Music Feature Print



A "Mighty Handful" of French Pianist-Composers, Their World, Their Pianos, Piano Music, and Playing Styles

June 15, 2012 - Williamsburg, MA:


Part I (of 4 parts)

Most Americans today are not very familiar with French music for the piano and its development, or even with the existence of a French style of piano playing. They know the names and some of the ‘chestnuts’ of the repertoire of a few French pianist-composers: Chopin, Debussy, Ravel; but they do not realize that there is a continuous line of musicians and piano music in France, much as there is in the Austro-German tradition from Bach through Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, and Brahms, for example. Piano and music history instruction and concert/recital programming in the US focus so heavily on this Austro-German tradition that even the English and American repertoires are ignored beyond a few big or popular names. The same is true for music criticism and reviewing: most music critics and writers are equally oblivious to the nature and scope of this tradition and the French composers within it; they write from the perspective and standards of the Austro-German tradition, which is not appropriate for the composers and their works that do not conform to or fit within it. This leads to a general lack of both knowledge and understanding of the music beyond that of the aforementioned big three, and consequent misconceptions about its nature, and, alas, often a negative view of it, and sometimes misinterpretations of their music as well. All are also unaware that there was, until the Great Depression and WW II caused it to fail, a significant piano manufacturing industry in France that produced instruments very highly regarded and extensively used throughout Europe, actually preferred by many 19th century non-French pianist-composers such as Franz Liszt (1811-86), and that those pianos have a sound that is very different from that of the modern ones to which we are accustomed. Most of the music of this quintet of pianist-composers was conceived and written for and on French instruments, makes essentially unknown in the US at the time, although German pianist Leopold de Meyer brought two Érard grands, a concert and a small one, with him when he toured the USA in 1845-46 (& presumably took them back to Europe), and there are a few here today. There is today also an interest in recording this music on French instruments of the time of its composition and creation.

The purposes of this long piece are, therefore, to introduce American classical piano music listeners and lovers to the piano music of the first three of these five composers: Saint-Saëns, Chabrier, Fauré, Debussy, and Ravel, whose music is under-performed here, as well as to the French playing style and the French instruments themselves, also mostly unknown here to the non-specialist, as well as to the world in which it was created, with the hope that they will be inspired to explore further. It is also intended to dispel some commonly held misconceptions about the piano music of these composers, some of which are, in fact, largely responsible for its not being performed here. Appendix F lists other composers, many of whom were also pianists and wrote for the piano, some of their music very beautiful and lovely, most of which is rarely or virtually never performed here, and even very little available in recordings. Many classical piano music listeners and lovers assume that the composers were indifferent about which piano was being used to play their music; indeed a few were, and all, like any composer, were always pleased to have it performed on whatever instrument was available. But most knew primarily French-built instruments, whose tones were totally different from the ones we are accustomed to hearing today from the fairly ubiquitous, even in France, Steinway products and other makes that do not really sound too different from each other with their uniformity across the registers and their emphasis on power and volume over nuance (although there are, of course, individual instruments that stand out from the rest), and most of them had their preferred or conceptually “ideal” makes.

Interconnections among the composers

Many Americans mentally classify Debussy and Ravel as contemporaries and as Impressionist composers, and believe that Ravel was inspired by Debussy, but the facts do not support this. Many (other than singers who know his Requiem) do not even know of Fauré, and if they do, are unfamiliar with his music for piano and do not know that he was Ravel’s composition teacher at the Conservatoire de Paris. (He also taught Nadia Boulanger and other composers as indicated in Appendix F.) This is perhaps the result of the fact that Achille-Claude Debussy (22 August 1862-25 March 1918; he changed his name to Claude-Achille in 1889 and dropped the Achille in 1892) was 13 years older than Joseph-Maurice Ravel (7 March 1875-28 December 1937), and it seems logical that the younger would be inspired by the elder. Gabriel Urbain Fauré (12 May 1845-4 November 1924), 17 years older than Debussy, wrote works in the Romantic forms but influenced many early 20th- century French composers because his music looked forward rather than backward, thereby bridging Late-Romanticism and Modernism, and because, as head of the Conservatoire from 1905 to 1920, he initiated numerous reforms that broke with long-established conservative traditions. As a teacher, he, unlike many others of his contemporary pedagogues, encouraged his pupils to follow their own paths rather than following his, and he tried to expose them to new music.

Fauré was thus following the practice of his own teacher, beginning at about the time of Debussy’s birth, the Late-Romantic composer Charles Camille Saint-Saëns (9 October 1835-16 December 1921). Fauré never studied at the Conservatoire; he studied at the conservative École de Musique Classique et Religieuse of Louis Niedermeyer, a boarding school founded in 1853, which trained musicians primarily for church positions (organ and choral conducting), where Saint-Saëns taught him piano from 1861 to 1865, replacing Niedermeyer after his death in 1861. Saint-Saëns, who never taught at any other musical establishment, and who was in many ways a Classicist rather than a Romantic, raised eyebrows by including in his instruction music by recent and contemporary composers such as Chopin, Liszt, Mendelssohn, Schumann (Fauré edited 37 volumes of his piano works beginning in 1915 and continuing intermittently until the end of his life.), and Brahms, as well as Beethoven and Bach (Fauré edited Das wohltemperirte Clavier in 1915, with fingerings prepared by Marguerite Long, and worked with Eugène Gigout and Joseph Bonnet on a new edition of the organ works from 1916 to 1920.) who were essentially ignored in music instruction in France at that time. Fauré was his favorite student, and, although he did not like Fauré’s later music, in particular the declamatory-style ‘opera’ Prométhée (1900; it was at the première of this work in Béziers, in the south of France, near his homeland, that he met Marguerite Hasselmans, daughter of Alphonse, renowned harpist and professor of harp at the Conservatoire, who was his discreet but by no means secret mistress for the last 25 years of his life) and the song cycle La Chanson d’Eve (1906-10), he respected the advances it represented, and they remained close friends until his death, as over 60 years of correspondence attest. Similarly, Fauré did not particularly like the music of Debussy but respected him and it very much, and he remained close to Ravel until his own death, although he did not like everything that Ravel wrote either. Fauré was always as detached in his relationships as he was in his music criticism, finding the way to balance his intellectual analysis and his personal feelings in an objective equilibrium. Ravel was also a very detached person and formed few truly close friendships. Saint-Saëns’ piano music is perhaps even less known to Americans than Fauré’s. An intermediary composer, Alexis-Emmanuel Chabrier (18 January 1841-13 September 1894), whose training and roughly 15-year compositional career were entirely outside the Conservatoire musical establishment, was also influential in the development of French piano music at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, both as an inspiration for his contemporaries and as a composer to whom his establishment contemporaries sometimes reacted negatively. He was revered by subsequent composers as the father of modern style, much as Manet (1832-83) was revered by the Impressionist painters as the father of their style. His piano music is as little known in the US as that of Saint-Saëns.

