Women Composers in Fin-de-siècle Paris: Marie Jaëll, Cécile Chaminade, and Augusta Holmès - Lucia Pasini
Episode 1017th March 2022 • SMT-Pod • Society for Music Theory
00:00:00 00:36:47

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In this week's episode, Lucia Pasini follows the trajectories of three Parisian women composers at the turn of the 20th century through the eyes of the printing press.

This episode was produced by Megan Lyons.

SMT-Pod Theme music by Zhangcheng Lu; Closing music "hnna" by David Voss. This episode also features performances by Rocco Tuzio on the clarinet. For supplementary materials on this episode and more information on our authors and composers, check out our website: https://smt-pod.org/episodes/season01/.

Transcripts

SMT:

[SMT-Pod theme music playing]

SMT:

Welcome to SMT-Pod, the premiere audio publication of the Society for Music Theory. In this episode, Lucia Pasini follows the trajectories of three Parisian women composers at the turn of the 20th century through the eyes of the printing press.

Lucia:

If you were born in 1876, you would be 27 in 1901 – and if you were born in Paris in 1876, in 1901 you would be doing a lot of young Parisian things. Among these things, you would surely read the papers. Now, in 1901, the Revue musicale, which would go on to become one of the leading musical publications in France, had only just started its long journey, and in May of that same year it published a short article titled “Women and Music”. Here is a small excerpt, and I quote: “Why are there so few women who seriously practice musical composition, while there are so many women painters, and so many women who are very good pianists? […] Music is an art of emotion, an art of feeling, of charm and delicacy; and women are by definition beings of feeling; delicacy and charms are their privileges. How is it then that women are not in the first ranks among composers? [Well], in music, if we stop at the emotion and don’t go further, we would be unable to do even a school assignment: something else is needed. […] To compose is to build; it is to establish relationships between immaterial elements; in a word, it is to think in abstract terms. But are women capable of this? They stop at the emotion, that is to say at the threshold of the arts. That is why they can be performers of high value, and why they are almost always inferior in composition”. End of quote.

Lucia:

Now, this article is not signed but we should not read too much into this. At the turn of the century, journalism was a very young profession, and the specificity of its culture was still in development. For this reason, the activity of writing articles in the papers, and especially short articles, was not necessarily considered as deserving of a recognized authorship – as writing a book or a long essay would be. So it was not unusual to find anonymous publications in the papers. Nevertheless, what our extract from the Revue musicale shows us is the common opinion about the matter of women and music at the time. But we should distinguish two different things that this article is telling us: the first is that there were few women composers, and this is true. The second is that the reason for this scarcity is that women are inferior composers, and this is arguably false.

Lucia:

So what then is the reason for this state of affairs? Well, there are many but the most important one is probably that women at this time were uniquely responsible for the care of the home and of the children, and this meant that only women coming from the upper echelons of society could afford to delegate these tasks and turn their attention to something else. And even in this case, rich aristocratic or bourgeois women could hardly reach a professional status as practicing composers or artists: their practice remained mostly private and rarely ventured outside the home and the salon where their music was usually played. This in turn meant that the genres that women composers preferred were those that could easily be played in these spaces, for example chamber music of all kinds.

Lucia:

During this episode, we will look at three women composers from this period, turn of the century Paris, who were quite the exception in that they had a professional career. We will follow their trajectories through the eyes of the printing press and we will talk a little bit about a few pieces that they wrote.

Music:

[piece by Jaëll playing]

Lucia:

Our first composer is named Marie Jaëll, she was born in 1846 and died in 1925, and she was best known as a pianist. Although our two other composers of the episode, Cecile Chaminade and Augusta Holmès were clearly recognized as professional composers, it was not u for women in the musical field to be known as mostly performers or pedagogues - even when they did carry on an activity as composers as well. This is also the case for the example of Fanny Hensel, who was best known as a pianist and as the sister of a more-famous brother - Felix Mendelssohn. But, as Stephen Rodgers writes in the introduction to the book The Songs of Fanny Hensel, "by the end of the twentieth century, Hensel was finally on the map and the work of reevaluation continued in earnest." This is a tendency that we see also in the instances of other women composers who might have been unjustly overlooked despite the fact that they were present in the musical life of their respective times.

