About this Recording
8.223449 - HOLMES: Orchestral Works
English  French 

Augusta Holmès (1847–1903)
Orchestral Works


“Like children, women have no idea of obstacles; and their will-power breaks all barriers. Mademoiselle Holmès is a woman, an extremist”. With its somewhat misogynistic extremism, the judgment of Saint-Saëns in Harmonie et Mélodie gives a good idea of the admiration and amazement felt in her own time for a woman who succeeded, thanks to her talents, but also through her will-power, in bringing about recognition that the word “composer” also has a feminine.

Augusta Holmès was born on 18th December 1847 into an Anglo-Irish family that had settled in France. Her godfather was Alfred de Vigny, a family friend who, according to some, was the real father of the girl. The fairies were particularly generous: Augusta was beautiful, of superior intelligence, she was a gifted painter, wrote well and above all she showed very early an exceptional proclivity for music. Remarkable as a pianist, she possessed, and kept, a voice of extraordinary colour and range. Anyone of her gifts would have assured her a successful career, but it was the third, then infinitely more dangerous for a woman, that she chose to cultivate: disdaining the interpretation of the music of others, she devoted herself entirely to her own.

Since the Conservatoire was closed to the weaker sex, Augusta Holmès studied with Klosé, submitted her first compositions to her friend Franz Liszt, who gave her advice, and then to Wagner, whom she defended in France and who was not sparing in his encouragement. She finally completed her musical education under César Franck and became the inspiring Egeria of the group that gathered at 95, boulevard Saint-Michel. Her talents and also her striking beauty made a devastating impression: Vincent d’Indy found her disturbing, Saint-Saëns, hypocritically, asked her several times, but always in vain, to marry him, and the tender feelings that Franck entertained towards her were at the origin of his famous Quintet.

Augusta Holmès could have circumvented the obstacles that hindered her career as a composer by confining herself, as others did, to suitably feminine compositions, little salon pieces or graceful romances. Certainly, she wrote some 150 songs, but there she followed absolutely her literary inclinations (she hardly ever used any other texts than those she had written herself) rather than the taste of her own time for this kind of music. Above all she chose to tackle larger musical forms, symphonic poems, oratorios or choral symphonies, and, of course, opera. La Montagne Noire (“The Black Mountain”), staged at the Opéra in Paris in 1895, enjoyed great success with the public but was castigated by one critic, who declared directly: “We do not want to open the doors of our theatres and opera-houses to women writers and composers”. The musical establishment of the time could not forgive Augusta Holmès for having been chosen as the composer of the massive work that marked the centenary of the French Revolution, that Ode Triomphale (“Triumphal Ode”) that called for no less than 1,200 performers and was applauded by 15,000 Parisians at the Palais d’Industrie during the celebrations of 1889.

Gods and men are jealous. The first cut short the life of Augusta Holmès on 28th January 1903, at the age of fifty-five. The second did their best to forget this disturbing meteor. It is only today that we may begin to give her proper place in the French music of the end of the nineteenth century, no mean position, as will be apparent.

Finally, although we are concerned here with music, we cannot pass over in silence the effect that Alfred de Vigny’s god-daughter had on the other arts. The companion of Catulle Mendès, the father of her five children, hostess of the élite Parnassus of the day, Augusta Holmès was the friend of Henri Regnault, Stéphane Mallarmé, Villiers de I’isle Adam, Mistral, Rodin, Renoir, Pierre Loti, Léon Daudet and George Moore. Henri Barbus married one of her daughters. Charles Cros, whom she often met at the house of Nina de Villars, should be doubly happy at this new enrichment on record.

The pieces recorded here present an anthology that is thoroughly representative of the orchestral compositions of Augusta Holmès, with the exception, always, of the Ouverture pour une Comédie (“Overture for a Comedy”). In fact this poses problems of dating and of the purpose of composition which have not been resolved: it remains the only one (and one of the rarest works of Augusta Holmès) that has not been published. It is preserved in a manuscript full score and in separate orchestral parts, which shows that it was almost certainly performed. To add to the mystery, there is a brief mention of the work in the writing of the composer, describing it as an early work. If we take this at face value, it is nevertheless contradicted by the complexity and the competence of the score. In all probability she meant by an early work (“oeuvre de jeunesse”) one of those pieces that she had written before she began, about 1876, to have the advice of Franck. The Ouverture pour une Comédie would belong, therefore, to the period 1871–75, a time when her musical training was still limited and not yet equal to her bold ambitions. With reference to another work of this period, Astarté, Liszt wrote affectionately but ironically to his friend: “In comparison with your Astarté, the works of the most daring composers are no more than little pieces from a girls’ boarding-school”. It is possible that this score was intended, like her opera Héro et Léandre, for the Châtelet Theatre, where attempts were being made to introduce popular opera. This endeavour, generous as it was imprudent, failed and the works by Augusta Holmès for the house were, in consequence, never performed.

