“I NEVER IMAGINED THAT A WOMAN COULD WRITE SUCH MUSIC!”

On the Extraordinary Mel-Bonis (1858–1937)

[This is the fifth in a series of posts of “blogified” short entries from the forthcoming second, enlarged edition of my Historical Dictionary of Romantic Music [Lanham, Maryland] — i.e., entries whose style is lightly adapted to make them more blog-friendly. For an explanation of where this little series of posts comes from and why I’m doing it, see here. Let me reiterate here that because of the size/space restrictions of the book — it’s a one-volume dictionary, not an encyclopedia, or even book chapter — every entry is brief. My hope is that the entries will be “appetizers,” jumping-off points for further exploration by interested readers. If the entry leaves you wanting more, that is by design.

A word about this composer’s name, because it’s complicated: she was born Mélanie Hélène Bonis and went by Mélanie Bonis until she married. When she married she dropped her paternal surname and adopted her husband’s, becoming Mélanie Domange. But because it was frowned upon for women to publish under their own names, she published under the pseudonym “Mel-Bonis.” Modern performances sometimes drop the hyphen in this name.

(Boldface text will be cross-referenced in the book itself.)]

BONIS [DOMANGE], MÉLANIE (HÉLÈNE) [PSEUD. MEL-BONIS] (1858–1937). French composer of the Modern Romantic Generation. Prolific and gifted, she was forced to abandon her formal education and her lover for an arranged marriage that stifled her creativity. She demonstrated musical talent and began taking lessons at an early age, commencing piano lessons with César Franck in 1874. In 1877 she was admitted to the Paris Conservatoire, where she studied organ with Franck and harmony with Ernest Guiraud (1837–92); because of societal dismissals of music by women, she adopted the pseudonym Mel-Bonis in her works to obscure her sex as author. Although it was common for women to publish their work pseudonymously for this same reason, this practice also produced a conflict of conscience and faith because Bonis’ strict Catholic upbringing taught that parents’ wishes were extensions of the will of God: for her to work as a musician and publish under a pseudonym defied that will.

While at the Conservatory Bonis met and became involved with the poet, journalist, and music critic Amédée Landély Hettich (1856–1937). Her parents’ fierce opposition to her involvement with this “dangerous artistic world” led them to withdraw her from the Conservatory over the objections of Franck, Guiraud, and Ambroise Thomas (the institution’s director) and arrange for her to marry (in 1883) Albert Domange, a twice-widowed businessman and father of five, twenty-five years her senior, who had little interest in music. Over the next decade she had three children and devoted herself entirely to her family; she did not compose, but she reconnected with Hettich (who was also married by this point) and eventually began publishing her music with the Parisian firm of Alphonse Leduc. The two rekindled their romance, also collaborating frequently — a turn of events that produced a fourth, illegitimate, child, Madeleine (b. 1899), whom Bonis could not legally acknowledge until her husband’s death in 1918 (when she was forced to reveal the child’s parentage because her son had fallen in love with his half-sister). She poured herself increasingly into composition, and when Saint- Saëns heard her Piano Quartet in 1901 he exclaimed that he “never imagined that a woman could write such music!”

Interlude I: Here is the Piano Quartet that occasioned Saint- Saëns’ exclamation. He was surprised that a woman could write such music, but I am surprised that anyone could write such music. The emotional range is incredible; the beauty of her melodies extraordinary; the harmonic language rich and endlessly inventive; and the ensemble writing a chamber musician’s dream. Enjoy!

Despite persistent language that reminded performers and listeners of her sex, Bonis’ music garnered increasing attention in the early years of the twentieth century but fell into obscurity after World War I. She continued to compose for another decade, but was increasingly bedridden by arthritis. She died in 1937.

Interlude 2: Here is one of my favorite works by Mel-Bonis, the suite Scènes de la forêt, Op. 123 (ca. 1930). The first movement is a nocturne; the second, “À l’aube” (At dawn; at 03'40 in this recording); the third, a prayerful and songlike “Invocation” (07'30"); and the fourth, an episodic dance titled “Pour Artémis” (10'09") — the goddess of the hunt, the wilderness, the moon, and childbirth in Greek mythology. This beautiful performance with scrolling score is by Tatjana Ruhland (flute), Wolfgang Wipfler (horn), and Florian Wiek (piano). There’s also an excellent arrangement for flute, horn, and harp (see here). The last movement’s vivid evocations of the many and varied things that the goddess represents, viewed through woman’s eyes, is just extraordinary.

Bonis’ earliest surviving compositions date from 1894; her latest, from the late 1920s. During those thirty-five years she produced more than three hundred works, publishing 186 numbered opera. Her works fall into virtually every genre except opera: 150 works for solo piano and piano duet (including barcarolles, many character pieces, suites, and waltzes), 27 organ works, 25 instrumental chamber works (including a cello sonata, a flute sonata, a string quartet, and other suites and character pieces for various instrumental combinations); ten individual works for orchestra; twenty-six solo songs and numerous other works for several voices and/or chorus (sacred and secular). This output includes five numbered opera of music for children (opp. 92, 103, 116, 126, and 148) written between 1912 and 1936. Her style, while generally consistent with French post-Romantic and neoclassical idioms, is also quite varied, with sinuous melodic lines and harmonies whose chromaticism, typically for the time, tests the limits of functional harmony. She also exhibited a keen ear for instrumental color, in particular using the flute and the chromatic harp to advantage. Modern editions of many of her works have been published by Éditions Fortin-Armiane (Paris), Edition Kossak (Rheinfelden), and Furore-Verlag (Kassel).

Postlude 1: Mel-Bonis’ instrumental music gets the lion’s share of the attention devoted to her, but her songs are also exquisite. Here is one, “Allons prier” (Let us pray):

Postlude 2: Throughout her life, Mel-Bonis used her musical imagination to give sonorous voice to legendary women from a woman’s perspective. Here is a beautiful suite of those portraits, including Phoebe, the daughter of Uranus, Op. 30 (1897, 0:00); Salome, Op. 100 (1909, 3:03 : Mélisande, Op. 109 (1922, 7:22); [Shakespeare’s] Desdemona, Op. 101, (1913, 10:18); Omphale, Op. 86 (1910, 13:19) ; [Shakespeare’s] Ophelia, Op. 165 (n.d., 17:52); Viviane, Op. 80 (1909), 23:20.

She is a remarkable composer in every regard. I hope you’ll enjoy these pieces and check out more about the marvelous Mélanie Bonis!

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on June 10, 2022.

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John Michael Cooper

John Michael Cooper

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.