When I was earning my Master's Degree in Music Composition at the University of
Chicago over three decades ago, I heard much from my teacher of Mlle Nadia
Boulanger. He had been a student of hers in the early 1950's, and spoke
of her abilities in music in an almost exalted way. She had helped him
win the Koussevitzky Prize with his first symphony. I made my way to
Paris in February, 1973, and was surprised to be received in her studio.
She listened to the second movement of my Violin Concerto, just completed,
and said dryly: "Mon Pere, your piece is well-crafted, but its harmony is
irresolute. You are a priest of the Church, are you not? We look to you
for answers, for resolve! There is enough inquietude in the world."
You see her former student had wandered into the free fall off
post-Schoenbergian confusion. Then Nadia invited me to study with her.
It took my Mothers' sudden death from cancer in June, 1975 to make the
decision. I had written her earlier in that year about arrangements to
come to Paris in the fall. I received a note of welcome from her dated
June 15th, the day of my Mother's death. I knew it was a sign, and when
I arrived at the opening soiree in October, another personal note was
handed to me: "Your studies with me will be in memory of your Mother."
That at the first lesson, a further intimation: "I will be your Mother
for now." She then spoke the familiar words of her dedication to her
Mother, and her sister, Lili.
One day much later in 1976, she asked if I were able to say the Mass for
her in the apartment, as she could no longer make the trip to Trinite, and manage
its steps on Sunday. So each Tuesday, I would be the last pupil of the day, and
Annette Dieudonné, that God-given friend to Nadia and us, would guide me into the
bedroom of the apartment and on a small table with two lit candle I would prepare
the bread and wine, the Body and blood of Christ, for Nadia's Eucharist of
thanks. Often there was barely enough illumination to read the French missal,
but her face at communion was suffused with bright light. For her, priesthood
and the art of music were one: she understood like few bishops, the meaning of
the Incarnate God.
Paris was a lonely place; I lived with the Lazaristes, the poor followers of St. Vincent
DePaul, on the Rue de Sevres, where I made my first entrée into the incredible culture
of France. The Palais Garnier, quatrieme cote, the Theatre Champs-Elysée, and the
countless musees! Amid the pronouncedly secular, even atheistic attitudes, there
existed the Catholic Christian signs and symbols. I was enthralled by trips to Chartres
cathedral, and renewed my prayers with all the myriad chapels and churches from the
beloved chants of "moyen age" to the avant-garde liturgies of St. Severin and Pere
Gelineau, the musical genie of Institut Catholique. And there were secret visits to
Messiaen's cours de composition replete with expositions of his rare music, and
incomprehensible lectures of Boulex and Xenakis. Yet it was Nadia alone who understood
my inquietude, even youth. Like an anchor, she was pulling me away from the tidal
waves of novelty into the clear waters of eternal harmony. And as we danced the rigor
of music, even in her ninth decade, one noted how she loved the world, and was
reluctant to embark from its shore. Once, I had to gently pull Yehudi away from her,
as he lamented her aging. One day, a long pause at the end of the lesson: I heard the
tiny clock ticking, next to Lili's deathbed photo on the piano. I remarked how
Lili's pose reminded me of the last photo of St. Therese of Lisieux. "Had you known
my sister, mon Pere," intoned Boulanger, you would have known a saint."
In 1979, two years since I had been with her, I returned for an October vacation.
I had heard of her advancing weakness, and reluctant retirement from Mlle Dieudonné.
I called at Place Lili-Boulanger to see her. Leonard Bernstein had been there just a week
before and she had said that final phrase to him: "J'ecoute la musique sans
commencement ni fine." For me, the greeting was wordless; she seemed to
be already in the Kingdom. Her ears, though, were alert to my final Apostolic
Blessing. Her sightless eyes smiled. "Did you give her the particle,
the element?" asked the composer of "Mass" after a Chicago concert years
later. "To Father McKenna, in memory of Nadia," L.B. signed on my program.
At Église Trinité a few days later, I concelebrated the Requiem
Mass with the
Cure and the distinguished Dominican, Pere Carré of the French Academie,
eulogist. He mentioned her "esprit genial" and "universalite" and in that
context, mentioned amongst the concelebrant priests, an American student.
As we left the sanctuary with the incomparable music of her sister's and
friend's, with the Parisian musicians in attendance or leaving bouquets
in abundance, the names, Copland, Carter, Curzon, Menuhin, Barenboim, etc.,
it was one gloved hand in the first row that warmly reached out: "Thank you
for coming from America, father. We loved her very much, "said Princess
Grace de Monaco. It began a brief, unforgettable friendship.
The pastor was hard-pressed, so I alone among the clergy went to do the
interment at cimitiere Montmartre. I rode in the elegant coach with Mlle
Dieudonné and the closest friends. It seemed forever whisking her one last
time through Parisian streets and Place de Clichy. When we alighted it was,
of course, in a gentle rain. I had no ritual with me; so in a grand mélange
of Latin, French and English, I committed her body to the tomb, and could
see her Mother's casket, atop Lili's, and way down, Ernest's. The legacy
is enormous: From crusty centenarians to your Emile Naumoff's tears,
two generations of musicians lay in peace, stretching from 1815 to the
end of the 20th century: they were altogether, at long last, awaiting
the glorious promise of the coming of the Lord of Life, of Beauty ever
ancient, and ever new.