by Dan Stepner

by Dan Stepner

Joseph Haydn didn’t have the privilege of studying with Nadia Boulanger, but both Philip Glass and Elliott Carter did.  For some sixty years, she taught generations of composers and performers, and by a strange quirk of fate, I also had the challenging and memorable experience of studying with her for two summers at the American School at Fontainebleau, over which she presided.   I had won a full scholarship to work there with Henryk Szeryng, but arrived to find he had cancelled the class and would not be present.  All the other violinists (paying customers, presumably) had been notified and had withdrawn.  Along with that news on my first day there, I also received a note from Mlle Boulanger, asking me to meet her in her studio apartment in the magnificent Fontainebleau Palace, where the school was housed.  I had known of her and her influence, but I had no expectation of working directly with her.  I appeared at the appointed time and was ushered into her apartment by her secretary.  She very cordially apologized for M. Szeryng’s absence and asked if I would like to study with her(!).  I thank my lucky stars that, despite my doubts, I accepted her offer, and thus began a remarkable four months, over the two summers of 1970 and 1971, of weekly private lessons with her.  

She was in her mid-eighties at the time, and virtually blind, though very alert and personable.  She asked if I composed at all.  I had brought some of my compositions with me – preludes and fugues in various styles.  She asked to hear one, and I chose what I thought was my best pair.  I could get through it passably at the piano.  The prelude was a two-part invention that I thought rather good.  She listened and expressed some approval and then asked to hear the fugue.  I played the subject’s first entrance, and began the second.  She stopped me and gently said, “Thank you, Stepner; I can hear that this fugue will go nowhere.”

She was correct, of course.  It was a respectable student fugue, following the rules; but by my choice of subject, I had hemmed myself in and foreclosed any possibility of real interest, meaningful variation or development.  She had recognized that instantly.

For my next lesson she asked me to analyze the second prelude from Bach’s Well-Tempered Keyboard (Book 1, C Minor).  She wanted to know how harmonically aware I was.  She instructed me to distill the prelude’s flurry of figuration to essential chords, and to notate -- in pencil -- the Roman numerals delineating those chords, along with their function in context. I had done a good deal of this as an undergraduate and always enjoyed the process.  When I returned the following week, she asked me to play the prelude’s chords, and to tell her after each one what I had written.  She listened intently as I went through the prelude.  Upon finishing, she said, “That was all correct except for one chord.  You called it at A Flat chord in root position with an added sixth.  I would have thought it was a F Minor seventh chord in first inversion.”  (You musicians and theorists will realize that both labels describe the very same array of notes, but that the chord’s harmonic “valence” is slightly different.)  Though I realized that I was not really mistaken, I had the sense that she must be more correct, having a much more developed sense of the subtleties of harmony.  I began to erase my notation to replace it with hers.  But she stopped me suddenly, and got lost in thought for a moment.  Finally she said, “You know, Stepner, I had an argument about this very chord with Paul Hindemith in 1943; and he, like you, called it at A Flat chord with an added 6th.”   Astonished, I waited for further comment.  After a short pause, she said, “ I remember that we agreed to disagree, and then mused about the reasons for our preferred designations.  We finally decided that because he was a string player, he thought more horizontally, and I – a keyboard player – more vertically.  Thus the discrepancy in what we perceived to be the root of the chord and thus the chord’s particular function.”

I was flabbergasted at this little lesson in the subtlety of harmony, and by the highly subjective and divergent way that two musicians can hear the same passage.  I was flattered to be associated with Hindemith by default, but especially moved by her remarkable ear and memory, by the seriousness with which she took this little interaction, and by the generousness with which she shared her detailed thoughts with me.

Our lessons together eventually became coaching sessions in violin literature.  Though not a string player, she knew the violin’s literature thoroughly, and would accompany me on the piano (completely from memory, of course) in anything we played.  We worked on Bach (the E Major sonata for violin and keyboard), the Stravinsky Duo Concertante, and on the Debussy Sonate.  She played with a crystalline touch.  I had the intense feeling she was hearing absolutely everything I was doing. Her advice was rarely interpretive; rather she wanted me to play more carefully.  She stopped me often to make me listen to the piano’s temperament and to match it precisely; no one had ever taken that trouble with me before.  She was very alert to rhythmic inaccuracies on my part.  She didn’t discourage expressivity in any way, but wanted me to play more clearly.

My first summer at Fontainebleau, I played in a piano quartet which performed Fauré and Mozart, and also I played the Ravel Trio.  She had been a student of Fauré’s and a close friend of Ravel (who towards the end of his life was titular head of the Fontainebleau School).  My second summer, I played a recital of Debussy, Bartok and Schubert.

Furthermore, being the only violinist that first summer, I played newly composed works by the eight composition students, and was thus in her studio at least once a day as part of their lessons.  As the lone violinist, I was clearly needed, and I warmed to the challenge.  The composers were all writing single-movement piano trios that summer for the yearly summer competition.  At each lesson, she would listen carefully to portions of each of their fledgling works (the composers were often the pianists in the ensemble), some of which were tonal, some atonal, some cacophonous.  She listened respectfully to all, and would often play extended snatches back at them, asking them to explain  what they meant.  She did the service of holding up a mirror to them, an invaluable gesture, melding encouragement and appropriate discouragement.  The fact that she could play sections of atonal music back at them, having heard it once, and  without recourse to the written music, was astonishing, of course, but it had the effect of chastening composers who didn’t really “hear” their own music.

Given my experience with her, and contemplating the widely differing styles of the composers she has taught, it is clear to me that she was essentially a very inspired ear trainer who imparted a strong sense of duty to the music at hand, be it a new composition or a classic.

I also attended her bi-weekly classes in which we explored Beethoven Symphonies, and I had solfege classes with her devoted assistant, Annette Dieudonné.

During my second summer, I expressed to her my desire to come to Paris during the year and to study harmony with her in her regular classes.  She responded firmly, saying I had very good ear, but my real duty was to polish my violin playing, and that was where I needed to invest time.  In retrospect, I realize how right she was.  

I returned to Fontainebleau a third summer, at her invitation, to play a violin/piano recital with John Kirkpatrick, who is known particularly for his devotion to Charles Ives’s music.  He had been a student in the very first class at Fontainebleau, in 1922, along with Aaron Copland.  He was now returning with me 50 years later to perform a duo concert of Mozart, Ives and Fauré.

I retain many wonderful musical memories from those summers.  But I’d like to share one extra-musical memory.  She once sent a note requesting a time change for one of our lessons due to a conflict over which she had no control.  Since the new time was outside the normal public operating hours of the Palais, the grand gates would not be open, and I would have to enter the courtyard by going around the back of the chateau, and through one of the on-site curator’s apartments.  I followed her instructions, crossed the courtyard to the door of her apartment, and rang the bell.  As she lived on the second floor, I expected her assistant to come down the stairs to let me in.  Instead, the grand French window on the second floor opened and Mlle herself appeared.  She leaned out and said, “Stepner?”  I replied “Oui, Mademoiselle.”  Her long, silver hair, normally done up in a bun, was loose, and it tumbled down over the sill.  I was transported into a fairy tale, and  before I could take it all in, she threw me down a large, ancient key, with which I let myself in.  I was utterly charmed.  As always at lessons, she was personable, but challenging, and often philosophical.  But it was her essential charm that captured my imagination that day more than ever. I have no memory of what we studied  specifically at that lesson, but I felt I was learning something humanly important that would stay with me and reveal its true meaning slowly.