Association Mel Bonis Feature

“A place of rest where we know we will not enter”: Trois Mélodies, op. 91 of Mel Bonis

The Violin Case (1923) by Suzanne Valadon (1865-1938)
Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Music, this divine language, translates all beauty, all truth, all ardor. The object of our eternal wishes takes a form; music holds out its arms to us and yet, it is far, very far away and we will not reach it. It is like the threshold of a garden of delights where everything is illuminated and perfumed, a place of rest where we know we will not enter.[1]


FROM SOUVENIRS ET RÉFLEXIONS (1974); ADAPTED FROM MEL BONIS’ NOTEBOOKS

As I considered repertoire for my Doctoral chamber music recital, I settled on the theme of love, partly because it was impossible to avoid. I can’t describe the countless songs I’ve sung in various languages, either extolling the sweet overtures of first love or the bitter pain of rejection. For this project, I found myself drawn to a specific aspect of love: the eternal conflict between idealizing the object of our affections and the messier realities of loving another human being.

Little did I know how deeply this tension would inform the life and mélodies (songs) of French composer Mel Bonis (1858-1937).

I encountered Bonis’ song repertoire by chance on L’Heure Rose: Musique des Femmes, a fantastic 2014 album with soprano Hélène Guilmette and pianist Martin Dubé. To listen to L’Heure Rose, featuring mélodies by late nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century women composers including Mel Bonis, Augusta Holmès, Pauline Viardot, Amy Beach, Cécile Chaminade, and Lili Boulanger, click below.

Note: To access the album’s complete playlist, click on the triple bar icon in the top right corner of the video.

As I listened to L’Heure Rose, Bonis’ Trois Mélodies, op. 91 stood apart with the lyric contour of their melodies and their surprising harmonic progressions. I found myself drawn to a romantic sensibility deeply embedded within Bonis’ music.

It is often mentioned that the act of mapping biographical events onto a composer’s creative choices can be a superficial exercise. However, in the case of Mel Bonis, as I learned more about her biography, her song compositions seemed inextricably intertwined with the ever-unfolding elements of her life.

These elements – a forbidden romance, a secret daughter, the struggle to balance her role as a wealthy bourgeois mother with her musical career, and the gendered prejudice that distorted her professional life…

I wondered how the composer truly felt as she set Maurice Bouchor’s poetry in Trois Mélodies, texts which outline the poet’s desire for an unattainable beloved.

Portrait of Mel Bonis at nineteen years of age
Charles-Auguste Corbineau (1835-1901) | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In turn, I wondered if Trois Mélodies could be considered as an entry in Bonis’ diary. By examining these songs in greater detail, we could perhaps reveal some aspect of the emotional life of the composer herself, whose music has long been overlooked.

Mélanie Bonis (1858-1937)

Color lithograph of the Boulevard de la Madeleine in Paris, France (1852)
Paul Lancel | Alamy
Mel Bonis as a young girl
Association Mel Bonis

Mélanie Bonis was born into a Parisian lower middle-class family. Her father, Pierre-François Bonis (1826-1900), was a foreman in a luxury watchmaking factory, and her mother, Marie Anne Clémence Mangin (1836-1918), worked as a textile trimmer from the family home.[2]

With her sister Eugénie-Caroline, Bonis was raised in a strict Catholic household, a religion she would devoutly practice for the rest of her life. Her parents had little interest in music and actively discouraged her musical education. Bonis’ musical aptitude, though, was apparent as a child, and she taught herself to play the piano.

In Souvenirs et Réflexions, a posthumous memoir assembled by Bonis’ daughter Jeanne Brochot from her mother’s notebooks, the composer recalls her fraught and ecstatic relationship to music, which she cultivated from a young age.


I would like to be able to describe the state of mind that is at once so distressing, torturous, and delicious into which music plunges me – the music that I love. I should be able to do it, I experienced this sharp sensation to the point of pain so much, even as a child (I could say, especially as a child). It was then like an agony of aspirations towards happiness, a tension, of every sensitive, cordial being, towards a thing which smiles upon us and slips away at the same time.[3]



At twelve years old, Bonis’ parents allowed their daughter music theory and piano lessons at home. After a family friend’s introduction, Bonis took private lessons with eminent composer César Franck (1822-1890), who was impressed by her musical abilities. Bonis’ parents finally consented in 1877 to her enrollment at the famed Paris Conservatoire; she was eighteen years old.

At the Conservatoire, Bonis would study piano accompaniment, harmony, and counterpoint with Ernest Guiraud (1837-1892) and August Bazille (1828-1891). Her classmates included composers Claude Debussy (1862-1918) and Gabriel Pierné (1863-1937), although instruction was often separated by gender.[4] Bonis excelled in her musical pursuits, securing second prize in harmony and accompaniment in 1879 and first prize in harmony in 1880.[5]

While Bonis was part of a generation of French women with growing access to public life, she faced considerable setbacks in her pursuit of a professional career, particularly with limited networking opportunities and blatantly gender-biased assessments of her musical abilities. We can imagine the learning environment for women musicians at the Conservatoire from this 1895 photo: a stately room, filled with musical scores and centuries of knowledge, guarded in perpetuity by busts of the so-called “great men.”

Unlike her male counterparts, Bonis could not submit compositions for the illustrious Prix de Rome, which was barred to women applicants until 1903.[6] Pianist Christine Géliot, great-granddaughter of Mel Bonis and founder of the Association Mel Bonis, recounts a biting remark, passed down through oral history. After hearing Mel Bonis’ string quartet in 1905, composer Camille Saint-Saëns observed to painter Jean Gounod, “I didn’t know a woman could write that. She knows all the ins and outs of a being a composer!”[7]

César Franck (c. 1860)
Manuscripts and Archives Division | The New York Public Library
Library of the Paris Conservatoire (1895)
Eugène Pirou (1841–1909) | Wikimedia Commons   

During her time at the Conservatoire, it is no wonder that Mélanie Bonis adopted the compositional alias of Mel Bonis. By removing feminine connotations from her name, Bonis attempted to ward off this gendered prejudice, as she sought the publication and public performance of her musical works.[8]

Watch and listen to pianist Diana Sahakyan’s beautiful interpretation of “Desdémona” from Femmes de Légende in her eponymous 2022 album.