In 1871 Saint-Saëns, Fauré, César Franck, Alexis de Castillon, Jules Massenet, Romain Bussine (professor of voice at the Conservatoire), Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux (more about her below), and several others founded the Société Nationale de Musique to provide a way for living French composers to have their music heard: its motto was “Ars Gallica.” This was the organization that Ravel and his “Apaches” were revolting against when they founded the Société Musicale Indépendante 38 years later in 1909 because it had become too conservative under the leadership of Vincent d’Indy, composer associated with the Schola Cantorum, another private school founded in 1894 by him and other students of César Franck to focus on instrumental music as a counterbalance to the Conservatoire’s focus on opera and the École Niedermeyer’s on church music, and had failed to evolve according to the principles of its founders. Fauré became the S.M.I.’s first president, but did not resign from the S.N.M., as did Saint-Saëns; indeed, in 1917, he became its president as well, but his efforts to merge the organizations failed. Both organizations were independent, composer-run, and promoted new French music (although the S.N.M. began in the 1890s to include Austro-German music, which also contributed to the founding of the S.M.I. and the resignations and the later refusal to merge), and sponsored about ten concerts a year, some in halls, others in private salons, generally one orchestral, the others a mix of chamber, solo instrumental, and vocal music, the composers often participating in the performances, that featured recent compositions.

Chabrier coached, in his home in February 1893, Ravel and his Conservatoire colleague and perhaps his best friend throughout his life, and a close friend of Debussy as well, Catalan pianist (but not a composer) Ricardo Viñes (1875-1943), on performing his Trois valses romantiques; they eventually performed it in the Salle Érard on 9 February 1894, but Chabrier was too ill to attend. Ravel played the première performance of Debussy’s D’un cahier d’esquisses at an S.N.M. recital in the salon of Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux on 13 January 1905, where he also played his own Oiseaux tristes (Miroirs/2), and again at the first public concert of the S.M.I. in the Salle Gaveau on 20 April 1910, where Fauré’s La Chanson d’Eve was also premièred by Jeanne Raunay with the composer at the keyboard. Viñes premièred many of the works of Ravel and Debussy, several of which are dedicated to him, including Oiseaux tristes (He premièred the complete Miroirs at an S.N.M. concert in the Salle Érard on 6 January 1906.), Jeux d’eau, and Gaspard de la nuit, and Debussy’s Estampes, L’Isle joyeuse, both sets of Images and several of the Préludes, and when the two were no longer in personal contact, he played the works of each for the other. He also played many of Fauré’s piano works in salons and gave Paris premières of some major Russian works such as Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Later, he was Francis Poulenc’s (1899-1963) piano teacher.

These five composers constitute a direct lineage as well as a relatively smooth and steady transition from the Romantic to the Modern eras, both of which features show most clearly in their music for their own instrument, the piano, especially in the solo works, because those for four hands, be they on a single or two keyboards, often have a bravura element that tends to overpower the rest. Except for the special case of Chabrier, who began his music career late and died less than 15 years later, just as Debussy and Ravel were beginning theirs, all five, while representing successive generations, were simultaneously contemporaries and friends until the three older of the surviving four died within the space of six years, with Ravel passing some 13 years later. Their lives had numerous inter-connections and parallels. Saint-Saëns played Fauré’s music regularly beginning in the early 1870s and actively promoted it. Saint-Saëns played the première performance of Chabrier’s Impromptu (pub. 1873) at a S.N.M. concert on 27 January 1877; the work is dedicated to Mme Édouard Manet, wife of the artist who painted Chabrier’s portrait twice (a pastel in 1880 and an oil in 1881), also Chabrier’s neighbor – Manet’s last painting, Un bar aux Folies-Bergère from 1882, now in the Courtauld Institute in London, hung over his piano, and Manet died in Chabrier’s arms. Chabrier knew more of the French Impressionist painters than any or even all of the others combined, including Cézanne, Degas, Renoir, Monet, Morisot, Pissarro, and Sisley; he owned a sizeable collection of their paintings (including 14 Manets and an autographed and dedicated sketch of John Singer Sargent’s El Jaleo, painting now in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston) that was auctioned off after his death. Debussy was also known to associate with the Impressionist artists, but did not collect their works.

