Acclaimed for her luminous tone, her exemplary diction, her refined musicianship and her remarkable stage presence, Canadian soprano Hélène Guilmette has been leading a spectacular international career [...]
They spoke about it
The repertoire of female composers’ French songs, although a very rich one, is just starting to take flight and to be recorded. In 2007, soprano Hélène Guilmette, while skimming through sheet music on Rue de Rome in Paris, came upon works by Mel Bonis, a true revelation. She wants to bring to light the work of these creators that were somehow forgotten until now. She takes us on a subdued journey through the 19th and 20th centuries, first in recital and now for the first time on CD. Portrait in ten composers, which denotes well their vitality and their originality.
Alfred de Vigny’s goddaughter, pianist, organist and singer Augusta Holmès (1847-1903) was fortunate to have an avant-gardist family who allowed her to join César Franck’s limited inner circle of students. She published her first works under the Hermann Zenta’s male pen name. Although her Ode Triomphale was performed by a huge orchestra on the Champ-de-mars, celebrating the centennial of the French Revolution, the majority of her works were rediscovered only recently. Steeped in Richard Wagner’s music, she wrote herself the texts of her songs, oratorioes, vocal symphonies and of her opera La Montagne noire. She is also the author of the famous Christmas hymn Trois anges sont venus ce soir popularized by Tino Rossi.
It was a private performance of La Sévillane in 1882, that kicked off Cécile Chaminade’s (1857-1944) dual career as a pianist and composer. Invited to stay at Windsor by Queen Victoria and at the table of Franklin Roosevelt (the Philadelphia Orchestra performed one of her concertos), she will be the first musician to receive the Legion of Honor in 1913. Her songs (over 150) were written to honour a contract with her publisher, helped to provide for her mother.
Mélanie (Mel) Bonis (1858-1937) career was somewhat less glamorous. Until the age of twelve, she taught herself how to play the piano and was soon introduced to César Franck who opened the doors of the Conservatoire to her in 1876. While there, she fell madly in love with singer Amédée Landely Hettich. Against this union, her parents put an end to her music studies in order to separate the two. In 1883, she wed twice-widowed Albert Domange who was 25 years older. Setting aside her music, she devoted herself entirely to raising her children and step children, only to find inspiration again a few years later when she crossed paths again with Hettich. He helped her then to assert her music which opened the doors of the renowned
Parisian publishers. Together, they had a girl, Madeleine (1899) whose existence remained secret. Prey to doubt and guilt up to her death, Mel Bonis composed more than ever in the 1900s, sublimating the pain, transforming it into creation. Although Bonis’ music could be heard in salons and at student auditions during her lifetime, it was rarely played in concert halls. In a 1928 letter to her daughter, she wrote: “my greatest sorrow: to never hear my music”. By signing Mel Bonis, she wished not to be recognized as a woman, but as a composer.
It is her father, an engineer, that introduced Marguerite Canal (1890-1978) to music and the rich literary culture, thus helping her transform into a wonderful melodist. Winner of the 1920 Prix de Rome, she became the fi rst woman in France to conduct an orchestra in 1917. Musicologist Mario Facchinetti said about her in 1956: “Marguerite Canal is an inspired composer whose French melodies hold the style brought by Fauré, Debussy and Duparc; a style that is simple, noble and pure”.
Most admired mezzo-soprano of her time, Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) premiered numerous roles, including Glück’s Orfeo (in Berlioz’s revised version) in which she triumphed in Paris in 1859. Retiring from the stage in 1863, she then devoted herself to composition and teaching at the Conservatoire national de Paris. She worked as a singer, pianist and composer with Robert et Clara Schumann, Brahms, Liszt, Chopin, Fauré, St-Saëns, Gounod, Massenet, Meyerbeer and her “friend-lover”, Russian author Ivan Turgenev.
Born in Berlin to a violinist mother and biologist father who studied alongside Louis Pasteur, Wally Karveno (born in 1914) led a double life as a stage actor and singer. She published an autobiography, Madame Quelqu’un, without, however, neglecting her teaching and composing, which she started at a very young age. Comfortable in cabarets as well as in bigger theaters, she proposed here a delicious melody which would not have denied Kurt Weill. Now almost at the age of 100, she lives in Paris and still occurs in concerts.
Winner of a Prix d’Europe in 1946, Quebecker Jeanne Landry (1922-2011) studied piano in Paris with Yves Nat and writing with Nadia Boulanger and Noël Gallon. This exceptional pianist and accompanist, taught harmony and writing at Quebec’s Université Laval where she also conducted an accompanying class, before dedicating herself entirely to composition. Amongst others, she has composed numerous works for piano and two song cycles.
Lili Boulanger’s (1893-1918) career was prematurely cut short by her failing health. First woman composer to win the prestigious Prix de Rome in 1913, she set to music Francis Jammes’ poem Clairières dans le ciel (Clearings in the Sky) the following year. She laboured to complete various works for musical backgrounds, of which her masterpiece Pie Jesu which she dictated to her sister Nadia before dying of intestinal tuberculosis.
Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979) was a dedicated composer, with her best-known work being the song cycle Les heures claires, written between 1909 and 1912. Upon the death of her sister Lili, she gave up writing and dedicated herself to musical direction, to the dissemination of Lili’s works and to teaching. She influenced generations of young composers.
A child prodigy and essentially a self-taught musician, Amy Marcey Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was already giving public recitals by age seven, playing the works of Handel, Beethoven, Chopin, as well as her own. Lone female member of the Second New England School (also called the Boston School), she has an extensive list of compositions, from piano works to chamber music, as well as a dozen cycles of songs for voice and piano in french, in german and in english.