Mel Bonis


Mel Bonis




| |
Go to bibliography >>

MEL BONIS, 1858-1937

Mélanie Bonis, born in a modest Parisian lower middle-class family,was a lively child, strong willed and very much inspired by her religious education. Nothing predisposed her to a musical destiny. She taught herself the piano, in a rather hostile family context, until the age of twelve, when her parents, influenced by one of their friends, Monsieur Maury, cornet professor at the prestigious Conservatoire, resigned themselves to give her a musical education.

She started to compose. At the age of 16, she was introduced by Maury to the famous composer César Franck who gave her piano lessons and showed a great interest in her first compositions. A year later, he brought her to the Conservatoire (at that time situated in the Hôtel des Menus Plaisirs, Rue Bergère, in Montmartre).

She attended the accompaniment, harmony and composition classes, sharing the benches with Debussy and Pierné. At the time, it was clear that musical composition could in no way be a profession for a woman, that a woman could not compose anything of value. Mélanie gave herself the pseudonym Mel Bonis to avoid any feminine connotation in her name.

In the singing class, she met Amédée Landély Hettich, a singing student with a strong personality, poet, journalist and musical critic with some influence already at the age of 22. She set his poems to music. Their passion met with the opposition of Mélanie's parents who refused this marriage into a "dangerous artistic world." They forced their daughter to leave the Conservatoire, to the great disappointment of her teachers, Ernest Guiraud and César Franck, and of the director, Ambroise Thomas. With a second prize in accompaniment and a first prize in harmony, already a promising composition student, Mélanie is forced to resign.

In 1883, a marriage was arranged by her family: against her will she married Albert Domange, an energetic businessman, twice widowed, father of five boys and 25 years her senior. He was a likeable fellow, jovial and materialistic. He did not share Mélanie's spiritual ideals. He did not like music. During nearly ten years, the young woman led a bourgeois life, apparently entirely devoted to her family duties. She shared her time between a private mansion in the rue de Monceau in one of the most elegant districts of Paris, a property in Sarcelles and a house in Étretat, a fashionable holiday resort in Normandy. She managed a large family and a staff of twelve people. She travelled, she went out and entertained. She gave her husband three children. She played the role of "Madame Domange" to perfection.

As her family circle took no interest in her music, external encouragements were needed to revive Mélanie's interest in composing. A few years after her marriage, she met up with Hettich again. He had also married. He encouraged her to compose, brought her closer to the musical milieu and introduced her to Alphonse Leduc, her future publisher. Her work started to get known: scores were sold and played in the parlours. Hettich and Mel Bonis worked together. She was the mainspring of his "Anthology of classical songs," she showed him her compositions for piano, accompanied his singing students and set his new poems to music, in particular "Elève-toi, mon âme," which expresses the passionate feeling that united them. Still in love with this man who wooed her passionately, in a courtship mixing desire, spirituality and symbiosis through music, Mel Bonis suffered a painful struggle between her feelings and her religious convictions. She resisted Hettich a long time. It was a great combat, a sense of shame which sharpened her sensibility and led her into temptation. Finally, having travelled to Switzerland for an alleged health cure, she secretly gave birth to a fourth child, little Madeleine whom she would never be able to recognize legally. She tried to sublimate these ordeals by prayers and musical creation.

She attempted to repudiate her femininity. She only corresponded with Hettich to obtain news of the child, that had been put in the care of one of her former chambermaids. She could only see the child grow up from afar. Her thoughts very often brought her back to Hettich. She could not get used to being separated from Madeleine. At home, she showed all the signs of a depression. And nevertheless...

She was a prolific and inspired composer. She composed about three hundred works: piano pieces, ranging from pieces for children to concert pieces, for two hands, four hands and two pianos; beautiful compositions for the voice, either profane, with songs for one or two voices (among them those set to texts by Hettich, her lover), or religious, with at least twenty-five works, most of them for choir a cappella or accompanied by organ or harp; about thirty pieces for organ or harmonium; about twenty chamber music works, including three sonatas, two piano quartets, a septet, etc...; and finally, eleven orchestral pieces. 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.

