French composer Lili (Juliette Marie Olga) Boulanger (1893-1918) lived for only twenty-four years. Despite her short life, she contributed some important works to the classical repertoire, significantly in the Impressionist genre. Some of her most important pieces were her later vocal works such as her Psalms and also the last piece that she composed in her lifetime, the "Pie Jesu." Lili was devoted to her religion, and it seems fitting to her nature that she would write such a piece at the end of her life. This work may have been meant to be part of a complete Requiem, but if so, Lili did not have the time to complete it before she died. There were other pieces that Lili was not able to finish, such as her opera, "Princesse Maleine." Just how many significant works Lili Boulanger would have furnished to the musical world had she lived is unknown. What is known is that her early death was an exceptional loss, on both a musical and personal level, as she had the potential of becoming a major composer, and she had many important and close friends in France who attended her funeral. She was also very close to her elder sister, musician and pedagogue, Nadia Boulanger.
It was, in fact, her sister, Nadia, who wrote out the "Pie Jesu" score for Lili, as Lili could not write it herself. The music was in her head, but she was too weak to hold a pen. Suffering from intestinal and respiratory tuberculosis, Lili was on her deathbed and in pain, but she still had the zest for life inside of her that made her want to compose. She would relate to Nadia each note of the "Pie Jesu," and Nadia would write it down. Although sketches of the "Pie Jesu" can be found in Lili's workbook that she used from 1909 to 1913, the piece was earnestly begun in January 1918 and was finished shortly before Lili died on March 15th of that year. Lili and Nadia had moved to Mezy, a town west of Paris, because the fighting of WWI was coming closer to the main city, and this is where Lili passed away.
Lili scored the "Pie Jesu" for voice, string quartet, harp and organ, and also in a version for organ and voice. Both versions were written for high or medium voice. The work is a haunting vision of sadness combined with piety. It is written in the Impressionistic style, and begins with an ostinato bass line. The strings and organ play in a slow chromaticism, while the voice sings a melodic line above. The harp, a favorite instrument of the Impressionists, does not enter until the final section. A plaintive, mournful piece, it seems to describe the way Lili must have felt during the last few months of her life. Durand published the "Pie Jesu" in 1922.