A convenient way of comparing the quantity/volume of the piano works of the five composers is by the number of CDs required to record each one’s complete works for solo piano. Both Chabrier’s and Ravel’s occupy only two CDs with space to spare. Indeed, Chabrier’s three works for piano four-hands: Cortège burlesque (1881), Trois valses romantiques (1883), Prélude et marche française (1883-85) and his sole work for two pianos: Souvenirs de Munich Quadrille on Favourite Themes from Tristan und Isolde(1885-86), easily fit on them with space left over. Ravel’s two concerti are often used to fill up his two, although his sole work for piano four-hands, Ma Mère l’Oye (M 60, 1908), and his early work for two pianos, Sites auriculaires (M 8 & 13, 1895 & ’97, pub. 1975), as well as his original unpublished 1907 piano four-hand version of Rapsodie espagnole (M 54, 1908), and his original two-piano version of La Valse (M 72, 1920) – a solo piano version preceded it in 1919, but was neither performed in public nor published – could easily be substituted for them. Debussy’s, Fauré’s and Saint-Saëns’ all require four CDs, with Fauré’s set having enough room to include Dolly (Op. 56, 1894-97), his sole work for piano four-hands, while Debussy’s six [Symphonie (L 10, 1880), Divertissement (L 36, 1882), Le Triomphe de Bacchus (L 38, 1882), Petite Suite (L 65, 1886-89), Marche écossaise sur un thème populaire (L 77, 1891), and Six Épigraphes antiques (L 131, 1914)] for four hands, and Lindaraja (L 97, 1901) and En blanc et en noir (L 134, 1915) for two pianos, and Saint-Saëns’ twenty works for piano four-hands or two pianos require a fifth CD or even a sixth for Saint-Saëns. [See Appendix B for recommendations.]

Musicians and artists

Fauré, talented in pencil sketching, was also a close friend of American expatriate portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), whom he visited in both Paris and London; Sargent painted Fauré’s portrait in Paris in oils in 1889 at the time of the Exposition Universelle, and made two sketches of him in London in 1896, one of which Sargent eventually gave to pianist Marguerite Long; the other is now in the Fogg Art Museum in Cambridge, MA. That friendship is also the explanation of the presence of the manuscript of Fauré’s Second Piano Quintet in the Harvard Library: he gave it to Sargent in thanks for his friendship and contribution to his travel expenses to its première. Sargent was also a close friend of Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943, no relation, a painter herself) and painted her portrait in 1889 during her first marriage.

Fauré's father-in-law was the sculptor Emmanuel Fremiet (1824-1910), whose most famous statue is the equestrian one of Joan of Arc in Paris, with similar ones in Philadelphia, PA, and Portland, OR. A small equestrian statue by him in Debussy's home was the inspiration for the Pas espagnol movement, of Fauré's Dolly, his sole piece with a Spanish accent, and the sole work that uses titles other than the name of a genre, composed for and dedicated to Debussy's step-daughter Dolly (Hélène) Bardac, later de Tinan. [The titles of Fauré's Huit pièces brèves were added by the publisher; he wanted only the key signatures. Appendix C lists the solo piano compositions of all five, arranged alphabetically by composer: their titles themselves illustrate the diversity of their output as well as its quantity, and the similarities and differences among the works. A mere glance at the titles is also revelatory of some of their compositional principles and heritage.] The movement "Mi-a-ou" was the publisher's misprint for Dolly's nickname for her older brother Raoul (a pupil of Fauré, and later of Debussy, who inherited Debussy's piano; see Appendix A below), "Messieu Aoul," nothing to do with a cat; likewise "Kitty-Valse" was a misprint for "Ketty-Valse," from the name of Raoul's dog; both errors have persisted uncorrected in scores to this day.

Debussy was a close friend of the painter Henry Lerolle, brother-in-law of composer Ernest Chausson, beginning in the 1890s, and knew well American expatriate James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), whom he saw regularly at the salon of Stéphane Mallarmé during the same period, and whose 1875 painting Nocturne in Black and Gold: The Falling Rocket is not unrelated to his Feux d’artifice (Préludes II/12, 1913). He had also admired the paintings of Joseph Mallard William Turner in several visits to London beginning in 1902, and knew well those of Claude Monet. Saint-Saëns’ mother was an accomplished amateur artist and a close friend of portraitist Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (1780-1867), whom Saint-Saëns therefore knew very well, although he did not paint a portrait of Saint-Saëns. These connections and friendships/relationships with visual artists undeniably impacted the aesthetic perspectives of these composers and what they sought to make their music express.

Principles of French music

French music is characterized by a desire for ordered balance and an avoidance of pretentiousness, a cult of craftsmanship and an avoidance of sentiment. It is aesthetically, not emotionally driven; neither is it intellectually driven: it does not seek to incorporate philosophical ideas, but rather to create beauty. In piano music, short and small forms, often called “character pieces,” are preferred to longer ones, often focusing on conciseness and compactness, and an avoidance of repetition within a logical structure that is internal, not superimposed, often symmetrical and proportional. Elegance is the general goal, avoiding grandiose gestures. Emphasis is on precision and strictness in the rhythm, inherited from the Baroque dances, underlying the melody, sparing use of rubato, generally carefully marked in the scores, and avoidance of the Germanic expressive rallentando, a sentimental slowing. These characteristics are often erroneously perceived as superficial and the music characterized as ‘light,’ not serious, or intended for salons where music was the background to other activities (although this is not, in fact, how the salons were conducted; attendees sat, or stood, and listened while the music was being played and the conversation and other activities happened at other times) rather than formal recital halls, because they are so different from the works in the Austro-German tradition.

Another indication of this music’s connection to the dance is that a number of these composers’ piano works were orchestrated and choreographed as ballets: Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales (1911) became Adélaïde, ou le langage des fleurs in 1912 – Ravel did his own orchestration, and some of Debussy’s Préludes were danced; Fauré’s Thème et variations became Rayon de lune [Moonbeam] in 1928. A ballet, Le Portrait de l’Infante, was created in 1923 for a score compiled from Ravel’s orchestrations of the Pavane pour une infant défunte, Alborada del gracioso (Miroirs /4), and Rapsodie espagnol, most of which began life as works for piano, with a few linking passages composed for it. None of Saint-Saëns’ or Chabrier’s piano works were thus treated.