Lucia:

For example, in Jaëll's case, in 1892, the magazine La presse musicale reports about a soirée devoted entirely to Liszt’s works. I now hand over to them an imaginary microphone. “Marie Jaëll plays the low notes from far away, so to speak, so that her whole body seems to pass through them, adding its specific gravity to the natural vigor of her fingers. […] Thus, at the last concert of Mme Jaëll, one of our young friends was seated so that one of his legs brushed the back of the grand piano, a splendid Pleyel. Now, the trepidation imparted to the instrument by the powerful attacks of the virtuoso was communicated to his whole being, making him endure a real torture. It was only in the interval from one number to another that he was able to take refuge in the back room and relax his shaken nerves. He is not yet fully recovered at this hour: it comes back to him in fits and starts; he fears, he told us, to have contracted that evening, by hearing our powerful pianist, an ‘auricular’ rheumatism.”

Lucia:

Let me editorialize for a second. This anecdote is supposed to amuse the readers of the paper, and doesn’t hesitate to caricaturize the interpretation style of Marie Jaëll. But what we can gather from the extreme characterization of the description in this short text, is that Jaëll plays in a way that had all the elements to be considered masculine: first of all, she’s playing Liszt, who is famous for his virtuosity and was considered a genius in the Romantic sense of the word, a category that was inaccessible to women; then, she is described as powerful and her body has gravity.

Lucia:

If we compare this to the depiction of women put forth by our first article, the one about “Women and Music” from the Revue musicale, we clearly see that Jaëll doesn’t quite fit the model of delicacy and charm that is proposed there. And, perhaps not surprisingly, this is a bad review, the critic doesn’t like the way she plays and uses words such as torture. A little earlier in the passage he writes this: “it is and can only be a noisy cacophony, unpleasantly affecting the ear, even producing a painful impression”. Would the critic have adopted a different opinion if a man had been playing in the exact same way? I don’t know, and this might also be the wrong question.

Lucia:

After all, it is well known that women were and still are treated differently because of their gender, and it might be more interesting to think about what this set of conceptions and prejudices does to the music. Does Liszt’s music sound differently if it is played in a powerful way by a woman or by a man? I don’t know that either, and I am inclined to say no, it sounds just the same, but to some ears, and more specifically to some nineteenth-century ears, it might have sounded differently. Of course, it is difficult to answer this question definitively and we can’t go back and hear for ourselves, but what we can do instead is listen to the music that Marie Jaëll wrote herself.

Lucia:

To talk about Jaëll’s music, we are now at the Salle Pleyel, a concert hall in 8th arrondissement. The building as it is today was completed in 1927, after Jaëll’s death. And, as a matter of fact, this is also a different building from the one where the Sally Pleyel was located before 1927. The old Salle Pleyel opened in 1839 and was located at 22 rue Rochechouart, in the 9th arrondissement. It was here that Jaëll often performed as a pianist.

Lucia:

But it is time to get back to business. The work I would like to talk to you about is titled "La légende des ours," the legend of the bears. It is a song cycle for voice and chamber orchestra. It was composed in 1879 and it includes 6 songs. The poems set to music are written by Jaëll herself suggesting that she preferred to write her own texts rather than relying on other people's words in order to accomplish her music and artistic purpose. To anticipate a little, our third composer of the episode, Augusta Holmes, also wrote her own words, although she did set poems by others occasionally. This practice of writing one's own poems might point to the intention of the composer/writer of achieving a unity of design while setting a poem written independently inevitably brings an external subject into the picture. An element of otherness, that is the author of the poem, enters into a dialogue with the music and the composer's own self-expression.

