We’re highlighting the life and music of a different female composer every weekday during March, Women's History Month.
Mélanie Hélène Bonis was a composer whose music would grow out of conflicts with the mores of her era. She was born in Paris in 1858 into an average family and given a religious education whose principles guided her throughout her life. None of her family were musical yet she taught herself piano. Here she encountered her first conflict. Her parents did not encourage this pursuit until, at age 12, a friend of her parents, a Professor at the Paris Conservatory, persuaded them to allow Mélanie to study music to which they relented. At age 16 this Professor introduced her to the composer César Franck who gave her piano lessons and took interest in her early compositions; a year later, she enrolled at the Conservatory where Claude Debussy was among her fellow students.
She took classes in accompaniment, harmony and composition and won prizes for each. Yet the prevailing thought was that a career as a composer was impossible for a woman as no woman could compose anything of value. So, in an attempt to conceal her femininity, she adopted the pseudonym Mel Bonis. In a singing class she met the 22 year old poet Amédée Landély Hettich and set his poetry to music. A romance developed which her parents opposed and forced Mélanie to leave the Conservatory to the disappointment of her teachers including César Franck and director of the Conservatory Ambroise Thomas.
In 1883 her family arranged that she marry a businessman 25 years her senior, Albert Domange, who shared neither her religious convictions nor love of music. He brought to the marriage five boys from his previous two widows, and they would have three children of their own. For ten years Mélanie managed the family, two elegant mansions and staff. She entertained and led a bourgeois life with no pursuit of music.
But in the 1890s she happened again to meet Hettich, her early love from classes at the Paris Conservatory, who was also now married. He encouraged her to resume composing and introduced her to musical society, including who would be her future publisher. Her music became known, sold and performed. And Mélanie worked again alongside Hettich, accompanying his singing students and setting his poems to music. Mélanie was torn between her moral commitment to her husband and family, and Hettich and music. After a while she would go away to Switzerland for a “cure” but it was there that she gave birth to Hettich’s daughter, whom she could not acknowledge.
Now she only corresponded with Hettich for news about their illegitimate daughter, Madeleine (who was given over to former chambermaids to raise), and in this difficult period sought comfort in prayer and music and in her heartache she became a prolific composer. She would go on to write over 300 works: for piano, songs, religious music for a capella choir or accompanied by organ or harp; sonatas, quartets, a septet, and orchestral works. She put tremendous energy into music; composing, promoting it, and winning prizes. Her compositions were played by the best performers in renown concert halls. In 1910 she became a member of the "Société des compositeurs de musique" and its secretary, working daily with the elite of the Parisian music world: Massenet, Saint-Saëns, Fauré and so on.
As Mélanie also continued to manage her family, Hettich was now a widow and could finally acknowledge Madeleine legally and gave her his surname. At the start of WW1, Madeleine’s foster mother died and lodgings for her had to be found. Mélanie took her in to her family home, calling Madeleine her goddaughter. In 1918, Mélanie’s husband died and a romance began to grow between their son Édouard and his half-sister, Madeleine. Mélanie was now obliged to confess to Madeleine her love for Hettich and the maternity and forced Madeleine to swear secrecy as morality of the era would have shattered the family honor. Madeleine was crushed by the revelation and never recovered from the dual pains of being excluded from her own family and being unable to pursue her love of Édouard.
Nonetheless, mother and daughter grew close. Mélanie began writing music again and Madeleine grew to be a very good musician. In 1923 she married and moved away when Mélanie was 65 but visited often and wrote letters daily until Mélanie died in 1937 at age 79. In 1974 her children compiled a memoir from her journals and her family continue to promote her story and music.