Paris-Manchester 1918
Conservatoires in time of war

1914: the First Days

Study of the (unpublished) diaries of Nadia Boulanger yields important information about the state of mind in Parisian music circles – through the eyes of a woman to boot – and allows us to understand her devotion to her fellow students during the four-year conflict.

Her first reaction is anxiety in the face of the horror that she foresees, “this vast, horrible and magnificent thing, this menace that one hopes for as one fears it” (3 July 1914). The accumulation of oxymorons in this sentence should not be seen as merely a stylistic flourish or literary effect. Nadia in fact found herself facing an unresolvable contradiction. The assassination of Jean Jaurès on 31 July seems to revive the young woman’s hopes for peace (1 August 1914). The funeral of Jaurès was the exact moment at which the majority of pacifists rallied to the flag in their country’s defence. “Unity” was to become a watchword employed at every opportunity.[1] Like virtually all French intellectuals, Nadia took the side of unity and patriotism in the face of the enemy (5 and 6 August).

[1]The same day, a message from President Poincaré, read out in the Chamber of Deputies, invoked the “sacred union”, a phrase that has become famous. (Raymond Poincaré (1927) Au service de la France, vol. iv, Paris: Plon, p. 546).

[29 July 1914]

Anxiety reigns all over Europe. There will probably be a war – but one continues to hope.

Mother, Lili, Richard[2] and Jean[3] are going to Paris – I find that boy’s goodness and bravery very moving.

[31 July 1914]

Now the decision to go war has been made – how different one feels in the face of this vast, horrible, magnificent thing, this menace that one hopes for as one fears it.

Emotion grips us, and finally I understand what people mean when they say: “my country”.

God[4] spared him the sight of what is going to happen – that is a blessing. He would have suffered so much, and he surely would have wanted to join up. I can’t stop thinking of him, and if Ville Morte[5] were finished, I think I would go and do my duty. However, another duty awaits me – other duties – here. To him, to what he wanted. Perhaps strength comes through these great upheavals?
Even now, everything revolves around him.

What should I do? It would be better to go to Paris and share Richard and Jean’s worries, face danger with them – there probably won’t be any fighting down here – so what to do? I don’t know! I don’t feel any fear. I just want to look after Mother and Lili without being a coward. If only I were a man.

1st August [1914][6]

Jaurès has been assassinated – by a coward, while he was fighting for peace with all the strength of his convictions. How wretched humanity is – hotheads and brutes; and yet, rising above them, there are great people too.
There will be fighting everywhere. The trains no longer stop. The telephone hardly works – [. . .] Perhaps men are fighting now – and we are alive. What a drama.

[3 August 1914]

What days – the individual no longer matters; nothing but the great idea counts. The only priority is our country, France. Jean, Lili and I go out. There’s nobody at Pleyel’s – Lyon,[7] Robert, Carpentier and Magniel (Marchal’s son) have left.
In the streets, an extraordinary, joyful, atmosphere. People are accosting their acquaintances, and everyone feels the same emotions. There is a high, serious and calm confidence. The caretaker’s son is going to Toul. He probably knows that he will not be coming back, but he smiles; it’s really beautiful.
Miki[8] returns exalted beyond words. Apparently the scenes on the streets are amazing.

Georges arrives. He’s already sure that the Germans will be annihilated. I find these exaggerated expectations just as worrying as cowardly fears, because the least disappointment throws us into despair.
The Germans have entered Belgium in defiance of all law – and the ambassadors are still in Berlin and Paris! Everything they do is disgraceful and treacherous. Britain will certainly help.

[4 August 1914]

The funeral of Jaurès this morning – a grand, moving ceremony. Everyone feels that, although the man has left us, his great thought will live on!
They say the French are divided, squabbling. Yet at the moment of danger, there was nothing more real, even in front of this coffin, than our profound unity.
They say Belgium is hesitating. The pan-Germanist party has made desperate efforts, and they think they are haggling over a strip of ground. At the same time, the British are spineless and equivocal – but the attack on Belgium puts them in danger. And now French forces are reported to be in Mulhouse – I don’t believe that, any more than I believe that the British have landed in Boulogne.

