Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Lili Boulanger – Vieille prière bouddhique (1917)


Lili Boulanger – Vieille prière bouddhique (1917)

Listening Log – [Pt. IV]- Lili Boulanger – Vieille prière bouddhique (1917). Throughout March- April 2020 Listened /watched (streaming) to youtube video: For copyright info and credits see information under video clip.

The first thing I hear is an ascending and then descending whole-tone scale after which two alternating chords come in with a lot of parallel 5th motion. A barely audible harp joins in with plucked strings underpinning the string harmony.

In the next section doubling clarinets and horns dominate. Very very soft singers join the orchestra as a sort of background texture.

Bassoons and a low horn come in. I am not sure what instrument this is, but when I check the score later it tells me it’s a Sarrusophone. They both hold very soft sustained notes under much louder string basses. Eventually strings and horns join.

Sopranos and tenors enter singing (or humming) overlapping, dovetailing melody lines. The flute takes the solo, accompanied by a soft bassoon creating a very mystical sound. The strings remain hovering in the background at a soft dynamic, with the occasional harmonic swells. Finally harps start arpeggiating their chords and there is a new sense of tonality where the piece feels a bit ‘modal’. The singers are still embedded in the orchestra singing pure long held notes.

Another flute and clarinets take up the dovetailing technique whilst the English horn holds a steady, drone like note.

The composition gets wider and larger with doubling and tripling over several octaves and celesta and tremolo-ed percussion are added. Parallel 5ths are clearly heard in both winds and strings.

In the section that follows the melody remains utterly simple and restricted to a few notes, whilst there is a harmonic progression in the wind, constantly reharmonizing and shifting the tonal centre. The strings start playing contrapuntal lines underneath it. Tritones can now be heard and what sounds like a modal chord.  Following this section there is a shift to a more monophonic texture with much of the orchestra playing in unison and there is a very blended sound. A mysterious and magical wall of sound with the occasional soft trumpet punching through with a tiny bit of bite.

Then there’s a flute solo (shared between the two flutes taking turns). Underneath, the string sections play a variety of articulations, violas play pizzicato and violins are ‘sur la touché’ whilst the celli are playing pedal tone. The voices are also holding a pedal tone.

The tenor voice takes over the solo, supported by oboe, English horn and clarinets. The cello plays countermelodies against the horns, whilst strings pizzicato. The chords have become very extended by this stage. The Celesta joins in with some otherworldly overtones. This increase in textures and articulations escalates and leads to the finale.

The finale sees ever increasing use of contrapuntal lines and a lot of overtones in the wind section, creating a more and more surreal sound. The texture builds into large chords with blazing brass notes into the final tutti chord.

This piece of music is so impressive and the orchestration is perfect. I nearly have an out of body experience listening to it. I feel a very strong desire to study this score in detail and learn everything I possible can from Lili Boulanger. I am sure this will become one of my favourite pieces of all time. After reading her biography I realise that like Debussy and Ravel she was a student of Gabriel Fauré. It seems to me that I am particularly drawn to this group of composers from this small ‘school’ of music. It is a shame that Lili Boulanger died so young, one wonders what else she might have composed had she lived for many more years.

Lili Boulanger – Vieille prière bouddhique (1917)
Composer: Marie-Juliette Olga “Lili” Boulanger (August 21, 1893 – March 15 , 1918)
Chorus: Monteverdi Choir
Orchestra: London Symphony Orchestra
conducted by John Eliot Gardiner
Soloist: Julian Podger, tenor
Artist “London Symphony Orchestra
Licensed to YouTube by
UMG (on behalf of Universal Music), and 1 Music Rights Societies