Comtessa de Dia, The Early Music Police & Me: Part I

Comtessa de Dia, The Early Music Police & Me: Part I

For this two-part series, I turned my attention to a song from long ago, “A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria” (I must sing of what I’d rather not) by medieval trobairitz Comtessa de Dia (c. 1140-1212).

“A chantar” is unique in the history of Western classical music; it is the sole surviving melody by a woman composer from medieval Occitania. By performing this more than eight-hundred-year-old song about heartbreak, I encountered a tangle of musical and personal lessons. I learned to sing a medieval song in Old Occitan for the first time (more on that in Part II). I considered how the weight of expertise, even in the pursuit of musical excellence and historical “authenticity,” is sometimes an exclusionary force. I also found that, although we live(d) in very different worlds, Comtessa de Dia and I share many things.

For a complete list of the works, composers, and performers, click on the “YouTube” icon to access the video’s description.

For a deep dive into the sound and visual world of the medieval era, I invite you to explore this musical compilation as you read. This collection includes sacred and secular works from the 11th to 15th Centuries, including works by Raimon de Miraval (c.1135/60-1220), Thomas of Celano (1185-1265), Alfonso X of Castile (1221-1284), and Guillaume de Machaut (1300-1377).


I’m not an expert though… (she says, under her breath)

I love early music, but I’m not an early music expert.

And by early music, I mean something both enormous and quite specific – classical music repertoire from before 1750. By early music expert, I mean someone who has focused most of their musical and scholarly efforts on the interpretation, analysis, and performance of music from this particular time period.

In January 2023, my introduction to medieval music came in the form of “A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria” (I must sing of what I’d rather not), a medieval song by Comtessa de Dia (c. 1140-1212), a noblewoman and trobairitz from southern France.

After performing “A chantar” at Peabody Institute, I received an email from a professor of Classics, who had attended the concert. This professor expressed an interest in performing medieval music and was curious about my musical preparations – where did I find my sources, and how did I interpret them?

In responding to their email, I felt slightly anxious as I outlined my process. I had only sung one medieval song, once. I began my response with the ultimate apologetic qualifier, writing,

Firstly, I should mention that [“A chantar”] marks my first foray into medieval monody, and I am by no means an expert in this era of vocal repertoire.”

I’ve heard other singers sheepishly admit to a lack of early music expertise. With hushed voices, they would share as an aside, “I’m not an expert though,” as if being labelled an “expert” was the permission you needed to assert any relationship at all to early music.

As I reread my email response over a year later, I cringed at my earnest attempt to appear transparent, as I blatantly undermined my own accomplishments. I see now that I wasn’t suffering solely from a case of impostor syndrome. Rather, I was expressing a very real anxiety, one that permeates classical music and readily evokes the specter of the “early music police.”

Of course, to argue even modestly against the orthodoxy of classical music expertise is an uncomfortable position to find yourself in. What you’re told from a young age in lessons, workshops, summer programs, and conservatory classes, is that expertise is – the whole point. We’re not “dabblers” or “amateurs.” It’s worth mentioning that these labels were used to police the professional achievements of 19th-century women musicians and have unsurprisingly retained their potency as insults for all in our modern times.

No, we’re expert practitioners with a honed set of skills, buoyed by the ability to position ourselves within a musical tradition where we can claim that we know enough about how music sounded in the past, to therefore know how it should (or could) sound in the present. 

All of this I understand, and I value. For example, it’s clear to me that She Is Song represents my own attempt to articulate an area of personal expertise. It’s important to acknowledge, however, that any quest for an expert and historically “authentic” perspective creates blind spots, no matter the musical era.

Welcome to Medieval Occitania: The Land of the Trobairitz

Trobairitz, a feminized form of the word “troubadour,” were women composer-poets of the 12th to 13th Centuries, who resided in Occitania, a region roughly comprised of lands in modern-day southern France, the Val d’Aran in Catalonia, Monaco, and the Occitan Valleys of Italy. Active between 1170 and 1260, trobairitz wrote and sang in Old Occitan, or the langue d’oc.

A hand-colored woodcut depicting medieval country life from a 1517 French edition of Virgil
Alamy Photo

Six modern variants of Occitan, a Romance language whose closest linguistic cousin is Catalan, are still in use throughout this region, although all are considered “endangered” by UNESCO due to their dwindling populations of younger speakers.[1] It is fascinating to consider that a not-so distant version of the language that Comtessa de Dia sang over eight hundred years ago in “A chantar” still exists today.

Cité de Carcassonne, an extant medieval fortress in Occitania and UNESCO World Heritage Site, illustrates the type of community where Comtessa de Dia could have lived. I was lucky enough to visit Carcassonne with my family in 2008; it was a magical experience to wander the streets of a medieval fortress city that remained completely intact over the centuries.
Alamy Photo

In the annals of music history, the troubadour and the trobairitz are credited as the first composer-poets of a non-Latin, secular song repertoire in Western continental Europe.[2] This musical practice flourished throughout the High Middle Ages, a period that lasted from the late 11th Century until the devastating advent of the bubonic plague in the mid-14th Century. After the dissolution of the Frankish Empire, Occitania fractured into distinct principalities, ruled by a cadre of noblemen and bishops who jockeyed for power over the region.

William IX, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine and Gascony (1071-1126) was such a man: he successfully captured the neighboring principality of Toulouse, was excommunicated twice, served as an unsuccessful military commander in the Crusade of 1101, and, in his greatest (and most lasting) achievement, wrote lyric poetry and set it to music.[3]

Eleven of William IX’s songs survive, representing the earliest extant troubadour repertoire. Nicknamed “The Troubadour,” he wrote primarily about love, sex, political machinations, and military conquests.

