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Morning over the bay

The Joyous Prayers of Lili Boulanger


Lili Boulanger’s setting of Psalm 24 ends with choir and organ at full pitch: “He is the king of Glory: Jehovah.” This exuberant praise was written in 1916, an agonizing year for Europe and in particular for the young composer, who was coming to realize that the ill health that had troubled her since childhood would probably allow her only one or two more years to live. During those few years, her musical creativity and skill increased, as did her devotion to the Catholic faith of her childhood. She returned home to Paris from Rome, where, as a winner of the composition prize Prix de Rome, she was studying composition in the Villa de Medici. (Lili Boulanger was the first woman to be awarded this prize; previous winners included Berlioz, Gounod, Bizet, Massenet, and Debussy.) Deeply affected by the suffering of soldiers at the front, she helped set up a foundation to support them, meanwhile continuing to compose. Her last work, a setting of the “Pie Jesu” had to be dictated to her sister Nadia since she no longer had the strength to write.

Lili Boulanger died in 1918 at the age of twenty-four. One of the last pieces of music she composed, the “Vieille prière bouddhique,” includes words which reflect her acceptance of the path that was assigned to her along with her longing for a world where war has given way to “peace and joy”:

Let every creature, all living souls,
and the spirits unborn,
let every woman that liveth,
let every man that liveth,
without a foe, without hindrance,
pain and sorrow transcend,
at last attain peace and joy.
Let all creatures freely move,
each one in the path which to him is assigned.

This recording was made by the Monteverdi Choir, with the tenor solo sung by Julian Podger.

The earth is the LORD’s and the fulness thereof,
the world and those who dwell therein;
for he has founded it upon the seas,
and established it upon the rivers.

Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false,
and does not swear deceitfully.
He will receive blessing from the LORD,
and vindication from the God of his salvation.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek the face of the God of Jacob. Selah

Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is the King of glory?
The LORD, strong and mighty,
the LORD, mighty in battle!
Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
he is the King of glory!

(Psalm 24)

Lili Boulanger, composer.