In the difficult period that followed the birth of her illegitimate child, Mélanie put all her energy into her music and endeavoured to promote it. She became a member of the "Société des compositeurs de musique" (SCM). This society organized composition competitions that attracted (and rejected) the most renowned composers: Mélanie twice won prizes, notably with her "Suite pour harpe chromatique et quatre instruments à vents". In 1910, a unique achievement for a woman at that time, she became secretary of the SCM, working daily with the elite of the Parisian music world, people like Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré, etc...

During that time, her music was played by the best performers in the most renowned concert halls: the "Trio Chaigneau" played "Soir et matin", a wonderful piece for violin, cello and piano; the famous pianist Francis Planté added her "Variations pour deux pianos" to his concert repertoire; her cello sonata was premiered at the Salle Berlioz by no less than Louis Fournier and Ricardo Viñes; her "Fantaisie" was played at the Théâtre du Chatelet by the "Orchestre Colonne" conducted by Gabriel Pierné. Hettich, whose career was as brilliant on the intellectual as on the artistic level (he was appointed professor at the Conservatoire) was always present at the musical events that were important for Mélanie

At the same time, "Madame Domange" went on living her very bourgeois life. Her older son married the daughter of the famous editor Fasquelle, who published the novels of Émile Zola. She took, from afar, all the decisions concerning the education of her daughter Madeleine, so near in the secrecy of her heart: the child became a boarder at the École Sainte-Geneviève in Neuilly, near Paris. Madeleine went back to her foster parents during the holidays. Her mother still unknown to her, she was given the name of Hettich at the age of thirteen: her father, now widowed, could at last recognize her legally. The explanations given to Madeleine about her parentage were as confusing as they were changeable.

At the start of the Great War, Madeleine's foster mother died and it was necessary to find lodgings for her during the summer holidays. Mélanie took her in as an orphan victim of the war. She introduced her as her goddaughter. Madeleine, now fifteen years old, stayed more and more frequently with the Domanges at Sarcelles or Étretat and thrived on the contact with the numerous young people of the second generation of the clan, those who had not yet been called up.

The war affected this family like all others and Mélanie gave more and more evident signs of depression, lying down most of the time (see Piano CD: "La cathédrale blessée"). In 1918 she lost her husband, but the return of her son Édouard, who had been a prisoner of war, was a great relief.

Unfortunately, a romance began to blossom between Madeleine, the secret daughter, and her half-brother Édouard. Short of any sensible arguments to prevent this union, the mother was forced to confess to her daughter her love for Hettich, her sin and her maternity. This overwhelming revelation brought back all the memories that had never really been buried. According to the cruel moral laws of the time, the secret had to be kept: such a revelation, in such a milieu, was at that time impossible. It would have shattered the honour of the whole family. Mélanie forced her daughter to swear secrecy on the bible.

Madeleine was devastated by the confession. She never recovered from having been excluded from her own family while living within it; she never recovered from her forbidden love for her brother Édouard.

But despite their misunderstandings, mother and daughter became closer. Soon Madeleine came to live with Mélanie, now widowed. Mélanie began writing music again. Madeleine was a very good musician and practiced her piano pieces. In 1923 she married and moved away from her mother, now 65 years old. Madeleine became herself a mother to three children, but she was always unsatisfied, radiating sensitivity and deep sadness. She wrote daily and often visited Mélanie, an old lady reclining on her chaise longue, eyes riveted to the sky, looking forward to her reunion with her Lord, her "pure love."

© Christine Géliot; English translation by Florence Launay and Michael Cook



Payer par carte

2nd edition
by Christine Géliot,
Editions de l'Harmattan.

ISBN : 978-2-296-09409-3 • September 2009 • 318 pages
Price : 24 €