Debussy sought to make the listener forget that the piano has hammers and is a percussive instrument, and to try to imitate the sounds of other orchestral instruments or exotic ones; the other composers did not go that far. This was an extension of the basic principles of French music, not an abandonment of them, however.

French piano makes and their characteristics

The French style (principles and playing) is directly related to the French pianos manufactured from the late 18th century through WW II as well. The primary firms were Érard, Gaveau (which made mostly uprights, adding grands only about 1900), and Pleyel. Érard was the official piano of the Conservatoire; its instruments were more powerful than Pleyel’s, which Chopin preferred because of their more intimate sound. Most pianos manufactured in France before 1850 had a light action and an easy touch, thanks to the double escapement invented by Sébastien Érard in 1821. They were ideal for the execution of rapid scales, easily executed arpeggios and quickly repeated notes that are not possible to produce without blurring or muddying, as musical, or as effective on a modern Steinway: the notes simply do not remain as distinct from each other. This resulted in an elegant and glittering bravura playing ideally suited for salons and smaller venues, where most music making took place. The instruments continued to be built with wooden frames and metal strengthening parts and parallel stringing down through the 1920s, although some over- or cross-strung models were also made to satisfy customer demands beginning around 1900. [See Appendix D]

This was the period when the cast iron frame, invented by Alpheus Babcock in Boston in 1825, and patented by Jonas Chickering in Boston in 1843, which allowed greater string tension, and thus greater striking force and volume, was replacing the wooden frames theretofore used. The Steinway company was founded in NYC, the Bechstein company in Berlin, and the Blüthner company in Leipzig in 1853; all of them started out building exclusively with cast iron frames and never built a piano with a wooden one. The other feature that this frame allowed, and which was therefore universally used by these firms, was the cross- or over-stringing of the bass register strings rightward above those of the middle registers. This has the advantage of allowing the building of instruments with shorter cases, but the disadvantage of the sympathetic sounding of those strings when the ones beneath which they extend are struck, which alters the tone produced by those that are. This forced those companies to seek a uniformity of tone across the keyboard. Parallel-strung wooden-framed instruments allow the different registers to have markedly different tones, so the parallel stringing of the French instruments allowed their makers to maintain the diversity in tonal color among the registers, a feature prized by most French composers, and which they exploited in their compositions, which, therefore, cannot be accurately rendered on Steinway-like instruments.

There were Steinways in some of the Paris salons (See below.): Winnaretta Singer de Polignac owned a 1906 Hamburg Steinway Model D, serial # 124129 now in the collection of Henri-Louis LaGrange; she also had another grand piano in her atelier whose make I have not been able to ascertain, as well as a harpsichord and a Cavaillé-Coll organ, and in 1930, she bought two new Steinways (details unknown) for her music room, which also had another piano in it (details likewise unknown). Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux owned an 1896 NY Steinway, purchased for her salon for 5,000 francs on 17 November of that year, whose details (and current location if still extant) are unknown. But most salons held French instruments – “Meg” also had a Pleyel double piano in her atelier adjacent to the salon, and in 1913, she purchased a Pleyel baby grand [« quart de queue »], serial number 47F877160639 that still belongs to a descendant, and whose sound board Ravel, Poulenc, and several famous pianists including Ricardo Viñes, Marguerite Long, and Jacques Février signed; she also had two pianos (details unknown) in her country summer home at Cuy-Saint-Fiacre in Normandy. Hence, these composers may have played Steinways when they performed in these salons, but none ever owned or composed for or on one. An interesting side note: Steinway is often touted as having been the first company to introduce the middle sostenuto pedal, but it was actually a French invention in the 1840s, and some French instruments had it: Boisselot, a company based in Marseille (1830-ca. 1910), popular in Southern France, the Iberian Peninsula and Italy, was among the first to use it (Liszt owned two, an 1844, serial # 2027, now in Lisbon’s Museu da musica, and an 1847, serial # n.a., still in the museum in his home in Weimar, but both have only the then standard two pedals); and Ricardo Viñes owned a Pleyel in 1895 that had one, but sold it because he did not care for it.

Parisian salons and their hostesses

This was also the era when private salons were at their Second Empire revival high period – salons have played an important role in French literature and the arts since the 17th century – that experienced a hiatus with the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune in 1870-71 (although Pauline Viardot fled to London and kept hers going there, attended by other Parisians in exile including Saint-Saëns and Gounod), and took a while to get going again for what became their golden age during the Third Republic, brought to another hiatus by WW I, revived yet again in the 1920s and 1930s, but mostly by different individuals and in a different format, and finally brought to a permanent end by the Great Depression and WW II. Many were hosted by wealthy arts-loving individuals, including some American ex-patriots such as Winnaretta Singer, (20th child, but the first conceived and born in wedlock, of Isaac Merritt Singer’s 24), heiress of one-sixtieth of the sewing machine fortune (mostly in the form of company stock), about $900,000 in 1875, who was married successively to two French noblemen (first [1887-91] Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard, annulled; second [1892-1901] Prince Edmond de Polignac, widowed), to whom Fauré dedicated several of his works and Ravel dedicated his Pavane pour une infante défunte, and later in the 1920s and 1930s, Gertrude Stein. The closest equivalent event in modern-day America is the “house concert,” but there was no fund-raising component as these have; they were entirely funded by their host and/or hostess.