Femmes de Légende, a collection of Bonis’ piano portraits composed over fifteen years, was published by Furore in 2003. Bonis’ seven solo piano works were inspired by female figures from ancient mythology, legends, or plays, including Desdemona, Ophelia, Mélisande, and Salome.

While accompanying voice lessons at the Conservatoire, Bonis met fellow student Amédée Landély Hettich (1856-1937), who was a singer, poet, and critic at the music journal L’art musical. Their relationship deepened over a shared love of music and poetry, and they collaborated on mélodies, set to Hettich’s poems.[9] Géliot writes, “[Hettich] was to become an influential and decisive figure in the life of Mel Bonis and in her relationship to the world of voice.”[10] In 1884, “Villanelle” and “Sur la plage,” mélodies with texts by Hettich, would be Bonis’ first published works.[11]

In 1881, Bonis’ parents rejected Hettich’s marriage proposal, and Bonis was forced to abandon her studies at the Conservatoire to sever their relationship. In 1883, at twenty-five years old, she wed industrialist Albert Domange (1836-1918), who was twenty-two years her senior with five children. It was an arranged marriage, one which raised the social standing of the Bonis family. Together, Bonis and Domange would have three children, and she assumed a new identity, that of “Madame Albert Domange,” managing her household in a mansion in Paris, now a wealthy bourgeois wife and mother of eight.[12]

In Souvenirs et Refléxions, Bonis recounts her fascination with dreams. She believed dreams to be potential representations of truth, whether of our innate desires and worldly experiences, or as harbingers of future events. Here, Bonis relates a recurrent dream, which opaquely references the perceived incompatibilities between her “personas,” that of Bonis as a committed society wife and Bonis as an independent artist.


I saw my sister in a dream in the form of a statue (not completely inanimate, but immobile, placed on a pedestal, hung on the wall). She was much larger than life, her face very altered, her gaze fixed anxiously on a clock. I felt that she was in great pain and that time seemed terribly long to her. She uttered these words: ‘Mrs. Albert Domange’ … This dream had an enormous impression on me; I will not be deprived of the idea that it has a meaning. Where my sister is, she is not free; inert, she suffers her fate… Why ‘Mrs. Albert Domange’ rather than ‘Mélanie’???[13]


While Bonis’ dream portrays the lifeless statue as her sister, who also married a wealthy entrepreneur, I am reminded of Bonis herself and the cage-like comforts of her bourgeois life. Perhaps, this explains her sister’s stark warning to “Mrs. Albert Domange” and not “Mélanie,” that if Bonis allowed social convention to subsume her identity as an artist, she too could find herself frozen in time as an adornment on the wall.

Due to her husband’s lack of interest in her music and domestic obligations, Bonis composed little in the first decade of her marriage. However, she never abandoned her musical calling, and Bonis continued to revise compositions and communicate with her Conservatoire professors.[14] In 1891, Bonis submitted Les Gitanos, valse espagnole, op. 15 to a valse competition with the journal Piano Soleil. After winning first prize and having her score published in other journals, Bonis was inspired to resume her musical endeavors.[15]

Bust of Mel Bonis, sculpted by Maureen Brow de Colstoun
Association Mel Bonis

Throughout her life, Bonis sought to develop her musical career by competing in competitions, maintaining close relationships with publishers, namely Leduc, Demets, and Eschig, and becoming a member of professional organizations to network with other musicians. In competitions organized by the Société des Compositeurs de Musique, Bonis won first prize in 1899 and honorable mention in 1904 for her harp compositions. She was a member of the Société des Compositeurs de Musique from 1899 to 1911, and in 1910, and Bonis served as the first woman secretary of the organization.[16]

With a newfound momentum, Bonis began to compose more and more, primarily from 1892 to 1914. She ultimately produced 300 compositions, including solo piano works, mélodies, organ works, choral works, chamber music, and orchestral pieces. Géliot writes, “The most striking thing is the discrepancy between the moral rigidity of ‘Madame Domange,’ obsessed by her social duties and steeped in piety, and the extraordinarily bold sensuality which emerges from the musical works that she produced under her pseudonym.”[17]

Cello Sonata in F major, op. 67 with cellist Tanya Tomkins and pianist Eric Zivian | Left Coast Chamber Ensemble (2021-2022)

In the 1890s, it was at the office of her publisher, Alphonse Leduc (1804-1868), where Bonis would encounter Hettich once more. He was now married and a professional singer and vocal pedagogue. Hettich still wrote for L’art musical, who owned the Leduc publishing house. Hettich encouraged Bonis to pursue her musical career, and they resumed their friendship with meetings at her publisher’s office. Hettich also supported Bonis with introductions at salon gatherings, where she performed her music and met potential artistic collaborators.

During this period, mélodies drew the two musicians together yet again. Hettich offered Bonis his newest poem, “Noël Pastoral,” and weeks later, she set it to music. “Noël Pastoral” was Bonis’ first mélodie published by Leduc.[18]

The secret Loves of Mel Bonis

Mel Bonis and her children with Albert Domange
Association Mel Bonis

After resuming their friendship in the 1890s, Bonis and Hettich fell back in love once again. Their clandestine romance led to the 1899 secret birth of their daughter, Jeanne-Pauline-Madeleine Verger; Bonis was forty-two years old. To conceal her pregnancy, Bonis stayed alone at her estate in Sarcelles and later in Switzerland, telling family that she needed medical treatment for an ailment.[19]

The baby was placed in the home of Bonis’ former maid, who would later raise the child as a foster parent. Without admitting to the affair, Bonis would never be able to recognize her daughter legally.

