Mel Bonis (January 21, 1858 – March 18, 1937)
Bonis was born to a Parisian lower-middle-class family and had a strict Catholic upbringing. Her parents were not musical and though they had a piano, nobody in the home played it until she taught herself to play. Initially her parents did not encourage her music, but when she was twelve, they were persuaded by their friend Monsieur Maury, a cornet professor at the prestigious Conservatoire, to allow her to receive formal music lessons.
She started to compose and at the age of 16 was introduced by Maury to the famous composer César Franck who gave her piano lessons and showed a great interest in her first compositions. She began at the Conservatoire, attending classes in accompaniment, harmony and composition alongside pupils including Claude Debussy and received tuition from César Franck.
A complicated personal life
At the Conservatoire she met and fell in love with Amédée Landély Hettich, a student, poet and singer, setting some of his poems to music. Her parents refused to allow her to marry into a “dangerous artistic world” and forced her to leave the Conservatoire to the great disappointment of her teachers and of the director, Ambroise Thomas, as she had won prizes for accompaniment and harmony and was already a promising composition student.
In 1883 her parents arranged for her to marry a businessman Albert Domange, who was a widower with 5 sons who was 25 years older than her.
The marriage was intended to curtail her music composition and limit her exposure to the musical community in Paris. For Bonis it was not an ideal marriage because Domange did not like music nor did he share her spiritual ideals. For almost 10 years she led a life devoted to family duties, sharing her time between their elegant Paris home and a house in a fashionable holiday resort in Normandy. She managed her large family, having 3 more children, as well as a staff of 12 people and played the role of “Madame Domange” to perfection.
A few years after her marriage, she met up with Hettich again who encouraged her to compose, brought her closer to the musical community and introduced her to Alphonse Leduc, her future publisher. Her work started to get known. Hettich and Bonis worked together and began a secret relationship which caused Bonis to suffer a painful struggle between her feelings and her religious convictions. She became pregnant with an illegitimate child and travelled to Switzerland for an alleged health cure where she secretly gave birth to a fourth child, Madeleine.
The child was put into the care of a former chambermaid, whilst Bonis devoted all her energies to 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 the most renowned composers and Mélanie won 2 prizes. In 1910 she became secretary of the SCM, working closely with the elite of the Parisian music world such as Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré – a unique achievement for a woman at that time.
During that time, her music was played by the best performers in the most renowned concert halls. Hettich, who had a successful career and was a 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 bourgeois life and raising her family. She stayed in touch with Madeleine’s foster parents, taking all of the decisions concerning the education of her daughter. At the start of the first World War, Madeleine’s foster mother died and Mélanie took the child in, introducing her as her 15 year old orphan goddaughter.
Unfortunately, a romance began between Madeleine and her half-brother Édouard and Bonis was forced to confess to her daughter about her parentage. Revealing this secret more widely would have brought great dishonour to the family because of the morals of the time and Mélanie forced her daughter to swear secrecy on the bible. Madeleine was devastated by the confession but continued to have a good relationship with her mother until she died in Sarcelles, Val-d’Oise.
In her liftetime it was clear that musical composition could never be a profession for a woman as it was thought that as they could not compose anything of value. Due to the difficulties encountered by women who wished to compose, she adopted the more androgynous form of her first name, “Mel”.
Wilhelm Altmann, a German historian and musicologist, commented on Bonis’s first quartet: “We would never think that this final movement was composed by a woman: this compliment is also intended to the preceding movements.”
Saint-Saëns also wrote to Jean Gounod, son of Charles Gounod, “I had never believed that a woman could write something such. She knows all the clever tricks of the composer’s trade.”
Coincidentally, Bonis was born the same year as another more well-known female composer, Cécile Chaminade. Chaminade married the music publisher Louis-Mathieu Carbonel, but became a widow only six years later. She was able to gain much more success during her lifetime than Bonis, probably due to her freedom from domestic responsibilities. Chaminade wrote: I do not believe that the few women who have achieved greatness in creative work are the exception, but I think that life has been hard on women; it has not given them opportunity; it has not made them convincing…There is no sex in art. Genius is an independent quality. The woman of the future, with her broader outlook, her greater opportunities, will go far, I believe, in creative work of every description”.
Bonis 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; sacred and profane vocal compositions (including songs set to texts by Hettich, her lover); about thirty pieces for organ; about twenty chamber music works, and eleven orchestral pieces.
Despite her prolific body of work, Bonis has not been as widely remembered as perhaps she should have been. Much of Bonis’s biographical information has been disseminated by her heirs, particularly by Christine Géliot, Bonis’s great-granddaughter who is a pianist, professor at the Asnières Conservatoire and President of l’Association Mel Bonis in France. Géliot produced the only comprehensive biography of Mel Bonis – Mel Bonis: femme et compositeur – in 2000.
Although the majority of Bonis’s works were written between 1892 and 1914, Géliot divides her output into three distinct periods related to personal events in her life. The first period, between 1892 and 1900, comprised predominately “charming” music; the second period, between 1900 and 1914, was “scholarly”; and the third period, between 1922 and 1937, was Bonis’s “spiritual” period of composition. Approximately one-third of Bonis’s works were neither printed nor published in her lifetime.
The life and works of Mel Bonis have been better remembered in France than in other countries.
The Danse Sacree is part of an ensemble entitled Suite en forme de valses, published in 1898 by Leduc. The ensemble contains four pieces: Ballabile, Danse sacree, Scherzo-Valse, Interlude et valse lente. These pieces were published in the versions for piano solo, piano four hands and orchestra, the orchestral version being the original version.