Attendance was by invitation only; the press was involved only after the event, never by an announcement in advance until later years after WW I, and the coverage, if there was any, varied widely from a mere mention of its occurrence to the inclusion of a playlist of varying degrees of completeness naming works and their composers and performers; rarely were there any comments about the nature and/or quality of the music or the performances; sometimes the list of attendees took up most of the space. There were two seasons, the petite saison from Christmas to mid-Lent, and the grande saison from Easter to July. Summers and falls were for vacationing and travelling, to Normandy or Venice, for example, or to Bayreuth. There were matinée (2:00-6:00 p.m.) and soirée (evening) salons. This schedule was adopted by the public halls like the Salles Érard (ca. 230 seats), Pleyel (ca. 500 seats?; replaced in 1927 with a 3,000-seat hall in a different location , whose inaugural concert included music by Debussy and Ravel with the latter conducting his own works, burned in 1928, rebuilt in 1929), and later Gaveau (1,020 seats), all still in use, which those piano-building firms made available for free or for a nominal fee (They viewed it as promotional of their products.) to composers and musicians, particularly those in the aforementioned S.N.M. and S.M.I., for performances open to the public, which was also admitted free in some cases. There were no public concert halls in Paris until the 20th century; orchestras, assembled by conductors such as Édouard Colonne, Charles Lamoureux, and Jules Pasdeloup, who led them, though they also used guest conductors, organized as subscription associations and rented theaters for their performances. Some salon and public performances, especially after 1870 and during WW I, were fundraisers for charitable causes, such as soldiers wounded in the Franco-Prussian War or on the front respectively. Many of the piano works of these five pianist-composers, as well as many of their chamber and solo vocal works, were premièred in salons or in concerts in the three piano companies’ Salles sponsored by the S.N.M. or the S.M.I.

The hosts/hostesses had their preferred friends, but individual artists, composers, and musicians, including all five of these, might well be members of several circles and appear and perform regularly at several different homes. There was one on nearly every day of the week. Saint-Saëns had his salon (discontinued after the death of his mother in 1888) on Mondays; poet Stéphane Mallarmé’s was on Tuesdays; singer (also a composer) Pauline Viardot (1821-1910) had hers on Thursdays (She also invited more intimate friends for informal gatherings on Sunday afternoons; Fauré was among these in the mid-1870s, and he courted and proposed marriage to her daughter Marianne in 1877, but she ultimately broke off the engagement; his violin sonata, Op. 13 [1875], is dedicated to her son Paul.). Painter Édouard Manet and his wife, Suzanne Leenhoff (1829-1906), an accomplished pianist, also held theirs on Thursdays. Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux held hers on Fridays; composer Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868) held his on Saturdays; the Princesse Mathilde Bonaparte (1820-1904), niece of Napoléon I and cousin of Napoléon III, a fan and supporter of Saint-Saëns, who loved his organ playing at the Madeleine and managed to get him exempted from military service in 1861, held hers on Sundays. The life dates show that there were several generations of hosts/hostesses, although for periods of time there was significant overlap. These are just a small sampling of salons; composer Ernest Chausson also had one in the 1890s, and Debussy’s second wife, Emma Bardac, née Moyse (1862-1934), a talented and accomplished singer although she did not appear on public concert stages, held one while married [1879-1905] to her first husband, wealthy banker Sigismond Bardac; Debussy met her because he taught her son Raoul piano, and was then invited to attend her salon. She had earlier been close to Fauré, who had been Raoul’s previous piano teacher in the 1890s, and who dedicated some works to her, notably the song cycle La Bonne Chanson that she sang with Fauré at the keyboard, and with whom she had an affair; he often brought his Conservatoire students to her salon. Many salons were smaller gatherings, and therefore few details are known about them, often not even the days/dates on which they occurred, but their existence is documented in correspondence, diaries, and memoirs.

Pianist and Conservatoire professor of piano Pierre Zimmermann (about whom more below) held his twice a month on Thursdays; his Conservatoire successor, Antoine Marmontel and others held theirs on a more occasional basis. (These two featured younger, up-and-coming performers.) Chabrier’s were much more informal, often impromptu, not necessarily on the same day of the week, and more limited to his circle of friends, which included Saint-Saëns, Fauré, and Manet. Thus there were often competing attractions for those who liked to attend any given salon, although there was some coming and going during the salon events, so it was possible to take in more than one on the same day if one did not stay for the entire performance at a first place of choice and arrived late for another. Some salons, like Mallarmé’s and Gertrude Stein’s, placed a greater emphasis on literature and a lesser one on music; others, like those of Rossini, Saint-Saëns, Viardot, the Manets, the Princesse Mathilde, Mme de Saint-Marceaux, and the Princesse de Polignac, placed music at their center. Saint-Saëns played regularly at his own, at Viardot’s, at Rossini’s (at the latter’s insistence, even though Rossini was himself an excellent pianist and wrote many pieces for piano after retiring from the opera world), at the Princesse Mathilde’s, and at Mme de Saint-Marceaux’; he, of course, like Chabrier, liked to play anywhere he could.

Fauré likewise played at several, but was a particular favorite of the Princesse de Polignac, whom he accompanied on several occasions to the Palazzo Polignac in Venice. He was also among the favorites of Meg de Saint-Marceaux, as were Debussy and Ravel, and later Poulenc, and of the Comtesse Élizabeth (de Caraman-Chimay) Greffulhe (1860-1952), who in addition to her small Thursday salon in her home, for a time organized by Fauré, also organized events elsewhere in order to escape the unpleasantness of her husband Henry’s (1848-1932) alternately domineering and taciturn character and lack of cultural interests, and the somewhat oppressive atmosphere of their living conditions (They lived with some of his ultra-conservative extended family.). These included the June 1889 performance at the Trocadéro of Handel’s Messiah, its first in Paris in over a century, and the 21 July 1891 ball on the island in the Bois de Boulogne, where Fauré’s Pavane for chorus and orchestra, dedicated to her, was performed and choreographed. The Comtesse founded the Société des grandes auditions musicales de France in 1890 to support large scale performances in an advance subscription format of contemporary classical music by French composers, although she also organized with this organization Paris premières of foreign works, including Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde in 1899, the Paris début of Russian tenor Chaliapin in Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov in 1908, and the first program of Russian ballet by Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes in 1909, all in various rented theaters.