After Madeleine’s birth, Bonis distanced herself from Hettich and the societal dishonor that their relationship would bring. She managed her daughter’s affairs from a distance, supporting Madeleine’s education at boarding school. After the death of his wife, Hettich was finally able to recognize Madeleine legally as his daughter; she was thirteen years old.

Due to her affair and Madeleine’s secret birth, Bonis became tormented by the shame of transgressing her Catholic beliefs. She began to suffer bouts of depression and exhaustion, which worsened in her later years. Bonis turned to composition to exorcise her demons, although the outbreak of World War I led to an eight-year hiatus in her musical activities.[20]

Upon her husband’s death in 1918, Bonis invited Madeleine on summer holidays with her children. Throughout Madeleine’s childhood, Bonis presented herself as a “godmother” figure, visiting the child at Hettich’s home when she returned on school breaks. Tragedy, however, loomed large. Bonis’ son, Édouard, now returned from the horrors of war, confessed his love for Madeleine, who unbeknownst to him was his half-sister. Ultimately, Bonis was forced to reveal Madeline’s true parentage, although the family kept the matter secret for several generations due to social stigma.

Madeleine and Édouard separated, later marrying other partners, and having families of their own. Madeleine maintained a life-long relationship with Bonis, but it remained forever altered by the revelation of her secret birth. Géliot posits that Bonis’ children, like the composer herself and Hettich, may never have truly healed from the trauma of their forbidden romance.[21]

Madeleine’s marriage to Pierre Quinet (1920)
Association Mel Bonis

From 1922 to 1937, the last fifteen years of Bonis’ life, she lived more and more in isolation, composing in her studio and spending time in prayer. Bonis’ retreat from society into spiritual contemplation was also reflected in her engagement with sacred music; she now composed primarily organ and choral works. Although Bonis attempted to promote her newest compositions with publishers, the composer found that her musical style was now considered unfashionable, even conservative. The compositions of her final years would not be published until the end of the twentieth century.[22]

Mel Bonis as an elderly woman
Association Mel Bonis

The Legacy of Mel Bonis

It is important to note that, while Bonis lacked certain freedoms in her life, her artistry was not completely stymied. Instead, the composer found herself encased in gendered socio-cultural expectations to which she continually subordinated her creative desires. Bonis simultaneously labored under the weight of societal indifference and a lack of investment in her musical efforts, which, although she had access to education, wealth, and status, inevitably inhibited her career. This pernicious indifference manifested itself in Bonis’ life from childhood, from her parents, her husband, and later her publishers, and it persisted after her death.

The trajectory of Mel Bonis’ legacy is a story of neglect, preservation, and ultimately, advocacy. Like so many women composers of her era, Bonis’ music was “forgotten” after her death in 1937, a cultural forgetting that was precipitated by the devastations of World War II and shifting compositional styles throughout the twentieth century that made her music unpopular. In the aftermath of World War II, Bonis’ eldest children, Pierre Domange and Jeanne Brochot, collected her unpublished works, submitting her catalogue to the Société des auteurs, compositeurs et éditeurs de musique. Publishers, however, showed little interest in publishing (or republishing) her compositions, and many of the copyright permissions were ultimately returned to the Bonis family.[23]

Christine Géliot recounts her moving experience of rediscovering her great-grandmother’s musical legacy through the tenacity of a stranger, German cellist Eberhard Mayer. In the 1990s, Mayer discovered one of Bonis’ string quartets, and he committed himself to finding out more about the composer. At that time, there was little to no publicly available information about Mel Bonis. In 1997, he was connected to Yvette Domange, Géliot’s aunt, who had preserved Bonis’ archive in her basement. Yvette Domange asked her niece for assistance in organizing materials for Mayer’s visit, and Géliot, a professor of piano, directly engaged with her great-grandmother’s legacy for the first time. She became a passionate advocate for Bonis’ music and founded the Association Mel Bonis, which is now responsible for publishing and advocating for the composer’s musical works. Géliot also has written the only comprehensive biography of the composer.[24]

To read more on the incredible work of Géliot and the Association Mel Bonis in championing Bonis and preserving her legacy, click here.

The mélodies of Mel Bonis

Mel Bonis (seated at the piano) plays in a quintet
Association Mel Bonis

Bonis’ musical education was shaped by a resurgence of nationalist sentiment in France, caused by the 1871 defeat of Napoleon III in the year-long Franco-Prussian War. To reject Germanic cultural influences, composers sought to create a specifically “French” musical style. Ultimately, no one compositional style coalesced. Rather, a variety of compositional movements blossomed, informing one another, such as late Romanticism, Neoclassicism, and Impressionism.[25]

Géliot argues that Bonis was most influenced by post-Romantic French composers Franck, Saint-Saëns, and Gabriel Fauré and remained committed to tonality and Classical form. However, she still cultivated her own unique harmonic and rhythmic languages, particularly adhering in her mélodies to the rhetoric of her French texts.[26] Bonis’ music also incorporated Impressionist sensibilities by evoking mood and atmosphere through extended harmonies.

Bonis ultimately composed forty songs, and she selected poetry from several authors, including Amédée Landély Hettich, Maurice Bouchor, Edouard Guinand, Victor Hugo, Anne Osmont, Madeleine Pape-Carpantier, and Bonis herself under pen names. Throughout her song repertoire, Bonis engaged with multiple themes and styles, including light character sketches, love songs, and sacred meditations.[27]

While half of Bonis’ song output was published during her lifetime, by the late 1990s none of her mélodies remained in print. Between 1998 and 2012, the Association Mel Bonis partnered with French publisher Editions Fortin-Armiane to republish Bonis’ collected vocal repertoire.[16] To purchase all three volumes of Bonis’ collected mélodies from Editions Fortin-Armiane, please click here.

