French composer Mel Bonis pursued an artistic career in an era when this was a huge challenge for women in French society. She was encouraged by some of the top composers around her, and completed over 300 works in her lifetime! Keep reading to learn about her life and about her cello sonata - one of several of her works which is gaining popularity once again in the 21st century!
Mélanie Hélène Bonis was born in Paris in 1858 to a lower-middle-class family. As a child, she was shaped by her Catholic education, which inspired her throughout her life. She had a strong personality, and taught herself the piano, despite her family's lack of support. When she was twelve years old, her parents finally allowed her to pursue a musical education, thanks to the influence of a cornet professor friend. Not long after, she began composing, and at the age of 16 was introduced to composer César Franck. He taught her piano, encouraged her in her composing, and brought her to the Conservatoire.
At the Conservatoire, Mélanie attended classes in accompaniment, harmony, and composition. She showed great promise as a composer, and received several awards. At that time, composing was not an acceptable profession for women - it was believed that women were too fragile for such work, and could not compose anything of value. For this reason, Mélanie chose to use a pseudonym - Mel Bonis - as did many of her contemporaries in typically "male" roles. She soon met and fell in love with singer/poet/journalist/music critic Amédée Landély Hettichinger, but her parents were against this marriage, as it would encourage her further into a "dangerous artistic world". She was forced to leave the Conservatoire, much to the disappointment of the director and her teachers.
In 1883, her family arranged, against her will, for her to marry businessman Albert Domange. While he was a generally likeable person and well-off, he was 25 years her senior, twice widowed with five children, did not share Mélanie's spiritual ideals, and did not like music. She became seemingly entirely devoted to managing family life (including 3 more children) and the 12-person team of domestic staff. However, a few years after her marriage, she met up with her former love interest from the Conservatoire, who introduced her to her future publisher. Her compositions started to become known, and she and Amédée worked together in his singing studio. The pair were still deeply in love, but Mélanie resisted her desires for a long time due to her religious convictions. Ultimately, she gave birth in secret to an illegitimate child, who was placed in the care of one of her former chambermaids. From then on, she corresponded with Amédée only in order to obtain news of the child, though he attended many concerts featuring her works.
Despite showing signs of depression following the separation from her child, she
continued to promote her music. In 1910, she became the secretary of the Société des compositeurs de musique (SCM), through whom she had formerly won prizes for her compositions. Her works were performed by the top performers. All the while, Mélanie continued to fulfill her duties at the heart of the Domange home.
In 1918 she lost her husband and her son Édouard returned home after having been a prisoner of war. A romance began to blossom between her illegitimate daughter Madeleine (who was unaware that Mélanie was her mother) and her half-brother Édouard. Mélanie explained the situation to her daughter, and made her swear secrecy in order to prevent dishonour falling upon the family. Madeleine was devastated, but the confession brought mother and daughter closer. Madeleine soon came to live with Mélanie, who began writing music again. After Madeleine left home and married, she continued to visit her mother as she aged. Mélanie passed away in 1937, having completed about three hundred works for a range of instrumental groupings, including works for solo instruments, chamber ensembles, orchestras, and voice/s.
Cello Sonata, Op. 67
Mel Bonis' "Cello Sonata" was composed in 1905, and is dedicated to Monsieur Maurice Demaison - an art critic, writer, and doctor of law.
The work is in three movements:
1. Moderato, quasi andante (moderate, almost at a walking pace)
2. Très lent (very slow)
3. Moderato molto (very moderate)
The first movement begins with a four-note chord on the cello, immediately imitated by the piano. The descending motion of the cello melody, starting each phrase at the "high" point and meandering downwards in pitch, is very important in this movement. At first, the piano largely plays arpeggiated (broken) chords before switching to an ostinato (consistently repeated) rhythm. It then returns to the arpeggiated chords, at which point the cello melody begins moving upwards for a brief moment (a sign of things to come!). We hear some development on the ideas which were already introduced, along with some interesting changes in harmony (notes which sound together, creating chords) and tonality (the "key" centre and relationships of the notes around it). We then come back to the descending motion, in both the cello and the piano parts. A mixture of ascending and descending motion, in conversation between the two parts, takes us to the end of the movement.
The second movement is song-like, with the piano establishing the initial mood, with its flowing triplet (three notes per beat) patterns. The cello then begins its simple, voice-like melody, while the piano adds colour and texture below.
The final movement starts with firm statements from both the piano and the cello. The piano takes over with quick, arpeggiated triplet figures, before the cello adds its voice again. The two continue in an agitated conversation, until easing into a calm song. The more agitated mood reappears, followed again by the song, which builds in intensity and sharpness. Snappy chords and staccato (detached) notes in the cello, followed by a final held note, tell us that the work has ended.
Listen to the work performed on double bass instead of cello:
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