Vieille Prière Bouddhique : Lilli Boulanger (1893-1918)

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Lili Boulanger is now less widely known that her elder sister, Nadia, due to her short life. Yet, during her own time, she was regarded as an exceptionally gifted young composer. Lilli studied violin, cello, harp and organ in her early childhood, as well as Piano with Gabriel Faure. Nadia later recalled her younger sister’s precociousness, writing: “From her early childhood up until 16, she lived in music, singing, playing a variety of instruments, but deciding on nothing in particular. At 16, her soul lead her down the path she would never abandon… she would be a composer”. In 1909, Lilli entered the Paris Conservatoire, Lili Boulanger entered the Prix de Rome but withdrew from the competition due to her failing health. She tried again the following year and, at 19 years old, became the first woman to win in the music prize's 110-year history, with her cantata Faust et Hélène. This was a remarkably achievement, especially since she was already succumbing to the illness that would soon end her life, and in 1914 Lili travelled to Rome to take up part of her prize, followed by an extended stay at the French Academy in the Villa Medici. Although her stay was curtailed by the outbreak of the First World War, she managed to start several compositions, including her Vieille prière bouddhique. By her early twenties, Lilli Boulanger was acknowledged by the likes of Debussy and Faure.

In Vieille Prière Bouddihque, or ‘Old Buddhist Prayer’, Boulanger set words taken from the 5th century buddhist text Visuddhimagga. The words had been shown to the composer in 1914 in a French translation by her friend Suzanne Karpelès, then a young student of Asian literature in Paris. The subtitle of the piece is Prière quotidienne pour tout l'Univers (Daily prayer for the universe). This meditation on universal love reflects, perhaps, hope for peace and fellowship at a time when the world was entering into war. The piece was originally set for a tenor soloist, mixed choir and orchestra and was first performed after the composer’s death on 9 June 1921 at the Salle Pleyel in Paris under the direction of a friend of Debussy, Henri Büsser.  

Charlie Warren