Lucia:

Coming back now to the "La légende des ours," its subject is quite unusual. This is how the story goes: a male bear falls in love with a young girl, and she falls in love with him and his dark fur. Perhaps she herself becomes a bear (at one point she is called oursonne, “girl bear”) and she lives and argues with her male counterpart. In the end, the young girl – or female bear at this point – dies, “a victim of her love”, the text tells us. The male, now grief-stricken, dies soon after. The strangeness of the subject is surprising, and no historical source can be found to attest to anything other than original inspiration. According to the Association Marie Jaëll, the only clue is the mention in a German publication from the early 19th century of bear Lieder from the Lappish and Finnish oral traditions, but it remains uncertain whether Jaëll was aware of these traditions.

Music:

["La légende des ours" playing]

Lucia:

In his review of the cycle, Ralph Locke tells us that “Jaëll has been described as a skilled songwriter. [This] cycle provides good evidence for this. Though the orchestra has much clomping, growling, and lyrical emoting to do, the heaviest such orchestral writing occurs in between the vocal entries. The melodic lines for the singer are well-shaped and sometimes sound a bit like folksong, reflecting the imaginative, ballad-like tale being spun for us”.

Music:

["La légende des ours" playing]

Lucia:

The first song of the cycle begins is written in octave syllables; that is, there are eighth syllables in each line. This form is often thought of as being characteristic of light-hearted compositions because it was very commonly used in popular songs. On one side, we can take this as evidence that a woman composer might have been inclined to choose a lighter form especially if compared to the twelve syllable line, which was typical of serious high-brow poetry, thus confirming the common bias. On the other, most of the texts that were chosen by Jaëll's both male and female colleagues during the same period, are in quatrains of octave syllables. So it was possible that Jaëll was just conforming to the predominant practice.

Lucia:

The first song begins like this: Jadis on vit un ours cruel / Laissant les doux gâteaux de miel / Pour dévorer les belles femmes / sans pitié pour leurs tendres flammes (once there was a cruel bear, leaving the sweet honey cakes, to devour the beautiful women, without pity for their tender flames). We can wonder alongside Sébastien Troester whether any resemblance to a 19th century patriarchal society in which men can live as they please in spite of the opposite sex is pure coincidence here. And later on the bear who does as he pleases is punished: Mais tout à coup il a hurlé / Burlesque il est tout affolé; / Sans autre habit que son poil noir / Il danse, il est terrible à voir (But all of a sudden he howled / Burlesque he is all panic-stricken / With no other garment than his black hair / He dances, he is terrible to watch).

Music:

["La légende des ours" playing]

Lucia:

Our second composer today will be Cécile Chaminade, she was born in 1857 and she died in 1944. For more information about her, let me turn this over to my colleague Georges Docquois, who wrote a long article about her in the magazine Le pêle-mêle on the 2nd of June, 1912. "There is no musical popularity more justified, nor more gracious, than that of Mme Cécile Chaminade. […] She is not only the originally sensitive composer you know, she is also one of our most endearing piano virtuosos; and it is in this double capacity that both worlds [the old and the new] constantly call for her. ‘I didn’t choose my career; [says Mme Chaminade] it just came to me. I loved music when I was born. I was playing the piano at the age of three, without knowing how to read notes. My parents, excellent musicians, were delighted with my talents; but they would have liked them to serve only for my personal pleasure, because they feared for me […].

Lucia:

But Georges Bizet came along and insisted to these timid parents that they give me all the means to give myself to art. […] Some people tried to argue that many musicians found their way only rather late. I have read and reread everything that has been written about true artists: it emerges that, if some of them did not manifest themselves until after childhood, it is because they found themselves in an environment that was not very favorable to their aspirations, or because they encountered serious obstacles. But the gift is imperative. He who is gifted will always manage to make his way.'"

Lucia:

Back to me, and thank you Georges for this interview where we got to hear from the composer herself. Now, a few things, the first of which is a note about the translation from the French article. I would just like to underscore that Chaminade actually said, or at least is reported as having said, "he" who is gifted will always manage to make "his" way. The article employs the clearly gendered word. Then, if you found that the style of the whole article is a little pompous, you’re surely not alone – but this was the way most newspaper articles were written at the time.