13th-century manuscript image of William IX
Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS fr 12473
Wikimedia Commons
14th-century manuscript image of a 1st Crusade siege (1095-1099)
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Roman de Godefroy de Bouillon
Alamy Photo
Listen to a wonderful English recitation of “Farai un vers de dreit nien” or “The Song of Nothing” by William IX, Count of Poitiers and Duke of Aquitaine,
performed by singer, actor, and composer Martin Best with the Martin Best Mediaeval Ensemble.

In contemporary popular culture, troubadours are often depicted as lower-class, wandering musicians, who sang their songs from court to court. In Chantal Phan’s essay “The Comtessa de Dia and the Trobairitz,” the author observes that, like William IX, troubadours were primarily aristocrats, and their main concerns were often political and military in nature, rather than artistic.[4]

Although troubadours performed their own compositions, it was jongleurs, a class of itinerant performer travelling throughout the courts of Europe, who disseminated the troubadour and trobairitz repertoire beyond the borders of Occitania.

11th-century manuscript image of a jongleur and an acrobat or juggler
Alamy Photo

The Many Songs of the Trobairitz

Trobairitz and troubadours created a variety of song genres, each defined by their poetic structure and literary themes. Examples include the canso (love song), sirventes (a political poem or satire), tenso (a rhetorical debate between two poets), maldit (a song bemoaning a lady’s perceived character flaws and misbehaviors), and planh (a eulogy, or lament on the death of a famous person).


Listen here to “Chanson do’ill mot son plan e prim” or “Songs whose words are sweet and easy” by troubadour Arnaut Daniel (fl. 1180-1200), performed by singer Barbara Thornton and the medieval ensemble Sequentia. This is an example of a canso, or love song, in which the singer both celebrates and bemoans an unrequited love. To read the Old Occitan poem and its English translation, click here.

In medieval chansonniers (songbooks), 2,500 texts have been attributed to more than four hundred male authors, or troubadours.[5] Sadly, a much smaller corpus has survived for the trobairitz. Approximately 23 to 49 texts are attributed to roughly twenty women authors, although this tally remains speculative due to the inclusion of anonymous poems that may have been written by trobairitz.[6]

Notably, only one trobairitz melody has survived, “A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria” (I must sing of what I’d rather not) by Comtessa de Dia. The text for “A chantar” appears in fourteen manuscripts, while the Comtessa’s melody is preserved only once in Chansonnier du Roi, a manuscript of more than six hundred medieval songs, collected between 1255 and 1260 for Charles of Anjou (1226-1285).

I drew my score for “A chantar” from this 13th-century chansonnier, housed at the Bibliothèque national de France in Paris. The melody for “A chantar” begins at the bottom right of the first page, marked by a gold “A.” It continues onto the top left corner of the following page.

The existence of a single trobairitz melody places scholars and performers in a difficult, yet fascinating bind. To “hear” the songs of these medieval female musicians, we must draw heavily from their literary practices. In Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner’s introduction to Songs of the Women Troubadours, the author writes, “The trobairitz give precious testimony of the ways aristocratic women in Southern France were able to participate fully in the game and life of poetry, not only as patrons and objects of song but as poets singing and reshaping the art of the troubadours.”[7]

Illustration from a manuscript by Rudolf von Ems (1200-1254)
Alamy Photo

Like their male counterparts, trobairitz typically belonged to the aristocracy. However, the trobairitz corpus of songs remains a unique outgrowth of Occitan culture, seemingly unreplicated in other parts of Europe. Although Occitan society was feudalistic, and by no means feminist or remotely egalitarian, the songs of the trobairitz may illustrate the expanded rights that noblewomen attained in medieval southern France, particularly between 1180 and 1230.

Scholars, such as Meg Bogin, argue that a variety of socio-cultural factors may have contributed to the elevated status of Occitan noblewomen, including laws that allowed women to inherit property, the exodus of men to fight in the Crusades leaving women to manage estates, and a cultural emphasis in Occitania on economic stability and pleasure-seeking activities.[8]

An illustration of women picking roses to make rosewater from their petals; excerpted from the Tacuinum Sanitatis, a 14th-century medieval handbook on health, translated into Latin from the original 11th-century Arabic medical treatise by ibn Butlan of Baghdad
Alamy Photo

The Early Music Police & Me

For several years, I intended to program medieval repertoire on recitals, but had repeatedly balked at the inclusion of songs by a medieval woman composer. From my undergrad days studying with countertenor Drew Minter, who exposed me to the music of Claudio Monteverdi, Henry Purcell, G.F. Handel, and J.S. Bach, I had always loved Baroque repertoire, an era that spanned roughly 1600 to 1750.

As I continued with my graduate studies in music and later entered the professional realm, I searched for opportunities to improve my Baroque skills. I attended workshops, participated in a Young Artist Program, performed Baroque repertoire in concert, and programmed it on my own recitals. As I became more and more interested in the contributions of women creators in classical music, I transferred that curiosity to the Baroque era, researching composers like Barbara Strozzi (1619-1677) and Élisabeth Jacquet de La Guerre (1665-1729).

Since I’ve always been drawn to a variety of classical genres and eras, I never specialized. I never attempted to become an expert in any type of early music.

Still, even with a decade of experience performing Baroque repertoire, the act of singing a song composed more than five hundred years prior to J.S. Bach’s death in 1750, intimidated me. The distance of “ancient” music from contemporary life seemed to shroud it in a haze of ineffable mystery.

I had fallen into a trap, one which I had experienced many times as I trudged through the field of classical music. I allowed myself to believe that, unless the title of “expert” had been bestowed upon me, unless I had read every treatise available or had participated in a variety of sanctioned workshops, I lacked the authority to engage with certain types of music on the concert stage.

I was, in fact, afraid of the early music police.

On a sheet of tips and advice handed to the participants of the Vancouver Early Music Festival Vocal Program, which I attended in 2013, “THERE ARE NO EARLY MUSIC POLICE” was typed in capital letters. As the two-week session concluded, our workshop facilitators organized a conversation around aspects of pursuing a vocal career in early music. From thoughts on auditions to vocal health, what stood out to me the most at the time (and what I remember clearly more than eleven years later) was a discussion about this final statement on the page – “There are no early music police.”