Viens! (Come!) by Mel Bonis with mezzo-soprano Sharon Carty and pianist Una Hunt
Recorded at the Drogheda Arts Festival in 2022

Maurice Bouchor (1855-1929)

In Trois Mélodies, op. 91, composed in 1912 and published for the first time in 2001, Bonis chose contemporary poetry of French poet, playwright, and puppeteer Maurice Bouchor. Bonis’ set of three songs includes poems from Bouchor’s 1895 collection Les symboles, nouvelle série (The Symbols, New Series). Bonis was not alone in her fascination with Bouchor’s poetry; notable mélodie composer Ernest Chausson (1855-1899) set over thirty of Bouchor’s texts to music.

In an 1893 society editorial in The New York Times, an unknown author discusses Bouchor’s upcoming trip to New York City, offering unique insight into the poet’s character, appearance, and public persona.


[Bouchor] is thirty-eight, tall, and an evidence of the theory formulated by Delacroix that nature is a romanticist … Nature gave to him the graces of a beard long and soft as that of the antique Scamander River… He is studying Buddhism assiduously, is a vegetarian, and practices, with evident pleasure, a life of Carthusian austerity. If he were not a celebrated poet, he might be famous for the special charm of his personality.[28]


Maurice Bouchor (1855-1929)
Unknown Author | Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Born in Paris and educated at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Bouchor published his first poetry collection, Les Chansons Joyeuses (The Joyful Songs), at nineteen years of age. It was an instant success, and he continued to publish poetry in both prose and verse between 1874 and 1880.

Inspired by Catholicism and religious mysticism, Bouchor was influenced by the late nineteenth-century Symbolist literary movement in France. By rejecting aesthetics of naturalism, Symbolists endeavored to represent absolute truths figuratively via metaphorical language and images. With an emphasis on evoking symbolic imagery, rather than depicting a subject realistically, Symbolist adherents ultimately believed that symbols could reveal details of the poet’s psyche.

With the artist collective “Les Vivants” (The Living), Bouchor also designed puppets and wrote scripts for original marionette plays, which were performed at the Petit de la Galerie Vivienne in Paris. Although the theatre only survived from 1889 to 1892, it is considered one of the first theatrical venues of the Symbolist movement in France.[29]

Trois Mélodies, op. 91

Bonis composed Trois Mélodies in 1912, years after her affair with Hettich had ended and several years prior to revealing to her daughter the facts of Madeleine’s birth. Musically, Trois Mélodies represent a composer in total command of her compositional aesthetic, as she deftly enlivens a series of dense, and often impenetrable metaphors about love. Since mélodies played such a pivotal and enduring role in Bonis’ relationship with Hettich, we can potentially imagine these songs as a reflection of Bonis’ own romantic journey with Hettich and their daughter.

In Trois Mélodies, Bonis excerpts three Bouchor texts that obsess over the glorious Viola, who both charms and haunts the poet. Viola may reference Shakespeare’s shipwrecked protagonist from Twelfth Night, who disguises herself as a male page, only to fall in love with the duke that she serves. Bouchor had a fascination with the works of William Shakespeare (1564-1616), and he translated several plays for performances at the marionette theater, as well as published Les Chansons de Shakespeare (The Songs of Shakespeare) in 1896.

Since Bouchor’s Shakespearean reference is oblique at best, I prefer to funnel the poetic and musical ideas of Trois Mélodies through the paintings of French artist Berthe Morisot (1841-1895), a founder of Impressionism in visual art and another often-overlooked woman artist of Bonis’ era.


i. Viola

Woman at her Toilette (1875-1880) | Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Art Institute of Chicago

In the opening song of Trois Mélodies, entitled “Viola” by Bonis, the protagonist acknowledges that they have hardly “glimpsed” at their beloved. Regardless, Viola soon dissolves into a series of metaphors: her eyes mirror the shining skies, her smile embodies tenderness and immortality. Such descriptions of Viola are nebulous, as if from a dream. In fact, they paint a more vivid portrait of the poet’s state of mind than of an actual living, breathing Viola. Still, as Bonis sets the text over swinging waltz-like phrases with indicated rubato (a tempo’s give-and-take), the poet’s unrequited affections seem to cause little pain. In fact, the protagonist appears ebullient, thoroughly enjoying their metaphorical Viola from a distance.

i. Viola

Viola, ton sourire et tes yeux caressants
Où le ciel curieux et ravi se reflète;
Ton sourire et tes yeux, ma fraîche violette,
Chantent l’inaltérable amour que je pressens.

O toi que j’entrevis à peine, ton sourire
Me parle de tendresse et d’immortalité;
Je [veux]* t’aimer, je t’aime, et me voici hanté
Par tes yeux où le ciel émerveillé se mire.

J’évoque en ce moment tes cheveux blonds et fins,
Tes yeux, ta joue en fleur que je n’ai point baisée,
Ton sourire et, dans la lumière irisée,
J’abandonne mon âme à des songes divins.

*[] denotes alteration to text by Bonis

i. Viola

Viola, your smile and your gentle eyes
Are mirrored in the intriguing and rapturous sky;
Your smile and your eyes, my sweet little violet,
Sing of the steadfast love that I foresee.

Oh you, whom I barely glimpse at, your smile
Speaks to me of tenderness and of immortality;
I want to love you, I love you, and I have been haunted
By your eyes, in which the sky, enthralled, gazes at itself.

I recall in this moment your blonde, fine hair,
Your eyes, your flushed cheek that I did not kiss,
Your smile and, in the iridescent light,
I abandon my soul to divine dreams.

Translation by Noelle McMurtry


ii. Sauvez-moi de l’amour (Save me from the love)

The Thicket (1894) | Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Public Domain via Gallerix

In “Sauvez-moi de l’amour” (Save me from love), the second song of Bonis’ set, the poet’s mindset has drastically altered. They are now trapped, lost within a “thicket” of unrequited love. Thorns, brambles, and bushes cut at their skin, drawing blood. The poet, however, thinks little of this pain in comparison to what Love has forced upon them. They have been “seized” by Cupid, who causes “pointless suffering” as the poet wanders through the wilderness of their own tangled emotions. Bonis’ piano accompaniment employs fluid arpeggiations to create drama in the musical line, and she uses shifting meter and tempos to reflect the poet’s unstable mental state. “Sauvez-moi de l’amour” is also an excellent example of Bonis’ text-setting capabilities, and she chooses dotted rhythms and sixteenth notes to articulate the subtle inflection and flow of her French text.

ii. Sauvez-moi de l’amour

Sauvez-moi de l’amour, taillis où je m’enfonce,
Églantiers épineux qui déchirez mes doigts,
Baisers sauvages de la ronce,
Insectes altérés et cruels de [nos]* bois!