[5 August 1914]

I went to the Opéra-Comique, and I went to see Patey and Widor. I met Hauser and Arsène Alexandre. Mournful enthusiasm in the face of the terrible sacrifice that will be needed, but deep pride in the sober and strong attitude of all French people, who are united in a single, unspoken thought.

[6 August 1914]

I open the window – there is a light on in the little attic– opposite me are flags and garlands. We have tears in our eyes – this intimate religion, the intimate [illegible word] that one has in the presence of the Flag, in this private way, is an extraordinarily beautiful thing

[9 August 1914]

Camille Lemercier has been to say goodbye – he is leaving tomorrow. When he came in, he seemed like a little boy. After a quarter of an hour, he was a man, and what a man – a raving socialist who would do everything to avoid killing if we were to blame for this terrible act, and who is now a soldier!

The way he said: “When I kissed my parents goodbye at Lyon Station in July, I didn’t expect that it might be for the last time” – there will be only 1 one man in 5 left, and one feels that he has thought of everything – that is something that I’ll never forget.

How my dear Pugno[9] would have loved to salute this boy who forgets who he is to do his duty. I see the hand that he would have held out and the tender pride that would have made that beloved heart swell.

He would have been pleased to see the French being truly French.

[2]Richard Bouwens (1863-1939), architect and close friend of Raïssa Boulanger (1858-1935), mother of Nadia et Lili.

[3]Jean Bouwens, son of Richard Bouwens and close friend of the Boulangers.

[4]Nadia Boulanger’s diaries have recently revealed that she was in a romantic relationship with the pianist Raoul Pugno (1852-1914). He died in Nadia’s arms while on a tour (Nadia Boulanger, 1914 Diary, unpublished, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Music Department, Rés Vmf ms 152). On this topic, see Alexandra Laederich and Rémy Stricker, “Les trois vies de Nadia Boulanger. Extraits inédits de la valise protégée”, Revue de la BNF, 2014/1, No.46, p. 77-78, available on line at

[5]Unfinished opera by Raoul Pugno with a libretto by Gabriele d’Annunzio, which Nadia Boulanger would finish and première in 1915 at the Opéra comique.

[6]This paragraph was written on the inside back cover of the volume for July.

[7]Gustave Lyon.

[8]Miki Piré (1893-1973), close friend of the Boulanger sisters.

[9]See the note above for 31 July 1914.

Nadia Boulanger (1914) extracts from 1914 Diary, unpublished.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Music Department, Rés Vmf ms 152 (7-8).
Document description: autograph document. One volume per month.
Catalogue: not listed in the General Catalogue

Holland-Barry, Anya B. (2012) Lili Boulanger (1893–1918) and World War I France: Mobilizing Motherhood and the Good Suffering, doctoral thesis, Madison: University of Wisconsin. Available at (accessed 22.02.2015).

Laederich, Alexandra (ed.) (2007) Nadia et Lili Boulanger. Témoignages et études, Lyon: Symétrie.

Laederich, Alexandra (2009) “Nadia Boulanger et le Comité franco-américain du Conservatoire (1915-1919)”, in Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane et al. (eds.), La Grande Guerre des musiciens, Lyon: Symétrie, p. 161-174.

Rosentiel, Léonie (1978) The Life and Works of Lili Boulanger, London: Associated University Press.

Segond-Genovesi, Charlotte (2009) “De l’Union sacrée au Journal des débats: une lecture de la Gazette des classes du Conservatoire (1914-1918)”, in Audoin-Rouzeau, Stéphane et al. (eds.), La Grande Guerre des musiciens, Lyon: Symétrie, p. 175-190.

Spycket, Jérôme (2004) À la recherche de Lili Boulanger :  essai biographique, Paris: Fayard.