Marguerite Jourdain (Baugnies) de Saint Marceaux (1850-1930) [Her first husband, Eugène Baugnies (1842-91) was a painter; widowed, her second husband René de Saint-Marceaux (1845-1915) was a sculptor.] was both a pianist and a singer. Her half-brother Roger-Jourdain was an artist, some of whose works were Impressionistic. Her salon was among the longest lived, roughly from 1875 until her death. During her first marriage, it was initially held in artists’ studios and other places because their apartment at 154 rue St-Honoré was too small, but in 1875 they built the small townhouse at 100 boulevard Malesherbes, a short distance from the Madeleine where she first met both Saint-Saëns and Fauré. She welcomed many people there, non-musicians on Wednesdays, and musicians and composers, and a few writers, such as Sidonie Colette and Marcel Proust, and artists, such as Édouard Detaille (See below.), on Fridays, always with the edict that they were to dress informally and make themselves at home, unlike the comportement at other salons. Informality notwithstanding, the nucleus members of the circle, including Fauré and Ravel, were expected to attend, and to send written notes were they not able to do so! She knew and received all five of these composers at various times, played duets with some, sang while being accompanied by others – accomplished amateurs and professionals were not as segregated as they are today. Sometimes, Fauré spent some of his time sketching in pencil caricatures of the other attendees, and he occasionally brought his composition students along. Saint-Saëns had asked Meg to marry him prior to her first marriage, but her parents refused to allow her to marry a penniless composer. She was an inveterate matchmaker: she arranged the (ultimately confining and unhappy) marriage of Fauré to Marie Fremiet, who was a talented painter, in 1883 via a drawing of papers with the names of three women whose family name began with ‘F’. She attempted to arrange a marriage for Debussy with Thérèse Roger in 1894; her parents refused for the same reason as had Meg’s father with Saint-Saëns, and this precipitated something of a rift between them that caused Debussy to visit much less frequently thereafter. [Debussy also proposed to Catherine Stevens, daughter of the painter Alfred, in 1895; Alfred refused for the same reason, saying he might reconsider once Pelléas et Mélisande had been performed.] Ravel played the two-piano version of his La Valse in Meg’s salon, with Jacques Février at the other keyboard, on 14 January 1921, accompanied Claire Croiza in his Shérézade and played his Ma Mère l’Oye with Marguerite Long there on 18 March 1927, evening when Poulenc played his Napoli and sang his Chansons gaillardes.

As the Princesse Mathilde and Meg de Saint-Marceaux both first knew Saint-Saëns and Fauré at the Madeleine, so too did the Comtesse Greffulhe first know Fauré there, a short walking distance from her home at 10 rue d’Astorg, where she heard him weekly, first as choir director and then as organist. She played the piano herself, having been taught by her mother Marie (de Montesquiou) de Caraman-Chimay (1834-84), who had initially studied with Chopin’s last pupil, Camille O’Meara, and then subsequently with Clara Schumann; both also studied with a Mme Dubois. Liszt’s first public performance in Paris was played in the Montesquiou home, and later, in 1864, when Marie and her husband Joseph (1835-92, an accomplished amateur violinist), who was in the diplomatic corps, were posted to Rome, she saw him again there and played duets with him in public concerts. [Marie’s great-grandfather was the founder of the Brussels Conservatoire.] Liszt played in Elizabeth’s home during his last visit to Paris in April 1886 and reminisced with her about the Rome occasion. Elizabeth’s cousin, the Comte Robert de Montesquiou, poet and author of the text for Fauré’s Pavane, helped arrange the marriage of Winnaretta Singer and Edmond de Polignac. Winaretta was a close friend of hers and of Meg de Saint-Marceaux. Elizabeth was also an accomplished amateur artist and exhibited some of her works, and consequently knew artists as well as writers such as Proust, all of whom attended her salon, but music making was not as important an activity there, perhaps in part because the room was not large – the home had a succession of small salons. Her salon was not revived after WW I; she turned her attention to other charitable activities including science (She supported Marie Curie’s lab, for example.) and medicine.

The Princesse Winnaretta Singer de Polignac, “Winnie,” or « Tante Winnie », as many called her affectionately behind her back (only her extended family did so to her face), herself an organist and a pianist as well as a painter, did not confine her salon to a single day, and organized recitals more professionally, actually paying someone to do so in later years, sometimes with advance announcement in invitations or in the press of the musicians and the program, because she took pride in presenting premières or preliminary hearings of contemporary works and counted many composers among her friends, in some measure because her husband Edmond was a composer and she promoted his works. She also commissioned a number of works from the greats like Stravinsky, something that few other hostesses did. Her habits varied widely over the roughly 50 years that she held events in her home, purchased in 1887, that ended with her departure for England at the outbreak of WW II in 1939. In the early years, she also invited a smaller circle of friends on Sundays, when she liked to play piano duets with Fauré, and she held “organ soirées” on Tuesday evenings, where only organists were invited; they played her Cavaillé-Coll organ in the balcony (In the 1920s, it was moved down to the main floor.) of her two-storied atelier at 3 rue Cortambert (until 1891, rue des Sablons), which served as her painting studio by day and a recital hall comfortably seating 100 in the evenings, sometimes in the afternoons. Her other preferred days for formal recitals were Wednesdays and Fridays, the latter in direct conflict with Meg de Saint-Marceaux – the two occasionally went to each other’s gatherings. In later years, she held “piano Fridays” for a small group of close pianist friends that included Arthur Rubenstein and Vladimir Horowitz among other greats, with whom she played duets.