Plus de vains rêves, plus de saintes fiançailles!
Je me suis trop créé de stériles douleurs;
Dans les ténèbres des broussailles
J’oublierai l’île vierge et ses plaines de fleurs.

Ah! comment croire encore au songe magnifique?
Car le brutal Enfant vient de me ressaisir,
Et la vision séraphique
S’évanouit au souffle ardent de mon désir.

N’espère pas tromper la puissante nature
Si tu nourris en toi le plus timide amour
     Tu seras bientôt sa pâture
Où le coeur a frémi Eros aura son tour.

Dan les buissons aigus je me fraie un passage
Arbustes emmêlés qu’ignore le soleil
Frappez moi, cinglez mon visage,
Et faites ruisseler à flots mon sang vermeil.

*[] denotes alteration to text by Bonis

ii. Save me from love

Save me from love, this thicket where I am stuck,
Thorny wild roses that prick my fingers,
Fierce kisses from the blackberry bush,
Distorted and cruel insects of [our] woods!

More than vain dreams, more than saintly betrothals!
I am too defined by pointless suffering;
In the darkness of the undergrowth
I will forget the virgin island and its meadows of flowers.

Ah! How do I still believe in this magnificent dream?
Because cruel Cupid comes to seize me,
And this angelic apparition
Vanishes in the ardent breath of my desire.

Do not dare to deceive Love’s powerful nature
If you nourish the feeblest affection by it
You will soon be its lifeblood
Where, with your trembling heart, Cupid will have his turn.

In the sharp bushes, I make my way
Tangled shrubs, ignored by the sun
Hit me, slap my face,
And let my vermilion blood flow freely.

Translation by Noelle McMurtry


iii. Vers le pur amour (Towards pure love)

Girl in a Boat with Geese (c. 1889) | Berthe Morisot (1841-1895)
Public Domain via National Gallery of Art

“Vers le pur amour” (Towards pure love) concludes Trois Mélodies with a return to radical acceptance. The poet, now floating on a metaphorical boat towards a “happy island of mystery,” has reconciled the turbulence of their prior emotions. Now, they sail on the waves of their dreams. The poet calls out to Viola one last time, hoping to meet her on this island, although sadly in dreams, nothing is assured. Notably, Bonis employs a modified strophic form, in which groups of two stanzas are set to identical music. After the through composed, shifting gestures of the first two songs in op. 91, this repetitive musical framework creates a sense of closure to the poet’s journey. Bonis has deftly crafted a musical arc that portrays the unrelenting, stormy, and ecstatic nature of love itself, from first glance to final farewell.

iii. Vers le pur amour

Guidé par de beaux yeux candides
Dans ma barque féerique aux reflets d’argent fin
Vers l’Amour je voudrais faire voile sans fin
Sur des rêves bleus et splendides.

Vers l’Amour dont le souffle frais
Berce des champs de fleurs dans une île enchantée,
Et qui, pour apaiser mon âme tourmentée,
M’ouvrira de saintes forêts.

[Et plus tard quand], loin de la terre,
O Viola! Guéris des brûlantes langueurs,
Nous irons caresser les songes de nos coeurs
Dans l’île heureuse du mystère?

Dans le libre ciel des Esprits
Quand nous aurons [quitté]* la nature [mortelle],
Ne goûterons-nous pas une paix éternelle?
Rêveusement tu me souris.

*[] denotes alteration to text by Bonis

iii. Towards pure love

Guided by beautiful, innocent eyes,
In my magical boat with flashes of fine silver
Towards Love, I would like to sail time and time again
On blue and splendid dreams.

Towards Love, whose fresh breath
Cradles the fields of flowers on an enchanted island,
And who, to appease my tormented soul,
Reveals to me its holy forests.

[And later when], far from the earth,
Oh Viola! Healed by blazing languor,
Will we caress the dreams of our hearts
On the happy island of mystery?

In the liberated heaven of the Spirits,
When we abandon our mortal form,
Will we not enjoy an eternal peace?
Dreamily, you smile at me.

Translation by Noelle McMurtry


Watch and listen below to our January 2023 performance of Trois Mélodies with pianist Hui-Chuan Chen at Peabody Institute.

In the final stanza of “Vers le pur amour,” Bonis sets the text:

In the liberated heaven of the Spirits,

When we abandon our mortal form,

Will we not enjoy an eternal peace?

Dreamily, you smile at me.

If we consider Trois Mélodies as an entry in Bonis’ diary, these final words signify her belief in an afterlife, a realm in which Bonis could finally seek forgiveness and be reunited with those she loved so fiercely.

Trois Mélodies, however, also reveal the emotions of a woman and composer who very much lived; hers was a passionate, full, and multi-faceted life, despite the dictates of French society’s gendered prejudice. Bonis’ mélodies endure as powerful indicators of this spirit, endowed with her creativity and unique compositional voice.

Mel Bonis, c. 1900
Association Mel Bonis

I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Christine Géliot and the Association Mel Bonis for their feedback on this article, as well as granting their permission to include photographs from the collection in this post.

