Sunday, February 24, 2008
Biography of the day: Augusta Holmès
Before I started playing the violin and writing music myself, I spent quite a bit of time obsessing about various composers. One of them was Augusta Holmès (1847-1903) who was born in Paris and grew up in Versailles. Her Irish father, Dalkieth Holmes, was a retired army captain, and her English mother, also named Augusta, was a painter, poet, and horsewoman. Her godfather, Alfred de Vigny, played a great role in Augusta Holmès' education (and some contend that due to a physical resemblance between him and Holmès that he was her natural father).
Holmès studied harmony and counterpoint with Henri Lambert, the organist of the Versailles Cathedral, orchestration with Hyecinthe Klose (1808-1880), the Director of the Regimental Band at Versailles, and voice with Guillot de Sainbris. Later, around 1875, Holmès studied with Cesar Franck, who wove his romantic feelings about her into his Piano Quintet, a piece that Mrs. Franck despised.
Musical life at Versailles was centered around a military band, and Holmès was surrounded by wind players. Her orchestration teacher Klose (who also taught clarinet at the Paris Conservatory) encouraged Augusta to both write for and conduct the regimental band. The advantage of her early training writing for winds gave Holmès' orchestration interesting textures and a fresh voice against the organ-dominated colors of her contemporaries in France.
By age twelve, when she began writing songs, Augusta Holmès spoke French, English, German, and Italian. With a background in poetry and classics offered to her by her Godfather, she wrote most of her own texts. For some of her earliest songs Holmès used texts by contemporary poets, but for most of her 128 songs she supplied her own texts. She began having her songs published when she was fourteen, three under the pseudonym Hermann Zenta, and four under the name A.Z. Holmes, but the bulk of her music, most of which was published during her lifetime, was published under her own name.
After her father's death and after serving as a nurse in the Franco-Prussian war, Augusta Holmès became a French citizen, and added an accent to the "e" in her name. As her father's only heir, she had a generous income and could live as she wished. She also had an extremely generous nature and supported her lover Catulle Mendès and their four children. (Renoir's portrait "The children of Catulle Mendès" is a portrait of three of Holmès' five children). I find it odd that the on-line resources about Mendès do not mention Augusta Holmès. The family resemblance is rather striking. Those de Vigny genes seem to be rather strong.
In 1994 Marco Polo offered the first recording ever made of Holmès' orchestral music, performed by the Reinland-Pfalz Philharmonic conducted by Samuel Friedman and Patrick Davin. It includes her Ouverture pour une Comedie, Andromede, and the extract "La Nuit en Amour" from Ludos pro Patria, and the tone poems Ireland, and Pologne. Holmès' early work shows obvious influences of Bizet, Schumann, and Wagner, but her later work is quite unique and her orchestrating is unusual. Ireland (from 1882) begins with a minute-long unaccompanied clarinet solo. (Debussy's half-minute-long solo flute beginning of the Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (1892) is the only other example of lengthy unaccompanied solo wind writing in an orchestral context I know.)
Not recorded, and probably very difficult to record (if the music is even available somewhere) is Holmes' 1889 Ode Triomphale, a piece for a chorus of 900 and an orchestra of 300--a virtual symphony of a thousand--that was performed four times during the Paris Exhibition. She offered her services gratis and donated the profits from the one performance that was not open to the public to the victims of flooding in Antwerp.
The only complete biography of Holmès in English, The Life and Songs of Augusta Holmès, is a 1983 Ph.D. Thesis for the University of Maryland by Nancy Sarah Theeman. There is a 2002 biography about her in French, twelve of her songs were reprinted commercially in 1984 by Da Capo Press, and there is a book about her songs by Brigitte Olivier.
Though Holmès has largely been ignored by musicologists there is an article about Holmès in the 1967 Musical Quarterly (vol 53 #3). Rollo Myers judges Holmès' music by hearsay, and is quite critical of it without having an actual basis for his criticism. Thanks to the work done by Marco Polo, Da Capo, Nancy Theeman, and Brigitte Olivier, we should now be able to judge the music of Augusta Holmès on its own merits.