Reverential portrait of a lady who knew what made music sing

Mademoiselle: Conversations With Nadia Boulanger, by Bruno Monsaingeon. Translated by Robyn Marsack. New York and Manchester, England: Carcanet Press. 141 pp. Illustrated. $14.95. French culture has always seemed a bastion of conservatism, and that is not by any means always a denigration. Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a conservateuse of musical principle -- a much-revered imparter of what makes music tick. She made it sing too, not in any compositions of her own, but in what she awakened within her theory and counterpoint pupils over the course of 70 years of teaching. Paul Val'ery's tribute, which closes this little book, captures the essence of her teaching: ``One does nothi ng good without passion; nothing excellent by passion alone.''

What we have in ``Mademoiselle'' is the residue of several taped interviews with Mademoiselle Boulanger, evidently done during her last years, and intended by French musician Bruno Monsaingeon to be used in broadcast media format. Information on Monsaingeon seems purposefully, effacingly, sketchy: One would like to know more about the man who has omnisciently assembled Mademoiselle's words into topics and chapters.

As in life, so in her book, Nadia Boulanger is at her best when riding the billows of musical philosophy. There are some inspiring thoughts shared in those broader sections, which are not skimmable. The autumnal aphorisms come densely packed. They are Emersonian in their quotability, and the book is likely to be as much cited as many another classic on the aesthetics of music.

Skimming does suggest itself when the going gets detailed or reminiscent, a slight reflection of her teaching, which she conducted from before World War I in her family's apartment on Paris's rue Ballu. When particularizing how a piece might be developed, according to many composition pupils, her examples often fell far below the level of her normally edifying overview.

Some of the history gets blurred. She recites the story, for instance, of the pianist Plant'e meeting Chopin at Liszt's Paris apartment when Liszt was sporting a black abb'e's frock -- an affectation Liszt only took up some years after Chopin's death, and certainly away from Paris. A charitable extravagance such as ``Arthur Rubinstein . . . doesn't want to impress anyone'' comes obviously from a momentary lapse.

Some other factual and editorial blunders creep in and mar the book in places. One of several quaint translation errors describes her as ``chief conductor'' (chef d'orchestre?) of both the Boston Symphony and the New York Symphony (so named at the time) during her '40s residence visit to America.

Students who knew Nadia Boulanger also knew her sister, Lili, in almost equal vividness. Lili, the genuine compositional talent of their musical family, and the pride and joy of her older, doting sister, died suddenly at 19, in 1918. And a generous space in the book is filled by Lili, as it was in Nadia's home. Whether she would have remained a spinster had her younger sister survived, is perhaps moot. But it is fairly certain that much of her ascetic, single-purposed life partook of a kind of flame-ten ding. Undoubtedly also owing to her worship of Lili is her reputation over the years for favoring her male pupils, and her back-of-the-classroom treatment of the women in her classes.

Nothing should, or can, however, distract us from admiring a musically ascendant lady who cast such irrefutable light, and from enjoying this memento of her presence. Tributes from Leonard Bernstein, Yehudi Menuhin and his son Jeremy, composer Lennox Berkeley, and others, including Val'ery, conclude the volume. Mademoiselle herself would have pointed to the careers of her many students (Berkeley, Copland, Piston, Dutilleux, Thomson, and hundreds more) as her best tribute. And if these tributes are unavo idably imbalanced on the reverential side, we can still turn back to Leonie Rosenstiel's biography (New York: Norton, 1983 ). Or we can wait for a still more balanced portrait to come along in due time. Meanwhile, we can know that what she felt was indeed true.

David Owens is a composer and free-lance writer living in Boston.

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