Lucia:

Another thing is that Chaminade’s career was really quite exceptional: it is needless to say that not every young girl could count on the intervention of a Georges Bizet to convince her parents that she might aspire to something different than becoming a wife and a mother. And this was indeed the objection of her father when Bizet suggested to him that Chaminade might benefit from attending the Conservatoire. Here, Ambroise Thomas would say about her that “she is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman”. Two other exceptional traits of her trajectory are, on one side, the fact that she was the first woman composer to receive l’ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, which is the highest decoration of honor in France, and, on the other hand, she composed around 400 works. Let’s concentrate to one, since we cannot look at all 400.

Lucia:

To talk about Chaminade’s music, we moved to the Théâtre du Châtelet. This theater was built in 1862 and it is right in the center of the city. Chaminade’s piece we are talking about today, the Pas des écharpes, or Scarf Dance, comes from a ballet titled Callirhoé, which was performed here in February of 1892, and to this day the Théâtre du Châtelet presents itself as the théâtre musical de Paris.

Lucia:

But back to us now. In her dissertation, titled “Cécile Chaminade as a symbol for American women between 1890 and 1920”, Michele Mai Aichele describes the piece as evoking the offering of soft, lavish scarves in an attempt to woo a potential lover. The original ballet music was composed in 1888, and then Chaminade’s transcribed it herself for piano. The libretto of the ballet is based on a poem by Anacreon and is set in ancient Greece. In the broader work, Alcméon attempts to seduce the nymph Callirhoé by offering her jewels, flowers and luxurious scarves. The music for the Scarf Dance appears at the beginning of the ballet, when Alcméon presents gifts to Callirhoé, who sees only one that interests her: a sumptuous black scarf. During the course of the piece, Callirhoé is tempted, but does not want to give up her freedom. She thus rejects Alcméon and escapes in the moments which follow the Scarf Dance.

Music:

[Pas des écharpes playing]

Lucia:

The music of the Scarf Dance, in the meter of a waltz, supports the danced presentation of jewerly and scarves to Callirhoé, and, according to Michele Mai Aichele, the harmony of the Scarf Dance, with its frequent dissonances that resolve every four bars, helps to represent the conflict the nymph feels between her love for Alcméon and her desire for freedom as she dances with her scarf.

Lucia:

The contemporaneous reviews of concerts where the Pas des écharpes was performed were mostly kind. Here is a little taste from the Presse musicale of March 1892: “Cécile Chaminade’s concert was entirely devoted to the audition of her works. We were happy from the beginning to find the sympathetic figures […] of the ballet of Callirhoé, whose Pas des cymbales and Pas des écharpes, full of verve, are the delight of the Châtelet audience. The supple and graceful talent of Cécile Chaminade appeared to us in all forms, having for framework sometimes the mélodies, sometimes the pieces for piano, sometimes taking on the orchestral colors.

Lucia:

The work of Chaminade is full of freshness and suavity; and the dark tints are reflected there only by chance. […]In summary, the evening was very beautiful and we are delighted with the new success obtained by the young composer whose star is already so bright and is still growing. Let’s hope to have soon to applaud a broader work, where we can appreciate the full measure of this talent, which honors the French art. What we see here then is that in this review, Chaminade is celebrated as a composer worthy of the national pride, rather than focusing on her being a woman in this profession.

Music:

[Pas des écharpes playing]

Lucia:

usta Holmès, she was born in:

Lucia:

"Augusta Holmès was born in Paris of Irish parents and was naturalized French in 1879. A pure formality, after all, because Mlle Holmès is French in her heart and her mind. During the painful period of the war, this noble young woman was seen roaming the battlefields and caring for the unfortunate and the wounded. As we were ourselves amazed at the quantity of honors, bouquets, diplomas, souvenirs of glorious times that admiration and recognition have piled up at Mlle Holmès’s feet, and as we congratulated the eminent artist for all these sympathies consecrating her talent, she smiled: “Yes, she said, ours is a very nice job, but what difficulties to overcome, what doors to pry open, what jealousies are awakened, and when the author is a woman, how perfidious are the slanders, and malicious the insinuations!”