The program’s director explained that the “early music police” were gatekeepers, a word that was entirely new to my 2013 self. He revealed that they’re everywhere in the field of classical music, where notions of a “traditional” past problematically endure. He reminded us that it was an experimental spirit and an open mind that drove the adherents of the so-called early music revival of the mid- to late 20th Century in western Europe. These musicians and scholars saw beyond a Western cultural obsession with 18th- and 19th-century classical repertoire to rediscover Medieval, Renaissance, and Baroque musical practice for future generations.

However, as the revivalists challenged entrenched notions of cultural “value,” they formed a new canon, now of early music. This canon was more inclusive than its 19th-century counterpart in some respects, but still defined by 20th-century musicians with their own set of standards, assumptions, and judgments. In terms of gender prejudice and underrepresentation, I would later learn that this expanded canon was a lot of the same, but now with older music.

Our director left us with a final imperative, which again, I’ve never forgotten. Never allow a quest for historical “authenticity,” no matter how well-intentioned, to bar you from entry.

Who was Comtessa de Dia?

While she retains her name in the historical archive, scant details exist about the identity of Comtessa de Dia. Most of what is known about the lives of trobairitz come from vidas, or short prose biographies in chansonniers. In these medieval song and poetry manuscripts, vidas often precede a collection of works by a particular author.

These life stories are unfortunately unreliable as biographical sources; they often draw information directly from an author’s poetry, reading more like a work of fiction. Many of them were also written over a century after the death of their subjects.[9]

13th-century manuscript image of Comtessa de Dia
Bibliothèque nationale de France, MS cod. fr. 12473
Wikimedia Commons

Only five vidas of individual trobairitz appear in the chansonniers. Comtessa de Dia’s vida appears in four different 13th-century song manuscripts, which may be a testament to her renown as a trobairitz.[10] The Comtessa’s vida describes an attractive and kind noblewoman, married to Guillem de Poitiers, yet in love with another. Her unrequited passion for this lover, Raimbault d’Orange, inspires her many popular chansons (songs).

The countess of Dia was the wife of En Guillem de Poitiers,
a lady beautiful and good. And she fell in love with En
Raimbault d’Orange, and wrote many good chansons
in his honor
.[11]

In Maryann Corbett’s article “The Countess of Dia and the Women Troubadours,” the author identifies an existential problem with the melodramatic narrative of the Comtessa’s vida – despite exhaustive research, no woman has materialized in the medieval archive who fits its description.[12]

What scholars have posited is that Comtessa de Dia may have been the daughter of Count Isoard II of Diá, a town on the Drôme River in the marquisate of Provence. Her first name may have been Beatriz or Isoarda, but no medieval source specifies. As for the partners mentioned in the Comtessa’s vida, she could have been the wife of Guilhelm de Poitiers, Count of Viennois, but this marriage would have made her too young to be the lover of Raimbault d’Orange (1146-1173).[13] Raimbault d’Orange was also a respected troubadour; around forty of his poems survive in chansonniers.

The Canso & Courtly Love

While the Comtessa’s biography lacks verifiable details, we can concretely consider her poetry and music. She composed one surviving tenso (debate poem) and four cansos (love songs) with “A chantar” being the only song to retain its music.

As the dominant troubadour song genre until the second half of the 13th Century, cansos were love songs, usually from the perspective of a male protagonist to their unattainable female lover, or domna (lady). These songs conveyed the drama of ‘fin’ amors (courtly love), a potent socio-cultural ideology amongst the nobility of the later Middle Ages.

Courtly scene from the Codex Vindobonensis
Alamy Photo

‘Fin’ amors valued gentilesse (refinement) as an elemental aspect of love. Courtiers refined themselves as nobles by idealizing and remaining faithful to an unrequited love. Since medieval marriage was often arranged and the product of military and/or financial negotiations, ‘fin’ amors was an expression of romantic love outside the confines of a contractual relationship. In this way, medieval canso celebrated love as a wellspring of joi (joy), while also portraying it as a depressing and isolating force due to the lover’s unattainability.[14]

“A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria”

Illustration of an “Allegory of Music” in Echecs amoureux by Robinet Testard (fl. 1471-1531)
Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 143, fol. 65v
Wikimedia Commons

In “A chantar,” Comtessa de Dia constructs an intimate portrait of an angry and heartbroken woman, who has been abandoned by her unspecified lover for another. From stanza to stanza, she employs a series of often-contradictory rhetorical tactics, such as disbelief, arrogance, frustration, acceptance, and seduction, to prove her righteous case against him, yet possibly win back his affections.

Listen to my performance of “A chantar” with harpist Alix Evans at Peabody Institute in January 2023. Our collaboration was part of Sauvez-moi de ‘amour, a chamber music program, which you can read more about here. Also, check out the second installment in this series, Comtessa de Dia, The Early Music Police & Me: Part II, to learn more about how to actually sing a medieval song in Old Occitan (and my final musings on the early music police).

A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria

A chantar m’er de so q’ieu no volria,      
tant me rancur de lui cui sui amia,           
car eu l’am mais que nuilla ren que sia;  
vas lui no.m val merces ni cortesia          
ni ma beltatz ni mos pretz ni mos sens,   
c’atressi.m sui enganada e trahia             
com degr’esser s’ieu fos desavinens.        

D’aisso.m conort car anc non fis faillenssa,
amics, vas vos per nuilla captenenssa,
anz vos am mais non fetz Seguis Valenssa,
e platz mi mout que eu d’amar vos venssa,
lo mieus amics, car etz lo plus valens;
mi faitz orgoil en digz et en parvenssa
e si etz francs vas totas autras gens.  

