Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


International Women’s Day: paths to the podium

Jeanice Brooks

The career of Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was marked by unprecedented success in overwhelmingly male-dominated musical fields. 

Something of a child prodigy, she entered the Paris Conservatoire, aged ten, at a time when women were still excluded from many of the institution’s classes. At sixteen, she made the papers by winning four first prizes at the Conservatoire in the same week. In 1908, she placed second in the Prix de Rome, the highest prize a woman had achieved since they had been allowed to enter this prestigious competition – the traditional first step to a successful career for French composers – in 1903. Boulanger went on to become the most famous composition teacher of the twentieth century, particularly noted as mentor of a string of important American figures such as Aaron Copland, Roger Sessions, Eliott Carter, and Virgil Thomson.  Her conducting career was no less remarkable: in the 1930s, she became the first woman to conduct several major symphony orchestras, including the Royal Philharmonic, the BBC Symphony, the Boston Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Philadelphia Orchestra.


Boulanger’s story could be told as transcendence of the limitations of contemporary gender discourse.



Boulanger’s story could be told as transcendence of the limitations of contemporary gender discourse.  However, as I try to show in The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger, her musical achievements and reception were profoundly shaped by possibilities and limits articulated by her gender, and by gender’s intersections with other social concepts including class, nation and race.  Boulanger’s rise to fame in the interwar period provides some particularly compelling examples.  The legendary Wednesday classes at her home at 36, rue Ballu, to which generations of students flocked to perform and analyse Bach cantatas and the latest works by Stravinsky, were strongly rooted in traditions of the aristocratic salon, a milieu in which women enjoyed significant influence and agency.  Her international conducting career was launched by performances in such salons – particularly that of the powerful Winaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac – while simultaneously building on her reputation as a pedagogue.  Emphasis on her abilities as a teacher was one way that contemporary critics could negotiate the challenges of representing a woman on the conductor’s podium.  In an even more fascinating move, writers and audiences often drew on visions of the autonomous musical work to cast Boulanger as a handmaiden, servant or priestess, who had devoted her life to the service of Music with a capital M.  Although her performances were still often subjected to harsh criticism that inevitably called women’s capacity to conduct into question, these strategies allowed many listeners to interpret her work in ways consistent with traditional feminine roles.


Working on Boulanger’s career has made me reflect the role that gender has played in my own professional life.



Working on Boulanger’s career has made me reflect the role that gender has played in my own professional life. I remember when there were only a handful of women in academic music departments in the entire UK, and I was the first (and for some years, only) female Music lecturer at my own institution.  Thankfully, the situation has changed, and British music departments are more diverse than when I began. There remain, however, significant imbalances in some of the same areas in which Nadia Boulanger excelled, and female composers and conductors still face considerable obstacles, including in academic contexts.  Achievements such as Boulanger’s remain as important today as they were in the 1930s, not just as a topic for scholarship but also as an inspiration to work harder at supporting women’s ambitions in every musical field.






Cambridge University Press is delighted to support International Women’s Day 2017 (8th March 2017). From the 6th-10th March we will be sharing brand new blog content from our authors which explore the themes of ‘IWD 2017’ and continue the discussion on feminism and women today and through the ages.

Cambridge will also be celebrating women in academia and their work by making a variety of book chapters free to read online – including some of the most vital contributions to feminist theory and women’s history. These will be accessible from: www.cambridge.org/IWD2017

Jeanice Brooks is author of The Musical Work of Nadia Boulanger, you can read a FREE extract from the book here

About The Author

Jeanice Brooks

Jeanice Brooks is Professor of Music at the University of Southampton. She has published extensively on French music and culture of the Renaissance and on domestic music-making in ...

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