When she remodeled her adjoining townhouse at 5 avenue Henri-Martin (now 43 avenue Georges Mandel) in 1905, she had a music room installed that could hold a chamber orchestra and seat 200 listeners; subsequently, her salon recitals alternated between it and her atelier in accordance with the program and the number of invited guests. Saint-Saëns played and conducted a concert of keyboard, chamber, and orchestral works of Jean-Philippe Rameau (whose Pièces de clavecin he had edited; see below) in the music room on 10 June 1914. In 1923, the Princesse held there a private preliminary hearing, requested by Diaghilev to help the dancers become familiar with the score, of Stravinsky’s ballet Les Noces in which two Pleyel double pianos (probably either rented from or lent by the company for the occasion) were used for the performance of the four piano parts called for in the score; the pianists were Francis Poulenc, Georges Auric, Marcelle Mayer, and Hélène Ralli, and the composer conducted. The property is a short walking distance from the Trocadéro, which is across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower, and is today the home of the Fondation Singer-Polignac, which organizes monthly concerts in the music room. In her Palazzo Polignac on the Grand Canal in Venice that she purchased in 1900, there were pianos in all of the drawing rooms and at least two, including a Bechstein purchased in September 1925, in the salon; some of the same aforementioned great pianists joined her there for visits and duet playing, and she held occasional salons when in residence there, often featuring contemporary Italian composers and musicians. You can see how central music was to her life.

Another pair of important salons was hosted by a Polish-émigré half-brother and sister, Xavier Cyprien “Cipa” Godebski (1874-1937) and Maria Zofia Olga Zenajda (“Misia”) Godebska (1872-1950), and their respective spouses. Their father Cyprien was a sculptor (He made a bust of Rossini and many works sited in prominent places all over the world, such as St. Petersburg, Russia [Misia was actually born there where he was working at the time.], Lima, Peru, and the Monte Carlo Casino.); Misia’s mother Zofia (who died after Misia’s birth) was the daughter of Belgian ’cellist and composer Adrien-François Servais (1807-66). Ida (1872-1935) and Cipa’s salon, held on Sunday evenings, first in the rue Saint-Florentin, near the Place de la Concorde, in the apartment that belonged to Misia who lent it to them when she and her first husband moved, and after 1909 in the rue d’Athènes, near the Gare Saint-Lazare, was the place where les Apaches gathered. It was also attended by writer André Gide, painters Pierre Bonnard and Édouard Vuillard, the publisher Gaston Gallimard, the art dealer Ambroise Vollard, composers Satie, Milhaud, Poulenc, and Stravinsky, and the Godebskis were particular friends of Ravel. He often stayed at their country home, La Grangette, in Valvins on the Seine near Fontainebleau (acquired from Misia and Thadée in 1897 when they bought Le Relais in Villeneuve; it had been purchased by Misia and Cipa’s father. Mallarmé owned the cottage next door, now a museum, and lived there after he left Paris.) when he sought peace and quiet to compose before he bought his house in Montfort-L’Amaury. He dedicated his Sonatine to them, and composed Ma Mère l’Oye for and dedicated it to their children Mimi and Jean. After he moved to Montfort-L’Amaury, he stayed in a hotel across the street from their home when he came to town. Toulouse-Lautrec painted Cipa’s portrait. Ida was herself a pianist.

Misia and her husbands welcomed many artists and writers – they were close to Mallarmé, Proust, and Paul Verlaine until their deaths, for example, although music was by no means ignored: Ravel and Debussy both went there. She wrote in her memoirs that Verlaine’s (1896) and Debussy’s (1918) were the only funerals that she ever followed on foot, walking with Mallarmé for the former, which Paul Dukas also attended (There were few present because Paris was being bombarded by Big Bertha); she also attended Mallarmé’s (1898), but there was no procession since he is buried in the cemetery of the church nearest Valvins where the funeral was held; she, too, is buried there. Her first husband [1893-1903] was Thadée [Tadeusz] Natanson (1868-1951), co-founder, with his brother Alexandre[er] (who lived next door to Debussy’s last home), and editor of the popular magazine La Revue blanche, which featured covers by Jules Cheret, Théophile-Alexandre Steinlen, and Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, for example, and for which Debussy wrote about music under the nom de plume of Monsieur Croche [= quaver]. The salon was held at its offices in the rue Lafitte, near the Opéra, often subsequently adjourning to their apartment in the rue Saint-Florentin (See above.), referred to as “The Annex.”  Her second husband [1905-09] was Alfred Edwards (1856-1914), publisher of the major Parisian newspaper Le Matin; they lived at 244, rue de Rivoli, opposite the Jardin des Tuileries. Here she welcomed in addition all the Russians: impresario Sergei Diaghilev, dancers Vaslav Nijinsky and Tamara Karsavina (Misia was referred to as « l’éminence rose » of the Ballets Russes; she was at the bedside of Diaghilev at his request when he died in Venice.), composer Igor Stravinsky, artists Léon Bakst and Alexander Benois, and playwright, poet, novelist, and artist Jean Cocteau, and Satie as well.

