Finally emerging from the shadows of patriarchal history, the songs of mostly unknown women composers from the Parisian salons of La Belle Èpoque (1871 – 1914) are seeing the light of day.
Ombres, the new BIS recording from soprano Laetitia Grimaldi and pianist Ammiel Bushakevitz, allows us to savor and assess songs from two knowns — Pauline Viardot and Cécile Chaminade. Then there are the far lesser known: Mélanie (Mel) Bonis, Armande de Polignac, Juliette Folville, Marguerite Béclard d’Harcourt, Hélène-Frédérique de Faye-Jozin, Gabrielle Ferrari, and Augusta Holmès.
If you have not heard of some of these women, it’s because they often published their music under male pseudonyms. Such was the case for Faye-Jozin, who presented her compositions as Frédérique de Faye while also performing piano all over Europe and publishing an edition of her poetry, Poèmes sincères, in 1910. Others received plaudits through male analogies. Holmès’s gifts were acknowledged early on when, at age 16, she sent some of her scores to Franz Liszt and received the reply, “Some songs are the equal of Schubert’s final inspirations.” Nonetheless, despite such praise, the press labeled her mature songs and texts as from the pen of a “virile talent.” As soon as she died, her work was forgotten.
The recording’s tone is set by the opening track, Bonis’s “Invocation” to text by Édouard Guinand. The poem is as romantic as it gets and the music is lovely. Grimaldi displays a fine voice, a bit shallow on the bottom (as if the voice of the great Elisabeth Schumann wasn’t far shallower) and a mite stretched at the very top. If she doesn’t bring much to the sound beyond a generalized sense of expectation, it’s likely because there’s not much more to savor than “limpid wavelets, flitting birds, and deep woods.” The poem speaks of “night more seductive than the day” and the blessings of the “first kiss of love!” but there’s nothing specific in the melody to bring these images and events to life.
And here is my conundrum. As a male, how do I not come off as chauvinistic when I say that, to these ears, some of these songs are lovely and charming — some are downright seductive in their beauty — but lack the distinction of the great songs of Debussy, Fauré, Chausson, Ravel, and other male composers of the period. Did I not listen hard enough? Was I unwilling to listen deeply in the first place? Or do I perhaps need to hear the same songs performed by another singer?
Those questions I will leave for you to answer after you audition the album. What is beyond question is that some of the songs by the two most well-known of these composers are quite wonderful. Viardot, daughter of the great tenor Manuel García and sister of the great singer Maria Malibran, wrote some real gems. The melody of “Les ombres de minuit” (The shadows of midnight) is haunting, the atmosphere of “Les deux roses” (The two roses) truly perfumed, the refrain of “Haï luli” folk-like and unforgettable, and the unquestionable beauty of “Les étoiles” (The stars) a gift to savor.
The addition of Talia Erdal’s cello on this song and Bonis’s “Élève-toi, mon âme” (Arise, my love) enhances the beauty, and Bushakevitz’s pianism is, as always, extremely sensitive and beautifully judged. If only Grimaldi’s instrument bloomed with greater freshness, purity, and ease on top, it would take the songs to the next level of splendor.
The other known composer is Chaminade, whose reputation in the U.S. inspired countless women to form “Chaminade Societies” where they performed her music and, perhaps, encouraged each other to write music of their own. Her three songs, all characteristically La Belle Époque, include a lovely “Villanelle” which shines best when sung in a voice filled with youth and sunlight. “L’anneau d’argent” (The silver ring) is meant to elicit smiles, and “Nice-la-belle” (Beautiful Nice) is the French equivalent of the romance of the New York skyline as viewed from the Staten Island Ferry in a black-and-white movie from the ’30s or ’40s.
Be sure to listen to de Polignac’s hauntingly beautiful, far from ordinary “Jardin du roi” (The king’s garden). There are plenty of surprise turns in her songs to engage on multiple levels. And enjoy how Holmès, the daughter of an Irish major who was educated at Versailles, set her own poetry. By all means, go for the SACD or 24/96 download if you’re equipped to play them.