Meraveill me cum vostre cors s’orgoilla,
amics, vas me per q’ai razon qe.m doilla;
non es ies dreitz c’autr’amors vos mi toilla
per nuilla ren qe.us diga ni.us acoilla,
e member vos cals fo.l comenssamens
de nostr’amor, ia Dompnedieus non vuoilla
q’en ma colpa sia.l departimens.

Proessa grans q’el vostre cors s’aizina
e lo rics pretz q’avetz m’en ataina,
e’una non sai loindana ni vezina
si vol amar vas vos no si aclina;
mas vos, amics, ez ben tant conoissens
que ben devetz conoisser la plus fina,
e membre vos de nostres covinens.  

Valer mi deu mos pretz e mos paratges
e ma beutatz e plus mos fins coratges,
per q’ieu vos man lai on es vostre estatges
esta chansson que me sia messatges,
e voill saber, lo mieus bels amics gens,
per que m’etz vos tant fers ni tant salvatges,
no sai si s’es orgoills ni mals talens.  

Mas aitan plus vuoill li digas, messatges,
q’en trop orgoill ant gran dan maintas gens.  

I must sing of what I’d rather not    

I must sing of what I’d rather not,
I’m so angry about him whose friend I am,
for I love him more than anything;
mercy and courtliness don’t help me with him,
nor does my beauty, or my rank, or my mind;
for I am every bit as betrayed and wronged
as I’d deserve to be if I were ugly.

It comforts me that I have done no wrong to you,
my friend, through any action,
indeed, I love you more than Seguis loved Valenssa,
and it pleases me to outdo you in loving,
friend, for you are the most valiant;
you offer prideful words and looks to me,
but are gracious to every other person.  

It amazes me how prideful your heart is towards me,
friend, for which I’m right to grieve;
it isn’t fair that another love takes you away
because of any word or welcome I might give you.
And remember how it was at the beginning of our love;
may the Lord God not allow our parting
to be any fault of mine.

The great valor that dwells in your person
and the high rank you have, these trouble me,
for I don’t know a woman, far or near,
who, if she wished to love, would not turn to you;
but you, friend, are so knowing
that you surely ought to know the truest one,
and remember what our agreement was.  

My rank and lineage should be of help to me,
and my beauty and, still more, my true heart,
this song, let it be my messenger, therefore,
I send it to you, out on your estate,
and I would like to know, my fine, fair friend,
why you are so fierce and cruel to me,
I can’t tell if it’s from pride or malice.  

I especially want you, messenger, to tell him
that too much pride brings harm to many persons.


Text from Songs of the Women Troubadours (1995);
Edited and translated by Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White

Ultimately, the Countess demands to know the cause of her lover’s fickleness – why have his feelings abruptly changed towards her? She cannot fathom why; she believes herself to be irresistible and has no embarrassment in citing her beauty, intelligence, fidelity, rank, and noble birth. For our protagonist, it is unclear whether her ex-lover’s hurtful behavior is a result of his overwhelming arrogance or a blatant desire to wound her. Regardless, she hopes that the words of “A chantar” reach his ears, forcing him to confront his shameful actions.

It is unclear whether the Comtessa publicly performed “A chantar” as herself with its subsequent autobiographical implications (perhaps referring to her unrequited love for troubadour Raimbault d’Orange), or as the fictional character of a rejected “Countess.” Regardless, her words fly off the page, ever relatable to a contemporary audience. Many of us have behaved like the Comtessa and her fickle lover – we have humbled ourselves to sudden heartbreak, while pridefully touting our own exceptional qualities in the face of brutal rejection.

“The Lute Player and the Harpist” (c. 1495-1503)
Alamy Photos

In this way, it is fascinating to experience “A chantar” as an illustration of how trobairitz engaged with the complex poetic and musical forms of the troubadour repertoire. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner writes, “In [their songs] we can see most vividly how the trobairitz are able to renew the poetic system from within by combining in a variety of ways the different personae of women generally separated and fragmented by the male poets… Through the kaleidoscope of her songs, the trobairitz becomes at once woman, lady, and poet.”[15]

The Lingering Ghosts of the Early Music Police

15th-century illustration of women musicians playing the shawm, lute, cornet, portative, psaltery, recorder, and tabor from Martin Le Franc’s Le Champion des Dames (1440 or 1442) which relates the noble deeds of women throughout history
Alamy Photos

Over the past eleven years since our workshop discussion in Vancouver, I’ve met the early music police, although they’re hardly unique to early music. Indeed, gatekeepers are everywhere; they’re a confusing mixture of real individuals and organizations, cultural abstractions, systemic biases, and frankly, the ghosts I create from my own self-doubt.

I’ve found that they’re the ones who use their knowledge, their expertise as it were, to keep you out, not to invite you in. Whether through an offhand remark, a bullying posture, or an expression that simply screams “you’re really going to sing it like that?,” the result is often the same – a nagging fear that, even if you’ve worked your hardest to achieve all the trappings of professionalism, your voice will never quite belong.

What ultimately humbled me about my personal sojourn to sing the only surviving song by a noblewoman from medieval Occitania was that – I didn’t need to necessarily gird myself against an outside force, waiting to undermine my confidence. Sadly, I was expert at doing that on my own. This time, I had become my own version of the early music police.

And so, in the spirit of Comtessa de Dia and her trobairitz compatriots, who refashioned the lyrical and musical framework of troubadour song from the inside-out, rejecting preconceived notions is sometimes best accomplished in the doing.

When I finally committed to “A chantar” in concert, something unexpected, yet wonderful occurred. The early music police (although still very much with us all) were nowhere to be seen. Instead, a group of talented individuals appeared, who, if we were members of an improv troupe, said “yes, and” at every turn and invited me in.


This blog will be published in two installments. Coming soon – Comtessa de Dia, The Early Music Police & Me: Part II! Read more on how to actually sing a medieval song in Old Occitan (and my final musings on the early music police).