Notes

  1. Mel Bonis, Souvenirs et Réflexions, translated by Noelle McMurtry, 35.
  2. Anne-Marie Polomé, “Portrait de compositrice: Mélanie-Hélène Bonis dite Mel Bonis.”
  3. Bonis, Souvenirs et Réflexions, translated by Noelle McMurtry, 34.
  4. Polomé, “Portrait de compositrice.”
  5. Judy Tsou, “Bonis, Mélanie (Hélène).”
  6. Polomé, “Portrait de compositrice.”
  7. Christine Géliot, “Compositions for voice by Mel Bonis, French woman composer, 1858-1937,” 50.
  8. Polomé, “Portrait de compositrice.”
  9. Padilla, “The Flute Chamber Works of Mel Bonis,” 12.
  10. Géliot, “Compositions for voice,” 47.
  11. Padilla, “The Flute Chamber Works of Mel Bonis,” 16.
  12. Géliot, “Mel Bonis, Composer: Biography.”
  13. Bonis, Souvenirs et Réflexions, translated by Noelle McMurtry, 14.
  14. Géliot, “Mel Bonis, Composer: Biography.”
  15. Padilla, “The Flute Chamber Works of Mel Bonis,” 15.
  16. Ibid., 16.
  17. Ibid., 18.
  18. Ibid., 16.
  19. Ibid., 18.
  20. Géliot, “Mel Bonis, Composer: Biography.
  21. Padilla, “The Flute Chamber Works of Mel Bonis,” 20.
  22. Ibid., 4.
  23. Géliot, “Compositions for voice,” 48.
  24. Padilla, “The Flute Chamber Works of Mel Bonis,” 3.
  25. Géliot, “Compositions for voice,” 52.
  26. Ibid., 50.
  27. Ibid., 53.
  28. “A Visit from a French Poet,” The New York Times, 1893.
  29. Evelyne Lecucq, “Maurice Bouchor.”

Bibliography

  1. “A Visit from a French Poet: Maurice Bouchor Now In This City – His Appearance and His Work.” The New York Times. June 13, 1893. https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1893/06/13/issue.html.
  2. Beasley, Bryanna. “Musical Multiplicities: The Lives and Reception of Four Post-Romantic Women.” MM thesis., University of Missouri-Kansas City, 2021.
  3. Bonis, Mel. Souvenirs et Réflexions. Évian: Éditions du Nant d’Enfer, 1974.
  4. Géliot, Christine. “Mel Bonis, Composer: Biography.” English translation by Florence Launay and Michael Cook. 2023. https://www.mel-bonis.com/EN/Biographie/.
  5. Géliot, Christine. “Compositions for voice by Mel Bonis, French woman composer, 1858-1937.” Journal of Singing 64, no. 1 (2007): 47.
  6. Géliot, Christine. “Mel Bonis et les Melodies.” Les Melodies: Volume II. Paris: Editions Fortin Armiane, 2014.
  7. Lecucq, Evelyne. “Maurice Bouchor.” World Encyclopedia of Puppetry Arts. 2009. https://wepa.unima.org/en/maurice-bouchor/.
  8. Padilla, Geraldine Margaret. “A Study on the Compositional Style of the Flute Chamber Works of Mel Bonis.” PhD dissertation., University of Southern Mississippi, 2018.
  9. Polomé, Anne-Marie. “Portrait de compositrice: Mélanie-Hélène Bonis dite Mel Bonis.” Crescendo Magazine. May 26, 2021. https://www.crescendo-magazine.be/portrait-de-compositrice-melanie-helene-bonis-dite-mel-bonis-i/.
  10. Tsou, Judy. “Bonis, Mélanie (Hélène).” Grove Music Online. 2001. https://www-oxfordmusiconline-com.proxy1.library.jhu.edu/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000045497.
  11. Wikipedia contributors. “Maurice Bouchor.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Last updated on September 23, 2023. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Maurice_Bouchor&oldid=1176663849.
To Be Loved Less Than a Flower: “Hyacinth” by Margaret Bonds & Edna St. Vincent Millay

To Be Loved Less Than a Flower: “Hyacinth” by Margaret Bonds & Edna St. Vincent Millay

I first encountered Edna St. Vincent Millay as the ghost of a young poet, who had attempted to commit suicide by jumping from a window, only to land on a bush below and survive. I was sixteen-years old, touring the Vassar College campus with my mother. As our tour guide led us across the Quad, I distinctly remember her referring to various buildings and reciting facts about the college’s illustrious alumni.

“The story goes that the famous poet Edna St. Vincent Millay survived after jumping from one of these windows…” I knew next to nothing about Millay, and I had never read her poetry, but I felt a sense of relief that a life had not been cut tragically short. After being informed by our tour guide that Millay went on to win a Pulitzer Prize, it seemed that this bush, so fortuitously growing under a dorm window, had directly contributed to our appreciation of Millay’s literary genius.

Building on the Vassar College campus, ca. 1910-1929
Hum Images / Alamy

It would take, however, another decade to discover that Millay never actually jumped. [1] The legend was false, although her student years at Vassar, which she attended from 1913 to 1917, were tumultuous. Millay had a penchant for challenging authority, a characteristic that would later inform both her writing and social activism. She often defied the college’s rules, and by her senior year, it would take a petition signed by 120 faculty members to secure her degree after a suspension. [2]

As I later became a fellow Vassar alum myself, I felt a certain kinship with Millay and the false legend of her suicide attempt. It was yet another reminder that, even in historic spaces devoted to women’s education, expressions of female creativity and brilliance could be mythologized as cautionary tales, as ever unstable and dangerous.

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

Edna St. Vincent Millay (1933)
Carl Van Vechten / Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress

Born in Maine, Millay would become one of the most influential American poets of the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout her life, she wrote lyric poetry, particularly sonnets, plays, and editorials. In 1917, she moved to Greenwich Village, where she published Renascence and Other Poems and became a fixture on the avant-garde literary scene.

After becoming the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1923 with Ballad of the Harp-Weaver, Millay was hailed as an embodiment of the Roaring Twenties’ “New Woman” feminist aesthetic. In 1925, the Metropolitan Opera commissioned Millay to write the libretto for composer Deems Taylor’s 1927 opera The King’s Henchman, which became one of the most popular American operas of its day.

