilton, Conn.: Lyceum Books, 1977. This book tries to portray Boulanger’s life in more personal terms. Boulanger’s many observations make the book a useful tool for gaining an understanding of French music.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Monsaingeon, Bruno. Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger. Translated by Robin Marsack. New York: Carcanet Press, 1985. Monsaingeon taped interviews with Boulanger over a five-year period, during which she provided both her reflections on life and her philosophy of music. Unfortunately, Boulanger, who was never one to praise herself, speaks very little about her own motivations and aspirations.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pollack, Howard. Aaron Copland: The Life and Work of an Uncommon Man. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2000. One critic noted that this outstanding biography provides a clearer picture of Copland’s personality in its first twelve pages than do many entire books. Exhaustively researched. Includes a thorough index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rosenstiel, Leonie. Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music. New York: W. W. Norton, 1998. Comprehensive study of Boulanger’s life includes discussion of her relationship with her sister Lili, to whom she dedicated most of her teaching. Draws on many interviews of former students. Somewhat dry, yet informative.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomson, Virgil. Virgil Thomson. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966. Thomson did not have as intimate a relationship with Boulanger as did Copland, and this is reflected in Thomson’s book. What is most interesting is how differently Thomson and Copland viewed their musical experiences in France. Many of Copland’s friends were also Thomson’s friends, and some of their shared experiences are given a completely different emphasis by Thomson than by Copland.

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Categories: History