Notes

[1]  “Endangered Languages: The Full List,” The Guardian, April 15, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/apr/15/language-extinct-endangered.
[2] Chantal Phan, “Comtessa de Dia and the Trobairitz,” in Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, eds. Martha Furman Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman (New York: G.K. Hall, 1996), vol 1: 61.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, Songs of the Women Troubadours (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995), xxxix.
[6] Songs of the Women Troubadours, xi.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner. “Fictions of the Female Voice: The Women Troubadours.” Speculum 67, no. 4 (1992): 4, https://doi.org/10.2307/2863471.
[9] Maryann Corbett, “The Countess of Dia and the Women Troubadours,” The Mezzo Cammin, accessed on April 1-29, 2024, https://www.mezzocammin.com/timeline/timeline.php?vol=timeline&iss=1100&cat=50&page=dia.
[10] Corbett, “The Countess of Dia and the Women Troubadours.”
[11] Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), 163.
[12] Corbett, “The Countess of Dia and the Women Troubadours.”
[13] Elizabeth Aubrey, “Comtessa de Dia” in Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi-org.proxy.alumni.jhu.edu/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.02423.
[14] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, “courtly love,” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 8, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/art/courtly-love.
[15] Songs of the Women Troubadours, xivi.

Sources

1. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White, Songs of the Women Troubadours (New York & London: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1995), xi-9.

2. Matilda Tomaryn Bruckner. “Fictions of the Female Voice: The Women Troubadours.” Speculum 67, no. 4 (1992): 865–91. https://doi.org/10.2307/2863471.

2. Timothy J. McGee, A.G. Rigg, and David N. Klausner, eds., Singing Early Music: The Pronunciation of European Languages in the Late Middle Ages and Renaissance (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1996), 103-112.

3. Henrik van der Werf, The Extant Troubadour Melodies: Transcriptions and Essays for Performers and Scholars (self-pub., 1984), 3-83.

4. Meg Bogin, The Women Troubadours (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980).

5. Maryann Corbett, “The Countess of Dia and the Women Troubadours,” The Mezzo Cammin, accessed on April 1-29, 2024, https://www.mezzocammin.com/timeline/timeline.php?vol=timeline&iss=1100&cat=50&page=dia.

6. Chantal Phan, “Comtessa de Dia and the Trobairitz,” in Women Composers: Music Through the Ages, eds. Martha Furman Schleifer and Sylvia Glickman (New York: G.K. Hall, 1996), vol 1: 61-68.

7. “Endangered Languages: The Full List,” The Guardian, April 15, 2011, https://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2011/apr/15/language-extinct-endangered.

8. Elizabeth Aubrey, “Comtessa de Dia” in Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi-org.proxy.alumni.jhu.edu/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.02423.

9. Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia, “courtly love,” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 8, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/art/courtly-love.

10. Sue Carole DeVale, Bo Lawergren, Joan Rimmer, Robert Evans, William Taylor, Cristina Bordas, Cheryl Ann Fulton, John M. Schechter, Nancy Thym-Hochrein, Hannelore Devaere and Mary McMaster, “Harp” in Grove Music Online, 2001, https://doi-org.proxy.alumni.jhu.edu/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.article.45738.

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

“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.
Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Singing with Myself: Pandemic Virtual Performance & Melissa Dunphy’s June

Reflections on Melissa Dunphy’s June (2012)

June was presented as part of the recital-film project, I take the long way there. For more information about this program, check out my projects.

My family and friends will tell you that I am something of a Luddite, never acquiring comfortable fluency with my computer, outside of Internet searches, word processing tasks, and copious albums on Google Photos. As I navigated the beginnings of my career as a freelance artist, however, I reluctantly embraced certain means of marketing myself: a YouTube channel and a website, which I created after being told one too many times that I simply “did not exist” without them.

I must admit that after managing both for over eight years and finding some joy in controlling aspects of public self-representation, I still find these online landscapes overwhelming and insecurity-inducing. I will never be able to fully accept the callous and casual rejection of a “thumbs-down” from a total stranger, who may either completely dislike my work (and feel inclined to anonymously tell me so), or who simply wishes to inform an algorithm of their aesthetic preferences.

Woman turning on a radio (1927)
Photo: Library of Congress

I reveled in live performance because, no matter how much I wished to control, mold, influence, and shape the final product, I was always forced to eventually let it go; the performance did not exist outside of a single moment, and whatever versions of ourselves that my collaborators and I performed for a particular audience, they too dissolved.

As stay-at-home orders fell into place, and Peabody Institute shuttered its doors last March, my musical (and daily) life was inundated with new technology. Suddenly, to function in a virtual realm, I researched microphones, microphone stands, audio interfaces, headphones, audio and video editing programs, not to mention learning about Zoom, Cleanfeed, Soundtrap, Audacity, and DaVinci. I also procured a large pile of wires, some of which would clearly connect to certain machines, and others which are still a complete mystery to me. While many performers were already engaged with technology as an innovative means of creating, amplifying, and disseminating art, I, for better or for worse, had not. Overnight, live performances were cancelled, rehearsals became obsolete; all accompaniment tracks were pre-recorded, and in filming ourselves for various projects, lip synching was the necessary order of the day. Not only did I feel uncomfortable handling this technology, but I was inexperienced with acting for film, lip synching, and the most basic audio and video editing skills. To make matters worse, I loathed listening to recordings of myself, especially after years’ worth of emotional baggage from pre-screening tracks that never seemed quite good enough and were often followed by a stock rejection email. 

View from the car of a rainbow in upstate New York (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In July of 2020, as I considered whether to continue virtually with the second year of my Doctoral degree or defer, my voice teacher offered a piece of excellent advice, which I found painful to accept at the time. She advised me that, if I chose to return virtually to our Peabody academic and creative lives, I needed to “buy in” to the experience in whatever way I genuinely could; it would be the best and only means of navigating whatever came next. She did not mean that I would disingenuously always enjoy our latency-riddled lessons, or the fact that I still cannot “share my screen” smoothly for a Zoom presentation without feeling the weight of a classroom’s eyes watching me fumble with my trackpad. She challenged me to see what I could make of a virtual performance world, which was simultaneously confining, confusing, but still full of possibility. The hard truth was that I also no longer had the immature luxury of rejecting it outright. 

