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The Music of Dreamers: Debussy and Boulanger

The dreamy intensity of 20th century French music is always associated with the maestro Claude Debussy. But this month Bristol is showcasing some of the composer’s music alongside the brilliant work of his young female counterpart, Lili Boulanger. With their sweeping melodic lines and lush harmonies, we’re taking a look at the evocative French music on show at Colston Hall and St George’s Bristol this month.

Lili Boulanger managed to fit a lot of music into her tragically short life. Her work D’un matin de printemps was one of the last pieces she composed before she died aged 24. The composition is full of dancing lines, with an underlying urgency and passion the drives the dynamic mood changes. Boulanger captures a sense of storytelling with the fleeting emotions of her music, something that is universal across her work. Hymn au Soleil, an earlier vocal composition, has rich densities of texture and dynamic: Boulanger’s entwining vocal writing implies immense musical maturity. Her use of lush chords and harmonies can only be a tribute to the French wave of Impressionism that she must have influenced her work: the music of Debussy more so than perhaps any other.

Lili Boulanger, Paris 1918

Boulanger’s Hymn au soleil finds a companion in Debussy’s Beau Soir, written when he was only sixteen. The work is brimming with emotions, the use of space, anticipation and gorgeous instrumentation combining in three minutes of breathlessly sublime music. There is a wonderful artistic continuity between the adolescent works of these composers with their passionate instrumentation. Debussy’s later, more famous work, La Mer, gives us an inkling of what Boulanger may have eventually achieved: the masterpiece of orchestration has an evocative luminosity, with all the rich density characteristic of Debussy’s best works.

Boulanger has the beginnings of Debussy’s lush chords, but it is her sweeping, heart-wrenching melodies that show the influence of Debussy’s work. For an evening of the sublime, join the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra at Colston Hall with Debussy’s La Mer and Boulanger’s D’un matin de printemps on 29 May; then make sure you’ve got tickets to the Exultate Singers at St George’s Bristol as they perform the young composer’s Hymn au Soleil and Debussy’s Beau Soir on 9 June.

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