19th-century French composer Augusta Holmès returns to the fore

French composer Augusta Holmès in a photograph by L. Taponier, circa 1880


Outside musicological circles, composer Augusta Holmès remains unknown, but she was successful and widely acclaimed in 19th-century France. In fact, she was so admired that she was commissioned to write the Ode triomphale, for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the Paris World’s Fair that marked the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution.

With increased focus in the classical-music world to composers from underrepresented groups, Holmès is being rediscovered. Mariateresa Storino, a professor of music history at the Conservatory of Music Giaochino Rossini in Pesaro, Italy, believes it’s about time. On whether the composer deserves more recognition, she doesn’t hesitate. “My answer is obviously yes,” said Storino, who wrote "Liszt and Augusta Holmès," an essay published in the 2012 book Liszt et la France (Liszt and France).

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will perform Holmès music Oct. 14-17 when guest conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider leads the ensemble in the composer’s La nuit et l’amour (Night and Love), an orchestral interlude from Ludus pro patria, which debuted in 1888 in Paris. The five-movement work, an example of a distinctively French genre, the symphonic ode, combines elements of the symphony, opera and oratorio. Inspired by an enormous painting by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, a contemporary of the composer, it marries romantic lyricism with heroic patriotism.

La nuit et l’amour has been transcribed for solo piano and other instrumental combinations and has enjoyed considerable acclaim on its own. Written in a Wagnerian style, it begins with a lyrical melody first played by the cellos; the music gradually becomes more passionate via what Storino calls a “great orchestral crescendo.”

Holmès (1847-1903) was born in France to Irish parents. In 1871, she became a French citizen, added an accent to her name and began pronouncing it à la française. Storino describes the composer as a “fervent nationalist,” but at the same time, she was interested in other countries and empathetic to people living under oppression, as evidenced by her 1883 symphonic poem, Pologne (Poland).

She met celebrated composer and pianist Franz Liszt for the first and only time in Munich in 1869 at a rehearsal for the premiere there of Richard Wagner’s opera, Das Rheingold, under Hans Richter. Liszt already knew some songs by Holmès, because he had received a packet of her scores from Émile Ollivier, a French statesman whose first wife was Liszt’s daughter Blandine. Liszt regarded the music favorably, writing that some of her harmonies were on the same level as the most beautiful inspirations of Schubert. After their meeting, Liszt and Holmès began corresponding, and he subsequently invited her to Weimar. She was not able to visit because of the death of her father and the onset of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870.

She did not attend the Paris Conservatoire, because women then were not allowed to study theory and harmony, so she was forced to pursue her compositional lessons privately. Probably through the intervention of Camille Saint-Saëns, one of her best friends, she began studying in the 1870s with César Franck. Details about their interactions are hazy, but it is clear that Holmès’ musical language changed under the French composer’s tutelage, and she became more comfortable with large-scale musical forms, including cantatas and operas.

Holmès achieved considerable fame in France, especially in the 1880s and ’90s, as evidenced by the Ode triomphale and the 1895 premiere of her third opera, La Montagne Noire (The Black Mountain) at the Paris Opera. The latter was just the fourth opera by a woman ever staged by the company. She wrote both the music and the text for the Ode, a massive work that involved 300 musicians and 900 singers. “It was a triumphant musical realized as a kind of costumed parade,” Storino said. “I think it was the occasion that determined the success of the work.” It has never been presented since.

Holmès, who admired Wagner, was at the French premiere of the composer’s opera Tannhäuser in Paris and met with him in the Swiss town of Tribschen, where he lived with Cosima Liszt, who became his wife in 1870. Storino believes Holmès did not attain Wagner’s level of chromaticism, nor did she employ his innovative use of the leitmotiv, but she emulated many elements of his sound world. After France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, her admiration for this quintessentially German composer did not help her cause with French audiences.

Storino contends that Holmès has been largely forgotten for the same reason that many women composers have been overlooked: prejudice. But with the rise of gender studies, female creators have gotten considerably more scholarly attention. “The problem is that they often remain in the domain of musicology,” she said. “What women composers need is the musical scene — performances of their work. And this is a problem, because the repertoire is still very traditional, based on canonic works.”

And nearly always, such works are by men. On some special occasions, for example, an anniversary, women composers "arrive to the scene," Storino said. "But soon after, they come back to their dusty library shelves.” It has not helped that many of Holmès’ works remain in manuscript form and have never been edited and published, making it almost impossible for anything beyond her best-known compositions to be heard.

Probably her most popular work today is an 1887 Christmas carol titled "Trois anges sont venus ce soir" (Three Angels Came This Evening), although it is not always properly attributed to her. It has been recorded by soprano Barbara Hendricks and many others. Some of her art songs are performed, but they are challenging for singers, because Holmès wrote them for her own voice. She was a contralto with an unusually large range.

Some of her symphonic poems receive performances, such as Irlande (1882), Andromède (1883), and, of course, La nuit et l’amour. “We cannot say they are regularly performed,” Storino said, “because they not yet canonic works, but they are performed.”

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