Lucia:

This was not a recrimination – Augusta Holmès is one of those who walk with their heads high, her radiant poetess face turned towards the serene light, disdainful of low envy – but there was in this observation a bitter rancor, a painful posture. Mlle Holmès does not belong to any school. Her work is personal even in the means of execution; she composes herself all the poems which she sets to music and it is while writing them that the melodic idea, as if by itself, adapts to the words. Her objective is the sincerity, clarity, essential quality of French music. Wagner, whom she knew very intimately before he became our irreconcilable enemy, and whose musical genius she was one of the first to appreciate, said to her: “I do not understand that in a country so rich in dramatic legends, in a country whose history is full of heroic traits, one persists in treating different subjects than the national character. Why seek to be nebulous, foggy, philosophical, when the main qualities of the French people are conciseness, strength and above all action?”

Lucia:

"Here, in chronological order, are the main compositions of Mlle Holmès: Astarté, a musical drama in two acts; Lutèce, a symphony performed with great success; les Argonautes, another symphony equally performed with great success in Ireland; Ludus pro patri, composed for the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. The Ode triomphale which had such a great impact throughout the world. More recently, in 1890, the Hymne à la Paix, composed for a celebration in Florence, earned our compatriot an ovation from the Italian people […]. Mlle Holmès got from her stay in Italy the impressions that she gathered under the title of Au pays bleu. Add to these main works, a small choir with Latin lyrics, which sets a poem by Catullus, a pastoral andante, whose first performance took place at the Châtelet on July 14, 1877, then a quantity of melodies for piano and voice."

Lucia:

And, if I may add to the catalogue that Victor Bayle just compiled, Augusta Holmès also composed many instrumental chamber works, and it is one of these that we are going to talk about more closely today, but, before we do that, let me just underline that Holmès also had a rather unusual career. We can see this in the fact that, in the catalogue of her works, there are many symphonies and even an opera, which means that, first of all, she was recognized as a professional composer, which was atypical for a woman, and, secondly, that she was recognized as a good professional composer: not every man or woman who aspired to make a career out of musical composition was able to find the economic means, and the support of the theaters and concert impresarios and conductors, that could grant them the possibility of writing for the orchestra or for the theater.

Lucia:

To talk about Augusta Holmès’s music, we are at the Conservatoire, that is, at the old building of the Conservatoire. There are now in Paris many many Conservatoires, one for each arrondissement. Moreover, in 1946 the national Conservatoire was divided into two sections: the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse, which is located at the outskirts of the city, in the Parc de la Villette; and the Conservatoire national supérieur d’art dramatique, which is in the 9th arrondissement and where we are today. Here, in this building, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique was premiered in 1830.

Piano, which was composed in:

Lucia:

Following Anne Alyse Watson, and her dissertation on “Selected works by female composers written for the clarinet during the nineteenth century”, this work moves through different themes and ideas, suggesting that Holmès was comfortable with the freedom that the fantaisie allowed. In the nineteenth century, the fantaisie had outgrown its use in previous centuries as a keyboard-only piece derived from essentially improvised material, and Holmès’s piece, written for clarinet and piano, was composed as a competition piece for the Conservatoire.

Music:

[Fantaisie for Clarinet and Piano playing]

Lucia:

And although it is relatively unknown today, this piece was important for the clarinet repertoire because the Conservatoire was the main institution for the development of solo literature for this instrument. We might also add that, as a competition piece, the clarinet part is technically rather demanding, but Holmès herself had achieved some virtuosity on the clarinet in her youth.

