Yan Pascal Tortelier: Lili Boulanger Faust et Hélène, BBC Philharmonic

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With Bonaventura Bottone (Tenor), Neil MacKenzie (Tenor), Ann Murray (Mezzo-Soprano), and Jason Howard (Bass). Conducted by Yan Pascal Tortelier with the BBC Philharmonic and City of Birmingham Symphony Chorus.
English: Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), French co...
English: Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), French composer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


Marie-Juliette Olga Lili Boulanger was a French composer, the younger sister of the noted composer and composition teacher Nadia Boulanger.

The text prescribed for the Prix de Rome competition in the year Lili Boulanger won the Premier Grand Prix was a 'lyric episode' by Eugène Adénis allegedly based on Part Two of Goethe's Faust. In fact, it has scarcely anything to do with Goethe. It reduces the allegorical marriage of Goethe's Faust and Helen to a superficially brief encounter spookily ended by the intervention of the jealous ghost of her Trojan lover, Paris. The most extraordinary quality of Lili Boulanger's setting of Faust et Hélène -- completed, according to the rules of the competition, in four weeks of isolation at the Palais de Compiègne in the summer of 1913 -- is that it restores a deeper meaning to the theme.

Lili could have approached the Adénis text entirely on its own terms. Indeed, in the central love scene between Faust and Helen, she missed no opportunity to demonstrate that she had the skill and the inspiration to challenge even Massenet in seductive melody and voluptuous harmony. There is, however, another level to the score expressed in a different, ove
rtly Wagnerian, operatic language. From the beginning, where a chromatically sinister leitmotif casts a dark shadow over a tonally uncertain orchestral introduction, a premonition of disaster runs through the work. That unsettling leitmotif rises frequently to the surface while the uncertain tonality, coinciding with the negative harmonic quality represented by Mephistopheles (Mephisto), offsets the radiant major keys of the love scene and ultimately confirms their unreality.

Place Lili-Boulanger, Paris 9th. House of Nadi...
Place Lili-Boulanger, Paris 9th. House of Nadia (1887-1979) and Lili (1893-1918) Boulanger at No 3 Place Lili-Boulanger, formerly No 36 Rue Ballu, where they lived from 1904 up to their deaths. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The first recall of the introductory leitmotif, now representing Faust's ill-fated desire for Helen, occurs on violins after he awakens from a blissful B major dream about her and enters his vocal line with a fervent appeal, 'Viens à travers les temps, viens à travers les âges'. The ecstatic melodic curve of his 'Hélène au front de lys', immediately echoed by a solo violin, introduces another, contrasting leitmotif into the drama. This new Helen motif is heard again on oboe and flute over rippling harps as Mephistopheles uses his magic powers to summon her from the past, and then on violins as, most reluctantly, she appears before them.

Faust's strategy in winning Helen is to coax her out of her tonal neutrality by means of a lyrical line and caressing major harmonies and it proves to be a gradual process crowned eventually by a passionate duet in E major. It is interrupted, however, by a shrill storm and a chillingly sombre march in E flat minor of the ghosts of all those warriors who died for Helen of Troy. A dramatic trio, for Mephistopheles and the threatened lovers, is cut short by the spectral intervention of Paris and the disaster foreshadowed from the beginning. The sinister leitmotif is heard for the last time on Mephistopheles's pronouncement of 'Sur nous malheur'.