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La Sirène

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Cantata for the Prix de Rome competition, 1908.

Cantatas written for the Prix de Rome competition – even those that were awarded a prize – were rarely mentioned in the press. In 1908, however, Nadia Boulanger’s La Sirène aroused the interest of journalists. On 26 July of that year the Annales politiques et littéraires published the beginning of her score, and on 15 August La Vie heureuse, aimed specifically at a female readership, devoted a full page to her academic career. It was the novelty of the situation that created a buzz. Nadia Boulanger was the fourth woman to be selected to go forward to the concours définitif and the second woman, after Hélène Fleury in 1905, to win a prize – her cantata received the Second Prix de Rome. In the 1908 edition she distinguished herself from the very start, in the preliminary test, by scoring her four-part fugue not for a vocal ensemble, but for a string quartet. Threatened with exclusion for such a bold initiative, she nevertheless succeeded in persuading the jury to evaluate the quality of her work, and she was admitted to compete in the second and final round. The text for La Sirène was written by a regular librettist for the Prix de Rome, Eugène Adenis, who, in collaboration with the poet Gustave Desveaux-Vérité, had already written the texts for seven of the set cantatas (and he was later to provide the libretto for Faust et Hélène, with which Lili Boulanger became the first woman to win the Grand Prix de Rome in 1913). In three scenes, the two authors tell the tale of a sailor, snatched from the love of his fiancée and taken to his death by a siren. La Vie heureuse congratulated the composer: “Several pieces show Mlle Boulanger’s remarkable dramatic skills, particularly the one in which the siren’s voice troubles the love between the two fiancés. The effect of this is striking.”


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