Lili Boulanger (1893-1918) and her older sister Nadia (1887-1979) and were born into a distinguished family: their father Ernest was a violin professor at the Paris Conservatoire whose parents and grandparents had likewise been important musicians, and their mother was a Russian princess of formidable education who married her singing teacher. Both sisters attended the Conservatoire and eventually sought, in part because their father had won it long before, the prestigious prix de Rome in composition. Nadia entered the competition four times but never got beyond the second prize, possibly owing to gender bias among the senior composers. Lili, whose early works had already attracted critical attention, took the 1913 prize with her cantata Faust et Helena composition, said the jury, "beyond compare" and which still stands out as one of the best cantatas in the history of the Rome prize. News of this signal victory by a young woman composer spread quickly though Europe and across the Atlantic, greeted with particular satisfaction by early feminists in the United States.
Lili Boulanger was thus for all intents and purposes a famous woman by the time she arrived in Rome, along with her mother, for her prize sojourn. The decidedly mixed welcome given the mother-daughter pair and the outbreak of war back home, complicated by Lili's periods of grave illness, made her experience abroad less than the nourishing retreat it was meant to be. But she was able to do at least some composing and completed several works there.
Lili was in fragile health all her life, suffering from a variety of conditions we now identify as the hereditary Crohn's disease, complicated at the end by tuberculosis. In early 1918 it became necessary to move her from Paris to escape the German bombardments, so friends and family lovingly ferried medical supplies -including ice, a precious commodity in wartime, to reduce her fever-out from town; she died in March.
Among the two dozen or so works she left to posterity are songs and lyric scenes, a pair of lovely pieces for solo piano, three psalm settings including the masterpiece Du fond de l'abime (Psalm 130: "Out of the depths I cry to thee"), and a Pie Jesu she dictated to her sister in her last weeks, probably intended for a full Requiem mass.