There is a return to firmer ground with the four other works here recorded, composed in the 1880s and extremely successful. They are, it must be said again, completely characteristic of the style, or rather of the two styles of Augusta Holmès: the first all energy and heroism, the second lyrical, tender and sensual. These two elements are found in Andromède, which bears the date 1883, but was only published in 1902, after the successful performance by Colonne at his concerts in 1900. A sign of the fame that Augusta Holmès enjoyed at the time is seen in the fact that Edmond Missa, winner of the Grand prix de Rome in 1881, did not think it below him to make a piano duet transcription. It will be noticed that, contrary to one idea of her work that has currency, the writing and orchestration are more in the tradition of Liszt and Franck than in that of Wagner.

La Nuit et I’Amour (“Night and Love”) illustrates equally the two feelings favoured by Augusta Holmès. It is actually part of a grand symphonic ode for choirs and orchestra, with verse recitation, Ludus pro Patria. Inspired by the picture of the same name by Puvis de Chavannes, today in the Metropolitan Museum in New York, this work, composed in 1888, sets out to celebrate “the sublime standards, painted with the blue of the sky, the whiteness of the snow-capped peaks and the bright red blood of heroes”. La Nuit et I’Amour, marked Andante amoroso, is the second movement and the text, written, as always by Augusta Holmès herself, recalls the fact the heroes themselves have a master:

Love! Divine word! Creator of worlds!
Love! Inspiration of fruitful ecstasy!
Love! Conqueror of conquerors!

First performed on 4th June 1888 with the famous Mounet-Sully as speaker, the work was so successful that it was necessary to arrange a second performance the following week. Extracts from it were often played, including La Nuit et I’Amour, and a number of arrangements were made: with recording still in its infancy, transcription brought the publisher and the composer a large public…and a fruitful market.

Whatever the musical and literary qualities of the work, the enthusiasm aroused by Ludus pro Patria may be explained also by the patriotic climate of the first decades of the Third Republic, in inevitable reaction to the defeat of 1871. Augusta Holmès always showed herself extremely aware of the political climate in France and elsewhere. The two symphonic poems Irlande (“Ireland”) in 1882 and Pologne (“Poland”) in 1883, bear witness to this. In both she expresses the anger of oppressed people, the feeling of nostalgia for the old country, before foreign conquest and the burning hope for future independence. As far as Poland is concerned, it will be remembered that, contrary to the hopes of Europe, the advent of Alexander III in 1881 brought no improvement in the lot of the Poles, under the ruthless policy of assimilation under Pobedonostsev. Augusta Holmès drew here too her inspiration from a picture, in this case a work by Tony Robert Fleury, Les Massacres de Varsovie (“The Warsaw Massacres”). Pologne was first performed in 1883 at Angers. It was immediately played in Paris under Pasdeloup, winning continued success there.

Irlande too makes similar allusion to the historical troubles of the country. The election of sixty members of parliament who were in favour of Home Rule, the disputes of their leader Pamell with the hesitant Prime Minister Gladstone, the obstinate opposition of the House of Lords to all reform, had brought a new series of troubles and assassinations. Augusta Holmès, whose father Cosima Wagner had called “the old Fenian” and who proudly proclaimed her Irish origin, could not but be doubly sensible of this. This symphonic poem, one of her finest works, composed in 1882 and first performed by Colonne in November of the same year, remains today, with its famous Trois anges sont venus ce soir (“Three angels came this evening”), the best known, or the least unknown, of the works of Augusta Holmès. It remained for a long time, even after the composer’s death, a standard work to be played at Sunday concerts.

© 1994 Gérard Gefen
English translation by Keith Anderson

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