Lili Boulanger: Faust et Helene (1913)

Cantata. Running Time: 30 minutes.


Lili Boulanger was the first woman to win the Prix de Rome. She did so with this cantata for mezzo, tenor, baritone, and full orchestra, at the age of 19. Her life was cut short when she died at age 24 of either Tuberculosis or undiagnosed Crohn’s Disease. Her family was about as interesting as she was: her mother was a Russian princess who had married her Paris Conservatoire teacher. Her father, who died when she was eight, was 77 years old when she was born and 71 when her older sister Nadia Boulanger, who had a remarkable seven decades long career as a music teacher, was conceived. Nadia was interred with her following her own death in 1979, aged 92.


0: The prelude ** starts off dark and low, moving up into a quotation of the kiss motif from Parsifal (this comes up again acting as an indicator of the troubled conscience of Faust) before we come upon Mefistopheles and the mood changes to a more upbeat tone.

4: Faust awakens and sings a beautiful love song ***. Mefistopheles questions him on what he wants, makes him feel guilty about Marguerite, and gets yelled out to make Helen of Troy appear before hm.

12: Helene arrives and there is a strong contrast between the slow legato of the mezzo and the lyrically excited tenor **.

18: A particularly beautiful passage for the tenor here ***. The climax of the duet has the mezzo on a low E and the tenor on a high B. In the orchestral passage that follows there is a paraphrasing of the ballet music from Tannhauser which is eventually modified slightly in the tenor vocal line.

23: A storm brews, caused by Mefistopheles no doubt, and warns that the Hellenes want to retake her. After a long agonizing conflict ***, Helene disappears, Faust collapses.

29: Mefistopheles curses Faust and the work ends on a resolved C-chord **.


Although rather Wagnerian, there is a strong individual voice here. Boulanger was particularly effective with the tenor part which is both long and challenging. The mezzo  is contrastingly slow and not nearly so taxing, only going up to a high G-natural once. The baritone frames the dramatic action. Her orchestration is flawless. In this half-hour long work, she invokes everything except comedy, which given her material is the one thing she didn’t have to. If she were my student, (although I have taught history, not music) it would earn her an undoubted A+.

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