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Classical music has a history of Composing… Women! So this Women’s History Month Tri States Public Radio and the WIU School of Music shines the spotlight… one every weekday… on over twenty great female composers. From baroque to romantic… to impressionist… to post-serialist. From the mystic Abbess who advised the Pope… to the Chicagoan whose works were rediscovered in an abandoned house. Listen in for Composing Women… Every weekday during March at 7:19 during Morning Edition, or at 5:48 during All Things Considered, as TSPR Music Director Ken Zahnle introduces you to our composer of the day… and at 11:00 a.m. during Ovation for a featured work by our featured classical master.

Lili and Nadia Boulanger

Lili and Nadia Boulanger

One composed brilliantly but died early in the 20th century… the other helped create the composers of the rest of the century.

Sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger both achieved important firsts for women in music. Born into a Paris Conservatoire family, they showed their talent early: Nadia enrolled at the Conservatoire at the age of nine, and Lili tagged along with her to lessons… she was just four.

At six Lili became seriously ill, with lifelong repercussions. She still was able to learn piano, organ, violin, and harp, and followed her sister to the Conservatoire in 1905. Nadia had already won three first prizes in the school’s 1904 composition competitions; in 1913 Lili became the first woman to win the prestigious Prix de Rome. Her choice of vocal texts often reflected the social and political events of her time, setting them in a late impressionist style.

But Lili’s health declined, and she succumbed to tuberculosis in 1918, aged just 24.

Nadia would give up composing herself, instead turning her attention to teaching and conducting. As a teacher, she became a one-woman finishing school for an amazing list of students (Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Roy Harris, Leonard Bernstein, Michel Legrand, Astor Piazzolla, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones), with a talent for helping them discover their unique voices.

As a conductor, she was the first woman to take the podium with many symphony orchestras, including the London and Royal Philharmonics, the Boston Symphony, and the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And she also remained a tireless advocate for her younger sister’s music.

Lili and Nadia Boulanger … Composing Women.


Sisters Lili and Nadia Boulanger, born into a musical family, achieved important firsts for women in music. Both sisters showed musical talent at an early age, but Lili, who had been seriously ill as a child, was not allowed to pursue dedicated musical studies until she turned 16; nonetheless she tagged along to lessons with her older sister Nadia, who enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire in 1896 at the age of nine (Lili was just four). Lili followed her sister to the Conservatoire in 1905. Nadia had already won several prizes, including three first prizes in the 1904 composition competitions; Lili went on to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, the first woman to do so. Both sisters composed extensively and supported the war effort, but LIli’s health declined throughout the period and she died in 1918. Nadia gave up composition, instead focusing on teaching and conducting. As a teacher, Nadia worked with many American students, such as Aaron Copland, Virgil Thompson, Leonard Bernstein, Elliott Carter, Philip Glass, and Quincy Jones; she was also the first woman to conduct a number of symphony orchestras, including the Boston and Philadelphia orchestras. Nadia was also a tireless advocate for her sister’s music, believing that Lili was by far the better composer of the two. Lili’s compositions, written in the chromatic harmonic language of the early 20th century, often reflect the social and political events of her time, such as the psalm setting she composed during WWI.


Psalm 130, “Du fond de l’abîme” for choir and orchestra
Clarières dans le ciel for voice and piano
D’un matin de printemps for orchestra
Cortège for violin and piano
Faust et Hélène, cantata for soloists, choir, and orchestra
Pie Jesu, for soprano, harp, organ, and string quartet
Psalm 129, “Ils m’ont assez opprimé dès ma jeunesse” - male chorus and orch, written during WWI

Pie Jesu - Nadia conducting her sister’s work (see Lili page)
Trois pièces/Trois improvisations for organ
Soir d’hiver for voice and piano

Supporting Materials

Photo of Nadia Boulanger

Photo of Lili Boulanger

Photo of Lili and Nadia Boulanger,

Accessible websites relevant to the composer
For Lili Boulanger

For Nadia Boulanger

Ken oversees all music programming for Tri States Public Radio, hosting the morning classical music program Ovation, the Saturday nigh jazz survey After Hours, and engineering recorded performances for TSPR. Ken is a native of Highland Park, IL, with degrees in music and broadcasting from Western Illinois University. Teenage years listening to Chicago's old-school fine arts and classical radio stations, coupled with a few months spinning discs on a college residence hall radio station, led him onto the primrose career path of radio. Ken has deep roots at TSPR, starting as a student staff announcer and host, before becoming news director for a group of local radio stations, then Program Director for Tri States Audio Information Services. When he's not deep within our studios and music library, he continues his over quarter-century of assisting Macomb High School's Marching Band.