shadowofthecourtesan

discovering the hidden worlds of women composers

Looking for Lili

I could almost re-print, word for word, my first post on this blog, written just after arriving in Palermo. Just change Palermo to Paris. It’s the fantasy that one can touch down in a strange city, and suddenly writing will become easy. And then the reality. In practical terms, so many little things need to be sorted out (getting the coffee right, getting hold of more pillows…these things are important, no?). Emotionally, a small voice is saying, quite insistently, ‘what are you doing here far from the comforts of home and loved ones?’

Fortunately, due to the fact that I was arriving in Paris on Monday night, and Professor Sassanelli of Bari University was leaving Paris on Wednesday morning, I was forced into action, and out of the apartment, on my very first day – the professor being someone I wanted to meet in connection with my research into Lili Boulanger’s short life (1893-1918). Sassanelli has been working on the contents of a locked suitcase deposited in the Bibliothèque nationale de France by Nadia Boulanger, big sister to Lili, and fierce protector of not only her own formidable reputation as one of the great figures in music in the twentieth century, but that of her composer little sister.

Nadia placed a long embargo on the suitcase being opened (she died in 1979), and even when the embargo ceased, nothing was done for a time, perhaps because of anxiety about its contents.

 

Put simply, there are two dominant narratives in play concerning Lili Boulanger – and her family. One is of Saint Lili, the sweet-natured, supremely talented, doomed girl-woman. The other, proposed by her most recent biographer, Jerome Spycket, is more ordinary and, in that sense at least, more convincing. Lili, it seems, did have some very good times in her short life – and it’s thanks to Spycket that I know about Lili and her bicycling adventures – more of which another time. For the moment, here’s a gratuitous image of a woman on a bicycle, dating from 1922, but relevant to 1911 as you will find out if you click on http://www.roadswerenotbuiltforcars.com.

To return to Spycket: his book is also much more speculatively salacious. He identifies a host of ‘mysteries’ surrounding Lili Boulanger and her family, and does not hold back from offering his own solutions to those mysteries. (I should add that there’s also an eminently sensible book by Caroline Potter which tries to re-focus everyone on the music).

So, that’s the state of play at the moment. Over coffee, Professor Sassanelli filled me on some of her findings. I, like everyone else, will need to wait to find out the detail – until her work is published, and until the documents themselves have been through the cataloguing system of the library. For now, however, and without jumping the gun on Sassanelli’s months of hard work, it is enough to say that we had an interesting talk about Nadia Boulanger’s belief that certain aspects of her life needed to be kept out of the public domain, most likely out of a desire to maintain her professional standing.

And so, once again, the shadow of the courtesan is cast. Nadia Boulanger believed, perhaps rightly, that any hint of an emotional, let alone an erotic, life would compromise her professional standing. To achieve what she did (and, by God, she achieved a lot), that aspect of her existence had to be sacrificed and/or concealed.

That was yesterday. Today it’s been a complete change of gear. No more Lili Boulanger for a while – instead, it’s time for the composer Elisabeth Jacquet de la Guerre, who flourished in another Paris, that of the last years of the Sun King, Louis XIV. Her territory was the Île Saint-Louis, about 10 – 15 minute walk from my tiny fourth floor apartment near Place Monge.

Here’s the island (Isle au Vaches) before Louis XIII and those seventeenth-century property developers got hold of it.

Tomorrow, the plan is to set off early to avoid the hordes of tourists that I witnessed yesterday as I walked to and from the Bibliothèque nationale (I found out later that Beyoncé was visiting Notre Dame Cathedral that very day, and that her daughter, Blue Ivy, played the keys of the organ, as can be seen in some touching family photos posted by the-artist-who-is-coming-to-haunt-this-blog) and seek out Jacquet de la Guerre’s Paris. I’m looking forward to my early morning walk, and might continue what I like to call research by visiting the handful of magnificent churches where Jacquet de la Guerre’s male relatives plied their musical trade (Notre Dame – complete with its organ touched by Blue Ivy, Saint-Chapelle, Saint-Severin, Saint-Eustache…it’s a very fine itinerary). By then, it will be time for a long lunch I expect. Just don’t ask me tomorrow evening how many words I have written.

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