Premiered in 2012 at the Voice of this Generation and Network for New Music, June is a two-movement work for voice and looper pedal by Philadelphia-based composer Melissa Dunphy (b. 1980) and poet Lauren Rile Smith. As a performer, poet, and founder and producer of Tangle Movement Arts, an all-female aerial dance theater company, Rile Smith describes the interconnected nature of the questions that she explores through her interdisciplinary work as both a poet and aerial artist. These questions often center around queer relationships and “representing bodies… and women and feminism, and what it means to have a body…” [1] In a 2016 interview with Cathy Hannabach for the podcast Imagine Otherwise, Rile Smith details her investment in “depicting female strength and relationships between women…Though this sometimes feels really basic, it also feels deeply essential to us, in part because we live in a world in which relationships between women are underrepresented in media or squashed into stereotypes, even in sometimes places where we would expect to have them made central.”[2]

In June, Rile Smith depicts two distinct visions of the month of June: one in which the protagonist is subsumed by the sweltering room of a house in summer, a veritable “oven” in which the passage of time slows. Surrounded by this sense of stasis, June’s protagonist reflects on what once was, stating, “I go shopping in my own past– those well-worn handles, broken jars, alone with you. Can you let me know, the sound that travels back…” The second poetic segment of June, from which I take the long way there excerpts its title, occurs a year later. The protagonist now finds themselves in nature, contemplating the clouds, trees, and sunset. Time inevitably rushes on, and the cycles of life and death continue. They observe, “The rush of days don’t care about your heart… Where were your words? Now, I am: soundless, happy, another pin on the trestle, spoke on the wheel.”

Hiking in Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia (2021)
Photo: Noelle McMurtry

In interpreting June, I was drawn to its depiction of these two very distinct states of being, both of which I have experienced over the past year of pandemic life: feelings of monotony, stagnation, powerlessness, deep sadness, a nostalgia for some sort of past self, as well as the grateful escape into nature with my partner and dog, hiking paths together, taking a multitude of walks, and marking time by looking out my window, all of which I took for granted previously.

While June was originally conceived for voice and looper pedal, for the purposes of I take the long way there, I created this rendering of June via looping with myself on Soundtrap, a multi-tracking audio recording platform, which I learned to use over this past year. Musically, June represents one of my attempts at “buying in” to a virtual performance life. It also flatly broke me of my pessimistic inability to listen to my own recorded voice, since I spent hours considering loops upon loops of myself. Ultimately, June serves as the first opportunity I have ever had to sing with myself.

Watch

June by Melissa Dunphy
Movement i
Movement ii

Notes

  1. Cathy Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise: Lauren Rile Smith on Feminist Circus Art,” Ideas on Fire, March 9, 2016, https://ideasonfire.net/5-lauren-rile-smith/.
  2. Hannabach, “Imagine Otherwise.”
  3. Melissa Dunphy, “June,” bandcamp, https://melissadunphy.bandcamp.com/album/june.
The Woman Within the Portrait:  Ria & Mizzi

The Woman Within the Portrait: Ria & Mizzi

Reflections on Lacy Rose’s cycles Ria (2018) and Hope I (2017)

Lacy Rose’s Ria and Hope I were performed as part of Portraits: The Self Illuminated. For more information about the program, including full recordings of both works, check out my projects.

Portrait of Gustav Klimt (1914) by Anton Josef Trčka

Gustav Klimt (1862-1918)

Gustav Klimt was an Austrian painter and leader of the Vienna Secession, an artist collective who rebelled against what they viewed as nineteenth-century historicism in favor of an Art Nouveau style. With Klimt, the Art Nouveau style manifested itself in colorful, mosaic-like canvases, often populated by human figures, intertwined with one another in fluid and erotic positions. Although the Viennese establishment was scandalized by his “risqué” paintings and public murals, Klimt financed his career as portrait painter of the Viennese elite.

Within lush home interiors, Klimt’s portrait subjects peer out through the canvas, expressing elements of their personalities and desires through the artist’s “exoticizing” lens. He was particularly interested in women as portrait subjects, claiming, “I am less interested in myself as a subject for painting than I am in other people, above all women.” [1] These “interests” were sometimes romantic or sexual, and he had numerous relationships with the models of his works. It is claimed that, while he remained unmarried, Klimt fathered fourteen children with his partners.

Maria “Ria” Munk (1887-1911)

At 24 years of age, Maria (“Ria”) Munk committed suicide on December 28, 1911, after the poet and writer Hanns Heinz Ewers broke off their engagement. Her mother, Aranka Pulitzer Munk (1862-1941), wished to commission a death-bed portrait of her deceased daughter, a genre that was en vogue in turn-of-the-century Vienna. Since Ria’s sister, Serena Lederer, was a patron of Gustav Klimt, she arranged for the artist to paint her sister’s portrait. Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I), or Ria Munk on her Deathbed, was finished in 1912 and subsequently rejected by Aranka Munk. She found the portrait too realistic and upsetting to view. Aranka decided that Ria should be depicted as youthful and joyful, as she was when living. Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II), or The Dancer, followed, but was also rejected by the family. Their exact reasoning has never been revealed, but after their refusal of the painting, it is most likely that Klimt altered the original to resemble Johanna Jusl, a dancer at the Vienna Hofoper and an artist’s model.

Ria Munk am Totenbett (Ria Munk I) (1912) by Gustav Klimt
Die Tänzerin (Ria Munk II) (1916-1918) by Gustav Klimt
Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) (1917, Unfinished) by Gustav Klimt

Ria Munk’s final portrait, Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III), or Woman’s Portrait, was left unfinished due to Klimt’s sudden death in 1917. In Ria Munk III, Ria is presented in profile, smiling, her cheeks slightly flushed, her body enveloped by the colorful patchwork interior behind her.  Bouquets of flowers, akin to her death-bed portrait, still frame her face.

