Musical analysis

“D’un vieux jardin”, Lili Boulanger

May 2021

In “D’un vieux jardin”, Lili Boulanger combines diatonic structures of chords with unique uses of tempo, dynamics, and articulation to present a subtle but still undoubtedly post-tonal piece of music.  It can be difficult to understand post-tonal music, and part of this stems from the challenge of appreciating the unique sounds and structures of this style which is so unlike most popular music.  Given the unusual and complex characteristics, it is important to pay attention to pieces which show the post-tonal qualities in a simple and approachable way.  Lili Boulanger tells this post-tonal story in the disguise of diatonic chords and familiar musical techniques.

To begin to understand this piece is to start with the title.  What is the story being told?  The translation of the title is “from an old garden”.  Musically, there is a dreamy and wispy feel of walking through a garden.  This effect is portrayed through the use of very specific articulations, especially in mm. 16-17, 20-21, and 25-26 (see Figure 1).  Boulanger chose glissandos for these particular bars, which can be heard as the wind whispering in your ear as you walk lazily through a peaceful garden.  She does not take anything incredibly complicated and yet the result is quite effective.    

Figure 1 (glissandos)

One of the most prominent aspects of this piece is the creative and intentional use of tempo.  This is both a diatonic and post-tonal characteristic in that it leaves the listener unsure of the stable speed at which the music is being played while also being present in every piece of music.  Boulanger uses three main tempo markings throughout the song: accelerando, a tempo, and ritardando.  These opposing forces create a dramatic effect of uncertainty within the speed at which the piece is being played.  As early as m. 4, there is an accelerando, reaching an a tempo in m. 7 (see Figure 2).  Not long after, there is another change as a ritardando appears in m. 15, marking the first of many to occur throughout the piece. 

Figure 2 (tempo markings)

Diatonic music has more obvious structure, including steady tempos, or at least not such abrupt tempo changes.  Part of the post-tonal effect is the sudden tempo changes, which are not used nearly as often in diatonic music as in post-tonal music.  However, the entire concept of tempo is found in every musical genre and arrangement, regardless of consistency, which makes it approachable for anyone in any field of varying genres.  Tempo is just one way that Boulanger takes a common and easily grasped concept to provide a glimpse into a complex and post-tonal world.

Alongside the inconsistent tempos, another characteristic of post-tonal music is a general sense of unpredictability.  Sudden appearances of various dynamics provide a sensation that keeps the listener guessing.  Boulanger has taken familiar dynamic markings and used them in such a way that is dramatic and unique so as to remain in the realm of post-tonality.  As visualized in Figure 3 below, mm. 17-31 showcase intense and opposing dynamics.  These are all dynamics which can be found in other works, from Bach to John Williams, but they are not used in the same way that these composers would use them.  Boulanger takes enormous leaps within the range of dynamics as opposed to smaller jumps which are less startling to the average listener. 

Figure 3 (dynamics)

For an example of extremely intense dynamics, look at m. 32, which starts at pp and grows over the next four bars, reaching ff in m. 36.

Figure 4 (intense dynamics)

Dynamics, like tempo, are not a strictly post-tonal concept, but they can be used in a certain way which gives the post-tonal feel to the music.  Once again, Boulanger is using a diatonic concept to create a post-tonal quality which is relatable and not overwhelming.

Lastly, she uses diatonic chords and progressions which still maintain the post-tonality of the piece.  The chords used are typically major and seventh chords, but once again the specific combinations provide a sound which is not diatonic.  In m. 4, there is an F major triad, veering away from the key signature but providing the major tonality which offers stability and relatability.  Similarly, you can find a C major triad in mm. 7-8, but here it is followed by a contrasting Ab7 chord.  These are both common chords in diatonic music, but because the chords directly oppose the key signature, it gives the post-tonal feel while also providing the major sound which grabs the listener’s attention. 

Figure 5 (major triad)

In mm. 16-17, there is the climax of a very post-tonal sounding section with an F7 chord, brining back around the F triad from m. 4, but adding the 7th which creates more dissonance.  These two bars are very effective in the way they move the mystical feel of the garden with both diatonic and post-tonal characteristics. 

Figure 6 (F7 chord)

Similarly, in m. 42, there is an effective use of an Edim chord.  This almost fits with the key signature, but once again maintains the uncertainty of a post-tonal piece.  The chords are the most complex part of Boulanger’s writing, but even these are not too difficult for those who are only familiar with diatonic music to understand.

Figure 7 (E dim chord)

“D’un vieux jardin” is an example of post-tonal music, but the composer uses diatonic concepts to present a piece that is understandable as well as musically complex.  Through the specific uses of chords, tempo changes, and articulations, Boulanger has created a post-tonal quality which is not overwhelming or unrelatable to the average listener.  Placing glissandos and mysterious tempos in the music led to a mystical and dreamy setting, as if one were walking through a garden.  Triads and seventh chords provided structure as well as uncertainty.  Through her piece “D’un vieux jardin”, Lili Boulanger has written an effective story of post-tonal quality under the disguise of familiar diatonic concepts.

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