I agree with everything L. Rosenstiel has said (and well I should; she wrote an excellent Boulanger biography - Nadia Boulanger: A Life in Music), and yet her criticisms don't seem to bother me much. There is so much wisdom in Boulanger that she can't help but say something valuable. Her opinions of various composers, artists, writers, and musicians she had known (many of them her students) - some of the greatest in 20th-century art - are perceptive and surprising. She valued attentiveness to the moment and the savoring of it afterward, sometimes continually for years. She never seemed to forget anything that really mattered to her. But more important are her "spiritual" lessons. If you brought this up, I'm sure she would have put you down for a fool or a worshipper of a false idol.
What we get is a little book of wisdom. I happen to be fairly old, and I learned something about how I should have tried to live my life. For Boulanger, art, philosophy, and religion existed together, although she never mistook one for another. She had what I think of as French clarity in her thought. She was both a practicing Catholic and a French intellectual with a distaste, rare among the breed, for bull pockey.
Boulanger's portrait of her mother differs somewhat from Rosenstiel's view. Rosenstiel finds the mother overbearing. Boulanger appreciates her mother's attention and never doubts that her mother loved her. She considers that her mother's insistance on one's best efforts made her as a human being.
Boulanger's - not modesty exactly - but tough-minded evaluation of herself I think erred on the side of toughness. She abandoned composition after the death of her sister, whom she considered the more artistically genuine. She had no interest in reviving her compositions and viewed them as both well-made and a waste of a listener's time. She claimed she did nothing other than what she had learned at the Conservatoire. In this, at any rate, she sold herself short. She had a sweeping vision of music that connected pieces from the medieval to the modern, regardless of their surface style. To her, the similarities between Machaut and Stravinsky mattered more than the definition of a specific period. Also, her insistence that a composer's knowing the basics of craft freed his talent, if he had any to begin with, rather than stifled it. The example of her devotion not only to music, but to discovering the spirit of each student as well, inspired those students. She wangled a commission from conductor Walter Damrosch for her pupil Aaron Copland: a symphony for organ and orchestra. At the time, Copland had never heard a note of his own orchestration. It put the wind up him. He asked her whether she thought he could do it. She replied, "But of course." It was that piece that established him in the U.S. as a composer. Her clarity and her devotion and belief in talent I think attracted the best of their time to her. She continually denigrated her intellect, but she managed to keep the friendship of the great figures of her time. Paul Valery, Faure, Stravinsky, and Andre Malraux very likely didn't waste much energy on the merely okay.
The book also contains a Boulanger discography, an introduction by Elliott Carter (a pupil), and reminiscences from friends and students. One reminiscence I could have done without was that of Pierre Schaeffer - self-indulgent twaddle that many Europeans mistake for profound. In fact, it's the opposite of the clarity of both Valery and Boulanger. Aside from that, I consider this a wonderful book, if not exactly a biography.