Millay used her poetry as a means of exploring her sexuality; she was openly bisexual. In her poetry, Millay also expressed her political beliefs, as in her defense of Sacco and Vanzetti in her 1927 poem “Justice Denied in Massachusetts” and her anti-fascist stance towards Nazism with her 1942 poem “The Murder of Lidice” about the Nazi obliteration of a Czech village in Bohemia. From the 1920s until the end of her career, Millay embarked on popular national reading tours of her poetry. Listen below to Millay’s reading of sonnets from Fatal Interview, recorded in 1941.

Millay reads “This Beast That Rends Me,” “Not in a Silver Casket,” “Love is Not All,” “Sorrowful Dreams,” and “Oh, Sleep Forever” from Fatal Interview

In my early twenties, I had rediscovered Millay through her sonnets, and I was struck by the poet’s witty and honest representations of a female self and her desires. As my career veered towards classical music and the song repertoire of women composers, I continually searched for musical settings of Millay’s poetry.

In 2020, I learned that Hildegard Publishing Company had released Six Songs on Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay by American composer Margaret Allison Bonds. This volume, edited by Bonds scholar John Michael Cooper, presents transcriptions of the composer’s Edna St. Vincent Millay songs, including Four Songs, “Women Have Loved Before as I Love Now,” and “Hyacinth.” Originally housed at the libraries of Yale and Georgetown Universities as unpublished manuscripts, these songs were made available to the public for the first time in Cooper’s edition.

From my previous encounters with Bonds’ powerful arrangements of spirituals and her song settings of the work of Harlem Renaissance titans Langston Hughes (1901-1967) and Countee Cullen (1903-1946), I knew that the combined feminist visions of these two women artists via song would be electric.

MARGARET ALLISON BONDS (1913-1972)

Bonds was a concert pianist, pedagogue, and innovative composer in song, choral, orchestral, chamber, and music theatre genres, who defied racist and gendered prejudice throughout her career. In her dissertation on Bonds’ life and solo vocal repertoire, Alethea N. Kilgore writes that the composer deftly employed “a quintessentially American collage of elements drawn from African American musical styles, European art song, popular music, and jazz.” [3]

Bonds was born into an influential Black family in Chicago; her mother, Estella C. Bonds (1882-1957) was an organist, pianist, and teacher at the Coleridge-Taylor School of Music. Bonds’ father, Dr. Monroe Alpheus Majors (1864-1960) was a doctor, journalist, and civil rights activist, who early in his career became the first African American physician licensed to practice medicine in California.

Portrait of Margaret Bonds (date unknown)
Carl Van Vechten / Van Vechten Collection at the Library of Congress

From a young age, Bonds received an extensive, formal music education in piano and composition. Bonds’ mother Estella cultivated a salon in their home, attended by prominent Black composers, musicians, artists, and writers. Bonds was deeply influenced by this vibrant cultural environment, grounded in the intellect, talent, and activism of the Chicago Black community. It was at a salon gathering where Bonds would meet and later study with composer Florence Beatrice Price (1888-1953), who lived for a period of time in the Bonds’ home.

From 1929 to 1934, Bonds attended Northwestern University, where she would earn both Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in piano and composition. At Northwestern, Bonds found herself in an overtly racist and segregated community for the first time; Black students could not live on campus, and less than a third of the students were women. During the isolation of her college years, Bonds discovered Langston Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), and she credited Hughes’ depiction of the ancient wisdom of Black culture as a guiding light. [4] Bonds would later set “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” as an art song in 1941.

“The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1941) by Margaret Bonds
Poetry by Langston Hughes
Hannah Jones, mezzo-soprano & Marco Rizzello, piano
Manhattan School of Music: 2023 Black History Month Concert

Bonds persisted in developing her musical talents, and in 1932, she won the Rodman Wanamaker Prize Competition for her art song “Sea Ghost.” In 1933, at twenty years of age, Bonds premiered as the first Black soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Throughout her career, she would also break barriers as the first Black woman soloist to perform with the Chicago Women’s Symphony, the WNYC Orchestra, and the Scranton Philharmonic Orchestra.

After moving to New York City to study piano and composition at the Julliard School of Music, Bonds met Langston Hughes for the first time. Their creative partnership and friendship would last for four decades, producing over fifty songs, including the cycles Songs of the Seasons (1955) and Three Dream Portraits (1959), as well as choral works, and music theater works.

Throughout her career, Bonds consistently employed her compositions as a means of exploring the Black experience in America, as well as highlighting issues of racial and gender inequality. Bonds’ activism is no more apparent than in her solo vocal repertoire, comprised of approximately one hundred songs in a variety of styles, including arrangements of spirituals, art songs, musical theater songs, and jazz songs. As a prolific arranger of African American spirituals, Bonds collaborated with eminent American soprano Leontyne Price (b. 1927) throughout the 1950s and ’60s. Price’s 1962 LP Swing Low, Sweet Chariot with Bonds’ “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” became one of the soprano’s most popular recordings. [5]

Bonds was also a prominent pedagogue in Chicago, New York City, and Los Angeles; her studio produced notable musicians, such as jazz pianist and composer Gerald Cook (1920-2006) and composer Ned Rorem (1923-2022). While Bonds excelled as a composer of classical concert music in both large and small-scale forms, she also composed for other genres, such as radio, television, film, and for notable jazz musicians Cab Calloway, Glen Miller, Louis Armstrong, Woody Herman, and Nina Simone. [6]

Three Dream Portraits (1959) by Margaret Bonds
Poetry by Langston Hughes
Dashon Burton, bass-baritone & Stefano Flavoni, piano
Lakes Area Music Festival 2020
“He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” with soprano Leontyne Price
Arranged by Margaret Bonds; Recorded in 1961

For more information on Bonds’ compositions, including a list of her works, score locations, and online recordings, check out the Boulanger Initiative Database.