Music:

[Fantaisie for Clarinet and Piano playing]

Lucia:

The coda in particular uses as much flash as other clarinet pieces written for the Conservatoire competition. An impressive use of arpeggios and scales employing the full range of the clarinet propels the piece toward its end.

Music:

[Fantaisie for Clarinet and Piano playing]

Lucia:

According to Watson’s description of the piece, this eight-minute work begins with a forte chord in the piano, while the clarinet plays a descending arpeggio that initiates the opening cadenza. The clarinet then goes on to play three cadenzas in the introduction.

The next section of the Fantaisie, which is only slightly longer than the introduction, is a funeral march, with a piano introduction before we hear the clarinet. The melody that the clarinet plays here permeates the section as well as the rest of the piece. After this, the funeral march gives way to a more relaxed melody reminiscent of an Irish folk tune. The clarinet is the first to play the melody, while the piano plays a simple accompaniment. And although this section is not very long, we can understand it as both a tribute to Holmès’s Irish heritage and to the vogue of referencing folklore and folk music in the context of art music pieces.

Music:

[Fantaisie for Clarinet and Piano playing]

Lucia:

To conclude, today we have looked at three women composers, who made their career during the second half of the nineteenth-century and the beginning of the twentieth in Paris. However, we need to remember that these composers were a little bit of an outlier. Most women were not able to become professional composers, or indeed to take up any profession at all, and they expressed themselves and their artistic proclivities in the private sphere. As Myriam Chimènes tells us, “within the community of amateurs, women dominate. At that time, the female artist was often assimilated to the cocotte. This explains why the most accomplished training can offer no other outlet than performances in the salons, which substitute the public stage and are the only authorized framework for the expression of the talent of mundane women”.

Lucia:

These women, all coming from the upper tranches of society, were the only ones who could afford such accomplished training, but even then a professional career was often excluded. Chimènes goes on to say that “philanthropy also proves to be a saving grace for certain women, who are good musicians, but whose rank forbids any 'professional' performance, unless it is linked to an act of charity”. Now, the space where these performances took place is the private sphere of the salon, and “for some people – and women in particular, who compensate for their frustration at not being able to perform on public stages – it is the only opportunity to express their talent and to be heard by an audience, however small, sometimes even alongside professional musicians, which makes them feel valued”.

Lucia:

At the end of our episode today, it is also important to at least mention those women who, even though they were not composers themselves, played a consequential role in the musical scene of the time. They were ladies of the aristocracy, who had considerable fortunes at their disposal, and who invested them in the support of all sorts of musical activity. Among these, Myriam Chimènes reminds us of Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, who obeyed the customs of her time by practicing music as an amateur in the salons; the Countess Greffulhe, who was close to the musicians of the Société nationale de musique; the Noailles family, who were patrons of the concerts of La Sérénade; and the Princesse Edmond de Polignac, who commissioned works from composers who marked the history of music in her time. While the State was not aware of the need to support musical creation, it was these women who contributed to provide the necessary means and occasions to musicians and composers to fully flourish in their art.

Lucia:

So, we can state with certainty that women were not a marginal force in the musical environment of the time, although their contribution was less visible than that of their male counterparts. However, as we have seen today, it is no less valuable, and deserves to be looked at with interest and curiosity.

Lucia:

In closing, I'd like to thank first of all Megan Lyons and Jennifer Beavers, whose dedication and work made this podcast a reality. Thank you also to Helen Abbott, who was the peer reviewer for this episode, and whose insightful and perceptive suggestions helped to make it better. Thank to those who granted permission to use their recordings, and to the wonderful musicians whose performances you heard during this episode: Rocco Tuzzio on the clarinet and Aixa Tepia on the piano. And finally, many thanks to George Attesta and Melanie Foucault for their support and encouragement.

SMT:

Visit our website for supplemental materials related to this episode. And join in on the conversation by tweeting us your questions and comments @SMT_Pod. SMT Pod's theme music was written by Zhangcheng Lu with closing music by David Voss. Thanks for listening!

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