Lili Boulanger’s Psalm 130: Du fond de l’abîme (De Profundis)

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Rodrigo Orviz Pevida

The Composer
Marie-Juliette Olga “Lili” Boulanger finished her setting of the penitential Psalm 130, Du fond de l’abîme, in 1917, on the cusp of World War I. The dense and thick orchestration that Boulanger chose for this work could easily depict the deadly tussles related to the European conflict of the time. At the time, the 24-year-old composer was at the peak of her suffering from a pulmonary illness that made her very vulnerable throughout her career. She finished this piece, which she dedicated to the memory of her father, from bed with the help of her sister, Nadia Boulanger. Du fond de l’abîme reflects this composer’s troubled life, pained with the memories of a father whose death would leave no relief from grief in the youngest of his daughters.

The Music
Although it is rarely performed, this is a great orchestral work. Performing this piece is difficult, given the magnitude of instrumentalists and singers required. Boulanger uses the organ and choir as representatives of her Catholic faith. The piece also makes use of the sarrusophone, which was used for outdoor military band concerts at the time. Her compositional mastery is made clear by her combination of dense harmonies articulated by horizontal juxtaposed lines. Beautiful melodies richly ornamented in chromaticism can be found in contrast with melodies that bring to mind early Gregorian Chants. Toward the end of the piece, the beautiful interaction between the contralto and the tenor narrates what could be if the composer met her father in heaven.

An Emotional Journey
In my opinion, this masterwork is a beautiful way to express a personal connection between the real world and the divine in a very emotional journey. Even though the orchestration suggests a very religious background, I feel it represents in a very versatile manner the human philosophy between life and death. The pace of the choral lines seems to lead to emotional processes back and forth between strength and weakness. It is extremely impressive and admirable how a very young composer at the beginning of the 20th century had the marked maturity to compose her own Requiem dedicated to the loss of her father.