“Hyacinth” (1961)

It is important to note that the lives and career trajectories of Bonds, a Black composer and pianist, and Millay, a white poet and playwright, were intrinsically shaped by the racism that divided twentieth-century American society; the two artists seemingly never met. [7] John Michael Cooper nonetheless argues that both women shared a commitment to their art as a means of creating a more equitable world. For Cooper, Bonds’ choice to set Millay’s words may have been an artistic marriage of “kindred spirits,” and I couldn’t agree more. [8] By considering Bonds’ setting of Millay’s “Hyacinth,” we encounter an unflinching intersectional feminist portrait of the ever-shifting dynamics between gender, power, and love.

Published in Millay’s 1923 The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems, “Hyacinth” sketches the contours of an unequal bond, in which a man cares more for his hyacinth flowers than the poem’s protagonist. At night, he diligently keeps awake to ward off field mice from chewing on his hyacinth bulbs, while neglecting the well-being of the person lying beside him.

Hyacinth

from The Harp Weaver and Other Poems (1923)
by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I am in love with him to whom a hyacinth is dearer
 Than I shall ever be dear.
 On nights when the field-mice are abroad he cannot
    sleep:
 He hears their narrow teeth at the bulbs of his
    hyacinths.
 But the gnawing at my heart he does not hear.

Although Bonds set Millay’s “Hyacinth” in 1961, almost four decades after its initial publication as a poem, both artists faced a society grappling with questions of inclusion and belonging. In 1923, many American women, though not all, had won the right to vote only three years prior with the 1920 ratification of the Nineteenth-Amendment. In 1961, the passage of the 1963 Equal Pay Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act were on the horizon. Against the backdrop of these sweeping social justice movements, the inter-personal dynamics of “Hyacinth” reveal a similar power struggle, a fight for visibility in a world where a woman is less valued than a man’s prized flower.  

“Jim Crow Must Go” (date unknown)
National Park Service

Soar, eat ether, see what has never been seen; depart, be lost,
But climb.


“ON THOUGHT IN HARNESS,” FROM COLLECTED POEMS EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY (1956)

Bonds illustrates the painful absurdity of this proposition through vivid melodic motives and text painting. In her introduction, descending chromatic arpeggiations set an uneasy mood, akin to the song’s protagonist tossing and turning at night with mounting frustrations about her relationship. As we hear the gnawing teeth of the field mice in the darkness, Bonds hushes the melody to a sinister pianissimo, again with an accompaniment of off-kilter chromatic arpeggiations. To embody the protagonist’s ultimate desperation at being dismissed by their partner, Bonds writes a forte climax with “He hears their narrow teeth at the bulbs of his hyacinths,” and the melody transforms into a heavily accented, half-step lament. Listen below to my performance of “Hyacinth” with Michael Sheppard (piano) on The Shining Place, filmed in February 2022.

For me, “Hyacinth” concludes with a dose of ambiguity. In the song’s final phrases, Bonds invites the performer to define their final emotional intent for the audience. “But the gnawing at my heart he does not hear” is repeated three times, each growing softer and softer. Is this morendo (dying out) effect a sign of resignation, cynicism, or the protagonist’s ultimate resolve to end a dysfunctional relationship? The composer and poet do not confirm or deny her fate. As both Bonds and Millay challenged socio-cultural prejudice throughout their lives and careers, we are left to hope that the protagonist of “Hyacinth” may shape a future in which she is more valued as a human being.

Wild Hyacinths (1905) by Alfred Heaton Cooper (1863-1929)
Alamy

To purchase Six Songs on Poems by Edna St. Vincent Millay by Margaret Bonds for voice and piano, edited by John Michael Cooper, check out Hildegard Publishing Company’s editions for high voice and medium voice


Notes

  1. “Vassar Myths & Legends,” Vassar Encyclopedia.
  2. “Distinguished Alumni: Edna St. Vincent Millay,” Vassar Encyclopedia.
  3. Alethea N. Kilgore, “The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972),” 1.
  4. Randye Jones, “Margaret Bonds (1913-1972),” Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music.
  5. Anna Celenza, “Margaret Bonds: Composer and Activist.”
  6. Brian Lauritzen, “Open Ears: The Endlessly Unfolding Story of Margaret Bonds.”
  7. John Michael Cooper, “Kindred Spirits: Margaret Bonds and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Part 1.”
  8. Cooper, “Kindred Spirits.”

Bibliography

  1. Celenza, Anna. “Margaret Bonds: Composer and Activist.” Georgetown University Library. https://library.georgetown.edu/exhibition/margaret-bonds-composer-and-activist.
  2. Cooper, John Michael. “Kindred Spirits: Margaret Bonds and Edna St. Vincent Millay, Part 1.” Women’s Song Forum. February 27, 2021. https://www.womensongforum.org/2021/02/27/kindred-spirits-margaret-bonds-and-edna-st-vincent-millay-part-1/.
  3. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Vassar Encyclopedia. https://vcencyclopedia.vassar.edu/distinguished-alumni/edna-st-vincent-millay/.
  4. “Edna St. Vincent Millay.” Poetry Foundation. 2023. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/edna-st-vincent-millay
  5. Jones, Randye. “Margaret Bonds (1913-1972).” Afrocentric Voices in Classical Music. December 3, 2022. http://www.afrovoices.com/wp/margaret-bonds-biography.
  6. Kilgore, Alethea N. “The Life and Solo Vocal Works of Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972).” PhD Thesis, Florida State University College of Music, 2013. Florida State University Libraries.
  7. Lauritzen, Brian. “Open Ears: The Endlessly Unfolding Story of Margaret Bonds.” Classical California KUSC. April 30, 2018. https://www.kusc.org/culture/staff-blog/open-ears/open-ears-margaret-bonds/.
  8. Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “Hyacinth.” From The Harp-Weaver and Other Poems. New York and London: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1923.
  9. Millay, Edna St. Vincent. “On Thought in Harness.” From Collected Poems Edna St. Vincent Millay. Edited by Norma Millay. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 1956.