Lili Boulanger – Pie Jesu
(b. Paris, 21 August 1893 – d. Mézy, 15 March 1918)
Lili Boulanger, Nadia Boulanger younger sister, is one of the greatest illustrations in the history of music and arts that a living spirit transcends all barriers and goes far beyond time. Her artistic legacy both testifies of the presence of a genius and a visionary artist. In spite of the tragic fact that she passed away at the age of twenty four years, Lili Boulanger has given the world a rare artistic treasure through her outstanding music and singular voice.
The masterpieces that are left of Lili’s remarkable production were created within a period of seven years between
1911 and 1918. Just seven years… She almost entirely destroyed the rest of her works that she had composed between 1905 and 1910.
In such short period of activity, Lili has achieved an amazing catalogue of diverse works while being awarded the « Premier Prix de Rome » in 1913 for her Cantata « Faust et Hélène » which gave her instant international recognition in the music world. Ricordi, the music publishing house, signed her immediately and provided the guarantee that her music would soon be published apart of the financial support she would get for her work as a composer. Being the first woman to obtain such price undoubtedly was a significant indication that times had changed with her presence in a so called « man world ». But further to that turning point in the history of music, Lili Boulanger, in spite of her dramatic health issue, continued to create further other masterpieces that I invite you to discover on the various links given below.
Pie Jesu for vocal, string quartet, harp and organ is the last piece Lili composed in 1918. Too weak to be able to write down this piece, she dictated the entire score to her beloved sister, Nadia.
Nadia Boulanger, the world renowned pedagogue who lived until the age of ninety three years, described in her Mémoires that Lili was incredibly clear about how her music should sound in spite of the last moments of hers. Without any sign of hesitation, Lili dictated to Nadia what would be her testimony. This last composition is all about hope, love and compassion, which makes it so heart-rending. In a feeling of absolute tranquility and effortless expressive effect it condenses the state of Lili’s own soul…
In this contemplative and religious piece, the three tempi are like the sound of her heart beats and suggest somehow the three steps of her surrendering to God.
The first part, written in 6/4, comprises the first four pages and expresses in chromatic and tense ascendant / descendant lines of the organ the feeling of abandon and ineluctable issue. Above, the strings quartet accompanies the organ in subtle, soft chromatic intervals through a pulse of two beats (given on the first and fourth beat) while the voice stands out in a magnificent melody articulating the Pie Jesu strophes in Latin.
The few silent moments given to the voice at the beginning of each sequence, are making it more intense as well, as if the song expresses the last breath taken each time before surrendering to the Ultimate…
In the first section the climax is exposed by an amazingly elaborated sequence in harmony and polyphony played on the organ during seventeen bars while the voice expresses forte on the first eight bars, and only at that time, a feeling of immense despair.
After this intense effect and progression a sudden change follows, once again astonishing both by dynamics and the use of harmony (listen to the repetitive bass of the organ played on Ab and on 6 measures, then played on D, for the next 6 measures). Above, the singer all in a sudden softly changef the feelings as if she prepares herself to enter into another world.
The second section in 2/2 happens there precisely…
Written as « très expressif », it brings back only within seven measures an atmosphere of quietness and tenderness. At the end of that short second section, both mentions « Ritenuto Molto » with « très calme et clair » are suggesting very clearly and softly that Lili, who sings her last Pie Jesu in her heart, is going to leave that world to enter another one. How touching she abandons herself in that moment goes beyond words…
What comes next, the third section in 4/4, is a message of great love and absolute surrender to the Almighty. The
tempo is beautifully calm while the tonal structure changes and goes to a C major scale mixed with enharmonies. The Harp starts there and gives a very delicate, harmonious accompaniment to the last two phrases sung by the vocalist.
It’s an angel’s voice which sings in absolute tranquility of peace and transfiguration of death. Lili Boulanger, un météore dans le Ciel…
Ariane Gray Hubert, Concert pianist, Singer & Composer, 2015 www.arianegrayhubert.com
Reprint of a copy from the Vera Oeri-Bibliothek der Musik Akademie Basel, Basel.