The origins and early years of Raïssa Boulanger — the mother of Nadia Boulanger (1887–1879) and Lili Boulanger (1893–1918), who would both make such an impact on French and international music life — are still shrouded in mystery. Raïssa herself claimed to be the daughter of a certain Prince Ivan Myshchetsky, who served as registrar at a secondary school in Saint Petersburg. However, no prince with such a name appears in the rolls of nobility of the time or in any of the documents concerning the Myshchetskys, one of the oldest Russian noble families. Archival material consulted by Jérôme Spycket for his 2004 biography of Lili Boulanger suggests that Raïssa was the daughter of a certain Princess Yekaterina Ivanovna Myshchetskaya (née Katarina Miller, 30 May 1821), who was of German origins, which would explain why the young girl was christened Rosalie according to the Lutheran rite. Spycket speculates as to whether Rosalie may have in fact been the illegitimate daughter of a member of the Imperial family, and whether her plebeian German mother was provided with a spurious Russian aristocratic title and surname in order to cover up the affair .
Rosalie seems to have attended a school for girls of the nobility in the Imperial capital, where she acquired a mastery of French (she was also fluent in German and, to a lesser extent, English and Italian). From 1874 to 1876 she was enrolled at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory where she studied singing in the class of Giovanni Corsi (1827–1889), whose other pupils included Ippolit Pryanishnikov and Bogomir Korsov. Her studies at the Conservatory were funded by a scholarship from Grand Duke Konstantin Nikolayevich, the brother of Tsar Alexander II. In 1873, Rosalie seems to have married a certain Mr Shuvalov (no relation to the famous noble family of that name), but this was most likely a proxy marriage undertaken solely so that she could obtain a passport and leave Russia in order to devote herself to the stage abroad. Léonie Rosenstiel, in her biography of Nadia Boulanger, goes so far as to describe Rosalie, or Raïssa as she began calling herself after her arrival in France in the summer or early autumn of 1876, as "an 'adventuress' in the nineteenth-century sense of the term" . She arrived in Paris with a letter of recommendation addressed to Ambroise Thomas, the director of the Conservatoire, which had been provided to her by an unidentified Russian nobleman (Thomas's reply to this letter has survived in the Boulanger archive at the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) and it has "Monsieur le Prince" in the opening and closing salutations, but the name and address of the recipient have been excised — probably by Raïssa herself) . This letter of recommendation allowed Raïssa to enrol, in October 1876, in the singing class of Ernest Boulanger (1815–1900) whose wife she was to become within less than a year. She did not distinguish herself particularly during her studies at the Conservatoire and seems to have abandoned quite soon her ambitions of pursuing a career on the stage.
Ernest Boulanger, a pianist, composer and conductor who numbered Ambroise Thomas and Gounod among his close friends, was the author of a number of comic operas some of which achieved a certain success on the Parisian stage in the 1840s and 50s. However, it was as a singing teacher (he was appointed a professor at the Conservatoire in 1872 with the help of Thomas) and as a member of juries judging vocal contests that he enjoyed significant esteem in the musical circles of Paris . Raïssa would later tell her daughter Nadia that Ernest had come to Saint Petersburg in 1874 to conduct some concerts, and that she had been so smitten by the French musician, more than forty years her senior, that, against the wishes of her parents, she followed him back to Paris where she became his student and eventually his wife. There is, however, no evidence to support this Mazepa-like story: Ernest Boulanger's name does not appear in any of the Saint Petersburg concert programmes from 1874 . The circumstances of their marriage are also mysterious: according to the marriage certificate, which exists only in a translation from Russian into French, Raïssa and Ernest were married in a Russian Orthodox ceremony at the Church of the Holy Martyr Myron (the church of the Life Guards Chasseur Regiment) in Saint Petersburg on 14 September 1877 ([O.S.] ?), but, strangely, there are no records of this marriage at the French Consulate in Saint Petersburg, even though the certificate claims that their union was legalized by the Consulate there in mid-October 1877 . It is also not clear how Ernest Boulanger managed to absent himself from his classes at the Conservatoire in order to travel to Russia with his wife-to-be.
From the end of 1877 to 1888 the Boulangers lived at No. 35, Rue de Maubeuge, in Paris. Raïssa seems to have adapted quite quickly to her new life in France. She organized musical soirées at which she sang and she was in general appreciated for her intelligence. Regular guests at the Boulangers' house were Jules Barbier, Gounod, Massenet, Théodore Dubois, Fauré, Widor and, every now and then, Saint-Saëns. However, she refused to speak Russian with any compatriots who called on her because she did not want her husband to feel excluded from the conversations (neither did she make any attempt to teach Nadia or Lili Russian later on).
For more than seven years the marriage remained childless, but on 16 January 1885 Raïssa gave birth to a daughter, Nina Juliette, who died, however, in August 1886. (Spycket points out that the father of this girl was almost certainly not the 70-year-old Ernest, but Richard Bouwens, the son of Ernest's friend, William Bouwens van der Boijen, a Dutch architect who had settled in Paris, and that Raïssa's later children were also not fathered by Ernest. Still, Ernest would always treat Nadia and Lili with the greatest affection and they in turn looked up to him as their father). A few months earlier, in June 1886, during his month-long stay in Paris that summer Tchaikovsky had made the acquaintance of the Boulangers , and Spycket argues that it may have been in an attempt to get over the death of her child that Raïssa turned to music again and wrote to Tchaikovsky to ask him to send her a copy of the orchestrated version of the romance Was I Not a Little Blade of Grass in the Field? (No. 7 of the Seven Romances, Op. 47), as well as to orchestrate for her the romance Bitterly and Sweetly (No. 3 of the Six Romances, Op. 6). She evidently intended to perform these romances in public. Tchaikovsky replied to Madame Boulanger on 1/13 December 1886 promising that he would fulfil both her requests .
On 16 September 1887, Raïssa gave birth to a second daughter, Juliette Nadia, who was the first of her children to survive infancy. Six years later, on 21 August 1893, Olga Marie Juliette was born: she was always called Lili within and outside the family. A fourth and last daughter, Léa Marie-Louise, was born on 24 March 1898, but she died five months later. Raïssa would prove to be a strict and demanding mother, especially as far as Nadia was concerned. Ernest Boulanger died on 14 April 1900, aged 84: in his testament he had named William Bouwens as the guardian of Nadia and Lili. Raïssa survived her husband by 35 years and she continued to exert a dominating influence over Nadia's life even after the latter began giving music lessons in the autumn of 1904 and effectively became the family's main breadwinner. One of Nadia's students, the composer and conductor Igor Markevitch (1912–1983), would dedicate the last of his Trois poèmes for voice and piano (1935) to the memory of "Mme E. Boulanger". Raïssa Boulanger is buried at the Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.
Tchaikovsky's correspondence with Raïssa Boulanger:
This page was last updated on 10 February 2013