Lili Boulanger, the younger sister of French composer and tutor, Nadia Boulanger, was born in 1893. Her extreme musical talent, which she inherited from her mother, a singer, and her father, an instructor of composition at the Paris Conservatory, was evident at an early age. By the time she was six years old, she was sight-singing songs with composer Gabriel Fauré at the piano. She also studied with her older sister, Nadia.
It is not surprising then, that in September 1911, before Lili had even begun her formal studies in composition, she wrote one of her most popular works, Nocturne for Flute or Violin. On the original manuscript, written in Lili's own hand, is the notation, "Composed September 24th and 25th, 1911." Lili was also working in preparation to enter the coveted Prix de Rome competition. She took a couple days off from her studies to write the nocturne. So a fledgling composer, who happened to be a very young woman, completed the work in two days. This in itself is amazing, but to listen to the piece and hear its beauty is quite extraordinary.
The nocturne is composed in the Impressionistic style. It is unclear whether a teacher influenced Lili to write this piece for either solo flute or violin; however, it seems to fit each instrument equally. The flute soars above the piano, and brings a singing quality to the melody. The violin blends in more with the accompaniment, but still shines beautifully within its own melodic line. The piece was first written for flute or violin and piano, but had been orchestrated in another version that included strings, plus harp and clarinet. (Impressionistic composers tended to favor the woodwinds and the harp to bring a lilting quality to their works.) Unfortunately, the orchestral transcription was never published and has been lost.
Lili Boulanger was greatly influenced by Impressionist Claude Debussy and also German composer Richard Wagner. What is interesting is that within the nocturne are allusions to works by both of these composers. Lili definitely took the first few notes of Debussy's Prelude a l'après-midi d'un faune, and inserted them into her own composition. She also took short phrases from Wagner's Tristan and employed them into her piece. The few familiar notes, however, work well within the nocturne, and make one sit up and listen, wondering if there are more allusions to come. Whether Lili wrote these phrases consciously or subconsciously is not known. What is known is that the nocturne is a brilliant composition by young composer who had yet to fulfill her destiny.