Mel Bonis

Mel Bonis


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(1858 - 1937)

Mélanie Bonis was born into a modest Parisian family. She was in no way prepared for a career in music. Her family was opposed to her taking piano lessons, so she taught herself how to play the instrument until the age of twelve, when a close friend of the family finally convinced her parents to send her to music school. An exceptionally gifted student, she soon was introduced to Cesar Franck, who opened the doors of the Conservatoire to her in 1876. For the next five years she studied harmony, piano accompaniment and composition. In singing class, she fell under the charms of Amédée Landely Hettich, a brilliant young man who was already known in Paris as a music critic. Her parents were against the marriage and withdrew their daughter from the Conservatoire in order to separate the couple. Mel Bonis, first prize in harmony, near the top of her class in piano accompaniment, a student showing great promise in composition and progressing rapidly, had no choice but to leave the Conservatoire in 1881.

The Bonis family arranged a marriage for their daughter. In 1883, she wed Albert Domange, a rich dynamic industrialist, 25 years her elder, already twice widowed and a father of five boys. For nearly ten years, she would devote herself entirely to raising her husband’s five sons and would give him three more children. Then, she met Hettich again who still had strong feelings for her and who encouraged her to continue composing. Thus began a secret relationship, which brought forth a child under dramatic circumstances. Its true identity was not revealed. Mel Bonis would feel guilty and suffer for the rest of her life by this insoluble situation, which wounded her sense of morality and would finally lead to a rupture with Hettich.

The prolific and diversified corpus of Mel Bonis contains: sixty piano pieces, as well as pieces for four hands, for two pianos, and volumes of piano lessons, 27 melodies, including a dozen for duets or for chorus, 25 religious songs, about thirty organ pieces, about twenty pieces of chamber music, including three sonatas (flute, violin, cello and piano), two quartets for piano and strings, a suite in the old style for seven wind instruments, a septet which is a grand fantasia concertante for piano with limited scoring for two flutes and a string quartet, eleven orchestrated works including the Suite en forme de Valse (Suite in Waltz form) and the concert piece Bourrée-Pavane-Sarabande.

Essentially romantic, abundant in harmonic and melodic inspiration, Mel Bonis’s music became more and more influenced by a highly refined impressionism over the years. Her work was enriched by new rhythmic innovations and willingly turned towards humor.

Her music would be commissioned by some of the most prestigious editors in Paris: Alphonse Leduc, Max Eschig and Maurice Sénart.

From the turn of the century until the First World War, Mel Bonis tried to make her work known to a larger audience.

Having won prizes at composer competitions, her pieces could be heard at recitals in Parisian salons, as well as at student auditions. Her music was also played in Parisian concert halls such as the Châtelet, but not enough to receive the recognition it deserved.

Numerous correspondence bears witness to the esteem which fellow composers and musicians of her time had for Mel Bonis. In the beginning of this century, when she came to full maturity as a composer, nobody helped her to promote her music. Manners and customs were evolving rapidly and the arts broke away from the academic rules. Mel Bonis was too much pervaded by her education and too mentally fragile to adapt in a changing society. She took more and more refuge in her religious beliefs.

She spent the last fifteen years of her life mainly bedridden, in pain and isolation, still writing music with fervor, but in too weakened a state to have it played. In a letter to her daughter, she wrote, in reference to her //Chant Nuptial// (Hamelle 1928): "My greatest sorrow: to never hear my music".

Translated by Jeffrey Probst