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 Recording of the Week  Mel Bonis

"I had never believed that a woman could write something such. She knows all the clever tricks of the composer's trade" - said Saint-Saëns after hearing the First Piano Quartet of the French composer Mel Bonis. His words give a fascinating glimpse into French society at the time (around 1900) where women composers found it hard to even be recognised, let alone encouraged.

Mel Bonis
Mel Bonis

After being one of the first women to study at the Conservatoire National de Musique (after the personal intervention of César Franck) she was not short of high profile friends. She shared a composition class with Claude Debussy and the performance of the Piano Quartet mentioned above included Pierre Monteux on viola and Louis Feuillard on cello. As well as Saint-Saëns, the private audience consisted of Gounod and most of the major Parisian music scene.

She was certainly well thought of by her contemporaries, but for many years her primary duties lay as a wife and mother (to 9 children) and as a result, her legacy and surviving output have been severely compromised. I imagine this is a fairly typical story throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that the women composers who displayed considerable talent and skill have left only a splattering of what they would have done had they been born men.

I thought I'd tell you all this today as a new recording has just been released of Mel Bonis' two Piano Quartets on MDG. I've put quite a substantial excerpt below (7 minutes) so you can judge for yourself, but I think it is quite beautiful - lovely melodies, quite evocative, and some really imaginative harmonic progressions. I suppose a cross between Fauré and Franck with maybe a bit of Brahms thrown in. Anyway, I've really enjoyed listening to it and am off to Paris now to hunt down the sheet music!

Mel Bonis - Piano Quartets Nos. 1 & 2

Mozart Piano Quartet

Available Format: CD