The life of Ria Munk III, however, does not end with Klimt’s passing. Aranka Munk hung her daughter’s portrait at her villa, Bad Aussee, until the Nazis seized her family’s property in 1942. The Munk family was Jewish, and Aranka was deported to Lodz, a Nazi concentration camp in Poland, where she was murdered in 1942. That same year, Ria’s sister, Lola, was murdered at Chelmno in Poland.  

Frauenbildnis (Ria Munk III) was eventually passed to art collector and dealer William Gurlitt, who sold the painting in 1953 to the Lentos Museum in Linz, Austria. The painting remained at the museum until 2009, when the city council of Linz finally voted to return Ria Munk III to its rightful owners, the descendants of the Munk family. [2]

NYC-based composer and singer Lacy Rose (b. 1990) composed her cycle Ria for voice and string quartet to illuminate the personhood of Ria Munk as it evolves from portrait to portrait. In describing the narrative flow of Ria (with text that she herself wrote), Rose writes:

The first movement begins inside the painting, “Ria Munk I,” with Ria asking her bereaved to “close and coin her eyes.” In the second movement, inspired by “Ria Munk II” (also known as “The Dancer”), the woman “who holds the marigolds with swan-soft hands” asks the spectator to ponder her double identity and origin of inspiration. For the third movement, the unfinished figure in Ria Munk III exclaims that she “begins and ends in death.” [3]

Listen

Ria Munk II, from Ria by Lacy Rose

Christopher Ciampoli, violin
William Weijia Wang, violin
Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Alexander Cousins, cello

Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann (1879-1975)

Schubert at the Piano (1899) by Gustav Klimt, destroyed by the Nazis in 1945
Hope I (1903) by Gustav Klimt

Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann was an artist’s model and romantic partner of Gustav Klimt. In 1887, at 18 years old, she first met Klimt, then 35 years old, in passing on the street, and their professional and romantic relationship began soon afterwards. Mizzi posed for many of Klimt’s paintings as a model. Since she often appeared as an unnamed representation, Mizzi occupied a less publicly visible role in Klimt’s creative process than his wealthier portrait subjects.

In Klimt’s Schubert at the Piano, a painting commissioned by Greek industrialist Nikolaus Dumba in 1898, we find Mizzi standing at the far left of the canvas, illuminated by candlelight, intently watching Franz Schubert, Klimt’s favorite composer, perform. Zimmermann and Klimt had two sons, Gustav (1889-1976) and Otto, who was born in 1902 and died within the same year. While Klimt lived a modest lifestyle as a freelance artist, he rented Mizzi and their children a small apartment. When their relationship ended, he provided financially for his son, Gustav, until his death. Klimt left Maria Zimmerman a small sum in his will, but he did not legally identify any of his children as heirs. Although she lived to be 96 years old, Mizzi never owned a single painting by Klimt or benefited from the sale of his works posthumously, even though her body and likeness were frequently represented. [4]

Mizzi’s relationship to Hope I (1903), however, is not as direct as the painting may suggest. Indeed, she was not the actual model for this painting, although she was heavily pregnant and gave birth to Otto during the period of its creation. Instead, the model Herma, who is known to history only by her first name, represents Hope with the promise of new life within her.

Mizzi’s “essence,” though, pervades the painting through historical speculation. Originally, Klimt sketched a male figure in the painting, comforting Hope. After Otto’s death, he re-configured the painting’s images, removing its male figure. Instead, Hope stands alone with her baby, still surrounded by a halo of light, but now menaced by skeletons and ghouls behind her. She is either unafraid, or unaware of these deathly forces.

Lacy Rose writes of her impetus to compose the cycle Hope I for voice, string quartet, and piano:

Mizzi represents so many of the women in the paintings whose names and lives are lost to time but whose images are immortalized by the painters, often male painters whose names we still remember. For me, I felt it my duty to help Mizzi reclaim her personhood… This is the story of Maria “Mizzi” Zimmermann. [5]

Listen

Hope III, from Hope I by Lacy Rose
Eunchan Kim, piano
Christopher Ciampoli, violin
William Weijia Wang, violin
Flavia Pajaro-van de Stadt, viola
Alexander Cousins, cello

As we encountered the three Ria Munks in Ria, in Rose’s Hope I, we now meet several versions of Mizzi, all through the lens of portraiture. In the first movement, an elderly Mizzi reflects on the painting that she once inspired. The second movement derives from the perspective of the woman inside the painting, another version of Mizzi who describes the demons that surround her. The final movement is drawn from Mizzi herself, who pleads with the spectator to truly see her and free her from the painting.

Notes

  1. Alexxa Gotthardt, “What You Need to Know about Gustav Klimt.” Artsy.net. March 26, 2018. https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-gustav-klimt.
  2. Allison McNearney, “How Gustav Klimt’s Unfinished ‘Ria Munk III’ Finally Escaped the Nazis.” Daily Beast. Updated April 7, 2018. https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-gustav-klimts-unfinished-ria-munk-iii-finally-escaped-the-nazis.
  3. Lacy Rose, Liner Notes to Ria. Released by Lacy Rose, 2018.
  4. Georg Markus, „Sensationeller Fund: Klimts Geliebte spricht.“ Kurier. January 1, 2018. Accessed November 21, 2019. https://kurier.at/kultur/klimts-geliebte-spricht/307.523.783.
  5. Lacy Rose. Liner Notes to Mizzi. Released by Lacy Rose. 2017.
“one heart and one soul”: The Songs of Clara and Robert Schumann

“one heart and one soul”: The Songs of Clara and Robert Schumann

Reflections on Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann (1841)

German Romantics: Clara was featured on the film-recital project, I take the long way there. For more information about the repertoire on this program, check out my projects.

Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

Clara Schumann (1857)
Photo: Franz Hanfstaengl (1804–1877) 

Clara Schumann, a German Romantic-era pianist, composer, and piano pedagogue, was a celebrated virtuoso. From the age of eleven, she managed a 61-year concert career, touring throughout Europe. Her success as a concert artist secured essential income for her eight children and husband, the renowned composer Robert Schumann (1810-1856). She began composing as a child, and her compositions later included solo piano pieces, chamber music, choral works, and Lieder.

At the age of thirteen, Clara began to compose one of her most famous works, Piano Concerto in A minor, which she later premiered in Leipzig with composer Felix Mendelssohn as conductor. Due to her touring schedule, the management of her large household, and her own personal hesitancy towards composition, Clara’s output was often sporadic.

In her diaries, Clara expressed intense self-doubt about her compositional abilities, internalizing nineteenth-century socio-cultural prejudices against women as composers. She wrote in 1839, “I once believed that I had creative talent, but I have given up this idea; a woman must not wish to compose – there never was one able to do it. Am I intended to be the one? It would be arrogant to believe that.” [1] After Robert’s death in 1856, Clara composed only two other pieces and turned her energy to performing, teaching, and caring for her children.

Throughout their marriage, Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann constitutes the only explicit compositional collaboration between the Schumanns. The collection includes nine songs by Robert and three by Clara, listed under the joint opus numbers op. 37/12. Throughout a protracted legal battle with Clara’s father, Friederich Wieck, over her hand in marriage and control of Clara’s finances, Robert continually expressed his desire to compose with his fiancée.

In 1839, he wrote to her that “we shall publish a good deal under both our names; posterity shall regard us as one heart and one soul and not find out what is yours and what is mine.”[2] In 1841, at the publication of the first edition of Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling, Robert purposefully instructed the songs to be published without identifying which “belonged” to each composer, further cementing his desire that the Schumanns were united in all things, including their aesthetic sensibilities. In fact, without prior knowledge, it was nearly impossible for nineteenth-century critics, performers, and audiences to discern who had specifically composed what, since Robert and Clara’s harmonic and motivic choices within Zwölf Gedichte complemented each other seamlessly. 

Clara and Robert Schumann (c. 1850)
Photo: Corbis, via Getty Images
Friederich Rückert; 19th Century Carte de visite after a drawing by B. Semptner

For poetic texts, Robert chose selections from Liebesfrühling, a collection of four hundred poems written by Friederich Rückert (1788-1866) during the courtship of his wife. Not only was Rückert one of Robert’s favorite poets, but the poetry itself was an apt choice for the newly married couple. In Liebesfrühling, Rückert crafted his poetry from two distinct perspectives: the voice of the poet (a male protagonist) and the voice of his Geliebte, or beloved (a female protagonist). After excerpting a set of Rückert poems for the joint project, Robert asked Clara to set five of the texts.

In January of 1841, Robert had composed nine Rückert songs in a flurry of compositional activity. By May of that year, Clara still struggled to compose her selections, writing in their shared diary, “With composition nothing at all is happening — sometimes I’d like to knock myself on my dumb head!” [3] However, weeks later, Clara finished four of her Rückert settings: “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Die gute Nacht.” She gifted the song set to Robert as a birthday gift, who then ordered the songs for publication, ultimately removing Clara’s “Die gute Nacht” from the collection. After offering their shared endeavor to the publisher Breitkopf & Härtel, Robert presented Clara with the newly published volumes, divided into two sets of six songs, each concluding with a duet, as her surprise birthday gift.

While Robert and Clara may have originally intended Zwölf Gedichte aus F. Rückerts Liebesfrühling von Robert und Clara Schumann to function as a musical dialogue between two performers, embodying a couple as they explore the many facets of their romantic bond through song, the collection is rarely performed as such. Instead, songs are often excerpted by composer with Clara’s set of three songs performed separately, an interpretive decision that we also followed in I take the long way there.

In examining Clara Schumann’s Op. 12, the collection consists of three songs: “Er ist gekommen,” “Liebst du um Schönheit,” and “Warum willst du and’re fragen.” “Er ist gekommen” compares the arrival of the beloved to a stormy deluge, which furiously sweeps into the protagonist’s life, leaving them to wonder, “How could I foresee that his path would merge with mine?” As the storm calms and spring returns, the beloved sets off on their path once more. The protagonist, however, does not fear their absence because “he remains mine on any path.” In “Liebst du um Schönheit,” the protagonist pleads with their beloved to love truly and freely, rejecting the false values of beauty, youth, and wealth. In the final song of Op. 12, “Warum willst du and’re fragen,” the protagonist questions why their beloved believes the “fancies” of strangers over the truth and constancy genuinely expressed through their eyes. The protagonist has a simple request: “Whatever my lips say, see my eyes – I love you!” 

Image: Elizabeth Van Os

In collaboration with NYC-based The Pleiades Project, I take the long way there reconceptualizes the three Lieder of Clara Schumann’s Op. 12 in German Romantics: Clara, which also represents the first film project I have ever co-created. While these songs may have marked the beginning of Clara and Robert’s union, our protagonist navigates Op. 12 as she copes with the end of an important relationship.

In coming to terms with the conclusion of this chapter in her life, our protagonist’s imagination travels to vibrant fantasy worlds. She engages with a series of invented historical personas, combining her contemporary self with illusory traces of past women’s lives. In becoming the heroine of her own story, our protagonist achieves a sense of closure, reapproaching her present circumstances with curiosity and a cautious hope for future possibilities.

Watch

Notes

  1. Nancy Reich, Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 216.
  2. Rufus Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder of Robert and Clara Schumann,” 19th-Century Music 14, no. 1 (Summer, 1990): 4, https://www.jstor.org/stable/746673.   
  3. Hallmark, “The Rückert Lieder,” 7.