When studying the history of women in music, it is all too common to read about the difficulties that women faced from their own families in pursing music seriously. Cases can be found in all time periods, in all levels of society, and in countries far and wide. The result most often is that their work and history is lost in family papers and boxes stored in the attic or under the bed, long waiting to be recovered and remembered. You can imagine, then, how refreshing it is to come across a case where a woman who was once prevented from pursuing their passion to later be revived by their descendants.
Mel (Mélanie) Bonis (1858-1937) was a prolific French composer. At the time of her death she had penned over 300 compositions, including works for voice, piano solo and four hands, choral music, chamber works, a mass, and works for orchestra. She adopted the pen name of Mel early on to be able to publish and present her works androgynously, and was recognized widely in her lifetime.
Bonis was student of César Franck and classmate of Claude Debussy—Camille Saint-Saëns reportedly said of Bonis’ First Piano Quartet:
I had never believed that a woman could write something such. She knows all the clever tricks of the composer’s trade.
The resistance that Bonis faced from her family was profound, and included an arranged marriage to a twice-widowed man who was 25 years her senior. The marriage was intended to curtail her music composition and limit her exposure to the community that she once was once so entwined. She was a mother to nine children (five of whom were from her husband’s previous marriages) and attended to all of her duties in managing multiple estates and their servants, only returning to music later in life. But she did continue to compose and again regain status and exposure in the music community.
The life and works of Mel Bonis have been better remembered in France than in the United States, largely due to the work of family members to continue to promote the legacy, history, and work of their ancestor. Do visit the official webpage run by Mel Bonis’ family which includes a lengthy biography, photographs, and list of works. Several compositions by Bonis are available for free through the International Music Score Library Project.
And do take a listen to her work, which I find to be quite inspired!