Boulanger & Gražinytė-Tyla: celebrating influential women in Classical music

This week (Thu 8 Mar) the world celebrates International Women’s Day and the social, economic, cultural and political achievement of women across the globe. From Blondie to Ella Fitzgerald, over Colston Hall’s 150 year history we’ve been lucky enough to have some of the most inspiring and talented female artists perform on our stage.

But this week we thought we would shine a light on the achievements of Lili Boulanger and Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla; two influential women in Classical music who, later this year, will be brought together through their music and performance with a concert from the world renowned City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.

Lili Boulanger – toughness, artfulness and ambition

The early death of the celebrated French composer Lili Boulanger in 1918 at the age of 24 has led to her status as a “tragic celebrity”. She is a composer who, in her short life, created some truly groundbreaking music and became the first woman to win the esteemed music prize Prix de Rome in 1913 for her cantata Faust et Hélène.

However in the words of BBC Music Magazine, who this month name her as their composer of the month, this status has “led her to be eulogised as a woman first and as composer a poor second.”

Listening to her twenty-plus high quality scores she completed now, it is clear that her skill and ambition should be remembered foremost. Her drive to define her own voice and her own vision by “significantly modifying the sound of major and minor tonalities and their expressive implications” (BBC Music) is a strategy that takes clear influence from the more well-known composers Fauré and Debussy. But Boulanger has produced work that deserves to held in the same  high regard as her male contemporaries.

“Boulanger displayed toughness, artfulness, joie de vivre and, above all, ambition”

It is Boulanger’s strategic ambition to succeed in a male dominated classical world alongside her powerful musical compositions that deserves recognition. As Anna Beer writes in this month’s issue of BBC Music Magazine:

“To be a woman and composer always entails some doubleness, as Boulanger worked assiduously towards her often incompatible goals: to be accepted by the patriarchal musical establishment, and to find her own voice as a composer.”

The weight of Boulanger’s work and it’s ability to sound challenging and modern today is testament to her success in achieving both of these goals.

BBC Composer of the Week: Lili Boulanger

Donald Macleod explores the life and works of French composer Lili Boulanger. First broadcast 25 Feb 2015

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla – the baton behind CBSO

Combining the dynamism of youth and a profundity beyond her years, conductor Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla is a creative and technical force. Named Music Director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in February 2016 following in the footsteps of renowned conductors Sir Simon Rattle, Sakari Oramo and Andris Nelsons, Gražinytė-Tyla has now become a highly-anticipated name on any classical music programme.

After winning the prestigious Salzburg Festival Young Conductors Award in 2012 Gražinytė-Tyla has found herself on a hotbed of success rising to become the Music Director of the Salzburger Landestheater and Associate Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Now at the CBSO she finds herself in a position with “all the things a conductor can dream of” (Guardian).

“I’m excited to see how much Britain really cares about new music – which is not always the case with some of the other European countries I’ve worked in.”

The influence of this dynamic young conductor is clearly witnessed when the CBSO perform the Symphony Hall in Birmingham. As Richard Bratby writes in The Arts Desk on a recent performance:

“Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has such a rapport with her Birmingham public that she can silence a capacity crowd – 2000-plus audience members, spilling over into Symphony Hall’s choir stalls – with the tiniest of gestures”.

And at their performance of Bartók’s masterly Concerto for Orchestra earlier this year The Guardian noted the warmth and affection that she shares with her orchestra:

“Gražinytė-Tyla, forgetting to draw attention to one principal player during the applause, marched up and hugged her, to much laughter. There’s no doubting the rapport between conductor and orchestra.”

Perhaps it is the conductor’s dedication to communication with the musicians and the audience that has seen her rise so swiftly to these successful heights. For her, “conducting is this combination of music and communication with musicians” and this connectivity is clearly felt when you listen to this remarkable orchestra.

Gražinytė-Tyla has clearly won the hearts of her city and many of the audiences she has performed in front of since taking the Music Director position. But “Gražinytė-Tyla cannot quite grasp the fuss being made about her sex” (The Guardian) as was appointed to the role in 2016.

“But I accept I must still be a cheerleader,” she says. “Mothers come up to me and thank me for setting an example to their daughters. And I am happy to take that responsibility. I grew up without imagining any problems. I hope those who come after me will think it quite normal.”

It’s true that there is a long tradition of openness toward female composers and conductors in the Baltic nations and Gražinytė-Tyla’s home country of Lithuania, which may explain her surprise that gender should be a topic of debate within the classical music world.

We hope too that it will soon be common place to see female composers and conductors advertised with equal measure alongside their male contemporaries in our classical concert programmes.

Bringing Boulanger and Gražinytė-Tyla together

These two inspirational women will be joined together through their music as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra perform as part of Colston Hall’s international classical season later in May.

In her Bristol debut,  Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla has chosen Boulanger’s symphonic poem D’un Matin de Printemps to open the evening’s concert. The sharpness and vigour of the score, along with CBSO’s invigorating performance, are sure to conjure a taste of the determination and ambition of these remarkable musical women. 

For tickets and information about City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra’s concert on Tue 29 May 2018, click here.


Anna Beer, BBC Music Magazine, Composer of the month, vol. 26, no. 6, 2018 (pp. 70)

BBC Music artist profile on Lili Boulanger

Mirga takes the baton: the CBSO music director on her new job, The Guardian, Thu 14 Apr 2016

The week in classical: CBSO/ Gražinytė-Tyla, The Guardian, Sun 21 Jan 2018

Frang, CBSO, Gražinytė-Tyla, Symphony Hall Birmingham review – an Elgar tradition renewed, The Arts Desk, Fri 17 Nov 2017

Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla image credits Benjamin Ealovega and Frans Jansen.

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