After the divorce and when the lease expired, she moved to the quai Voltaire (on the left bank, across the Seine from the Jardin des Tuileries), first at 29 and then in 1913 at a different number, and in 1917, at yet another number. Her third husband [1920-27] was Spanish painter José-Maria “Jojo” Sert (1874-1945), specialist in murals with commissioned examples found all over the world, including in Rockefeller Center, and formerly in the Waldorf Astoria ballroom, sold and removed in the 1970s; they lived together for twelve years before the marriage in Misia’s apartments and afterwards in his apartment on the top floor of the Hôtel Meurice at 228, rue de Rivoli opposite the Jardin des Tuileries near the Place de la Concorde. In those years, she welcomed writers Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette, André Gide, and Alexis Léger [Saint-Jean Perse], and pianist Arthur Rubenstein, and, in 1917, she met Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel, with whom she remained close until the end of her life. She was also close to Pablo Picasso, having served as a witness at his wedding and been the godmother of his first child. After that divorce, she took a small apartment in the rue de Constantine, near the Hôtel des Invalides; Sert and his new wife lived first in the rue du Palais Bourbon, and then at 252, rue de Rivoli, opposite the Jardin des Tuileries, where Misia ended up in 1946 after that wife’s and Sert’s deaths (in 1938 and 1945 respectively) because he left everything to her. The gatherings were always informal and impromptu, but occurred nearly daily while she was married to Natanson, less frequently with Edwards and Sert, and did not continue after that divorce, though she continued to meet with those former attendees who had become her friends at her home, in public, and elsewhere.

Misia was an accomplished pianist herself, having played for Liszt as a child in her grandparents’ home near Brussels, and as an adult, with Edvard Grieg in his home during a trip to Norway in 1894, performing his incidental music from Peer Gynt. [Ravel met Grieg several times when he was in Paris, and also played for him in 1894, but apparently didn’t get the peasant dance rhythms right.] She studied with Fauré, who considered her good enough to have a professional performance career, and was disappointed that she chose marriage instead. Her playing style was not at all French, probably more like Liszt’s: Colette described her hands as voltegiando [= flying about] in a 1941 entry in her Journal intermittent, surely not at all what Fauré had taught her; she was sometimes called “the piano tamer” in earlier years. She was said to have played Chopin with lots of rubato, which he himself deliberately avoided and cautioned against. She only played in public twice, both times in 1933 in recitals with Marcelle Mayer in an attempt to further her career, unsuccessful because the press devoted most of its coverage to Misia. In 1905, Ravel traveled with Misia and Alfred aboard their yacht l’Aimée (homophone of M.É., Misia’s initials then; its flag that melded the two letters into one served as a model for Ravel’s similarly melding his M.R. into a monogram for his stationery; [Orenstein, p. 45. Detailed bibliographical information for all works in English quoted/referenced can be found in Appendix G.]), with Misia’s grand piano on board in the small salon in the prow, on the rivers and canals of northern France, Belgium, and Holland, and up the Rhine to Frankfurt. Cipa and Ida were along for the trip as was the painter Pierre Bonnard. Ravel dedicated La Valse, whose two-piano version had another (See above.) preliminary hearing, played by himself and Marcelle Mayer, in her home in April 1920, to her; the work was premièred in this version by Ravel and Paris-based Italian pianist-composer Alfredo Casella (1883-1947, a student of Fauré) on 23 October 1920 in Vienna, and orchestrated later, although that latter version was published first. No details seem to be available concerning any of her pianos or their current location if still extant, but the only make mentioned in connection with her name in anything that I have read is Pleyel. Bonnard, Redon, Renoir, and Vuillard all painted her portrait numerous times, seven or eight for Renoir (several of them portraying her seated at the keyboard), and she was the model for the skater in Toulouse-Lautrec’s famous La Revue blanche poster/cover. She was known by everyone simply as “Misia.”

Readers familiar with the name and works of Marcel Proust (1871-1922), in which such salons play a prominent role, and in which a violin sonata and its melodic theme are often mentioned, a sort of literary leitmotif, may be wondering which of these composers and hostesses were the models for Proust’s characters. The answer is no single one and all of them, because his concept and process was to create an authentic distillation of the arts and letters and social life of the times in a fictional format, but not mention any historical individuals, although many of the characters do have specific base models: for example, the Baron de Charlus is based on the Comte Robert de Montesquiou and the Princesse de Guermantes is modeled on the Comtesse Greffulhe. The Verdurin salon is primarily based on that of Meg de Saint-Marceaux, although the character of Mme Verdurin herself is based on that of Misia, who is also represented as the Russian Princess Yourbeletieff. Proust attended Meg’s, Misia’s, the Princesse de Polignac’s, the Comtesse Greffulhe’s, and other salons as well. The violin sonata is variously said to be based on that of César Franck, Gabriel Fauré, or Camille Saint-Saëns, but might well be an amalgamation of all three. Many episodes recount incidents that actually occurred, so some readers at the time knew who the protagonists in those really were, but they were generally not assigned to the characters based on those individuals in order to confuse readers  ̶ and no doubt to deter libel suits as well. The style of Proust’s sentences and paragraphs has been compared by scholar Jean-Michel Nectoux to the style of Fauré’s melodic lines in the way they develop and progress, in their attention to detail, and in the sense of restraint.

If you read any part of À la recherché du temps perdu [improperly translated by C. K. Scott Moncrieff in its first English edition as Remembrance of Things Past; it means In Search of Lost Time, expression with the same double meaning in French as in English of time ‘irretrievable’ and ‘wasted’], you will have a sense of entering a kind of magic kingdom with a cultural, intellectual, and social élite. But it is a world that really existed roughly from 1871 to 1914, at its height from about 1890 to WW I, and one could be a member of the élite if one possessed any one of the attributes: cultural, intellectual, or social. Being rich was not the admission ticket; none of these five pianist-composers were, and some were downright poor, even frequently in debt – things haven’t changed much in that respect. Those who hosted them chose to use and share some of their wealth in that manner.

For part 2 of this 4-part article, click here.