Throwback Thursday: Living with the Polignacs

From the archives of Boydell’s old music blog, From Beyond the Staves, we bring back Sylvia Kahan’s introduction to a talented, unusual and – dare we say, glittering couple featured in her magnetic biography of Winnaretta Singer-Polignac, heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune.

Self- Portrait, Winnaretta Singer, circa 1885. Source: Foundation Singer-Polignac Paris

My fascination with Winnaretta Singer-Polignac began with an occurrence of pure serendipity. In 1991, at the “a.b.d.” point of my doctoral studies at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, I was looking both for a thesis topic and for an interesting program for my final degree recital. I decided to plan the recital first. Atop my piano was a pile of music that I had always wanted to perform but had never gotten around to learning. The piece at the top was Ravel’s famous “Pavane pour une infante défunte.” I opened the score, and glanced at the dedication: “A Madame la Princesse E. de Polignac.” After reading through Ravel’s stately and poignant work, I returned to the pile of music. The next piece on the pile was Stravinsky’s Piano Sonata. I was amazed to see that this work, as well, was dedicated to the Princesse de Polignac! “Who is this woman?” I wondered. The next day, I looked through New Grove; the Princesse‘s name was nowhere to be found. But the coincidences continued the following week, when a soprano came to my apartment to rehearse. “Let’s start with ‘Mandoline’ by Fauré.” I opened the score – and my jaw dropped, for, yet again, above the mélodie, was another dedication “A Madame la Princesse de Polignac.”

Around the same period I chanced upon a slim volume by Bruno Monsaingeon, Mademoiselle: Conversations with Nadia Boulanger. Here, Boulanger told of the Princesse de Polignac:

Princess de Polignac’s salon was one of the centres of artistic and musical life in Paris between the wars. Princess Edmond was an American and adored the arts. The birthday present she wanted as a girl of fifteen was a performance of a Beethoven quartet. Her collection of paintings was fabulous, and it was while arguing over the purchase of a painting that she met the man who was to become her husband, Prince Edmond de Polignac. It was even said that he finally decided to marry her in order to gain Monet’s Turkeys, which was part of his future wife’s collection.

She must have been at least thirty and he twice her age. As he himself was the son of elderly parents, she claimed that her father-in-law was born under Louis XV. Living in Paris, London or Venice, passionate about music, she had made the pilgrimage to Bayreuth in company with Chabrier and Fauré, and became one of the last great patrons in history. Everywhere she went, Greek was translated, Latin was translated, music was made. She’d arrive in London and an hour later, you’d be playing music or reading poems. How many soirées we all went to or helped with, where we played lots of Monteverdi, Schutz’s Resurrection, Carissimi’s Jephte, and then all the works she commissioned!

Much ill was said of her; but I only know her great generosity; she was not blind—she would discriminate. And with discrimination, she gave a great deal and is owed a great deal. There was the famous evening when her butler entered, appalled, “Madame la Princesse, four pianos have arrived. . . “. Stravinsky’s Les Noces was to be played for the first time.

After reading this, I knew I’d found the topic of my doctoral dissertation: the salon of the Princesse Edmond de Polignac. Ten years of continuous research later, the dissertation re-emerged as a book, Music’s Modern Muse.

Winnaretta Singer-Polignac still fascinates today. Her parentage was exceptionally colorful: she was the 20th child (of 24) of sewing-machine magnate Isaac Merritt Singer, who was born in poverty and died one of the richest industrialists in the world. Her Parisian mother, Isabella Boyer, was reputed to be the model for Bartholdi’s Statue of Liberty. The story of Winnaretta’s birth in the Yonkers, New York mansion that Isaac named “The Castle” goes as follows:

At the time of Winnaretta’s birth, her father was busy renovating The Castle, intent on filling his house with the most up-to-date appliances and sumptuous furnishings that money could buy. A new coal furnace was installed to stave off the winter cold. The rooms were filled with costly and elegant furniture. Behind the main house, a hothouse was constructed in the form of a palace, with four separate wings for the different varieties of exotic flowers and plants. “We have just picked a bushel of oranges,” Isabella wrote to her mother, “and we have the most rare flowers all winter.” But oranges in winter could not replace the lively bustle of New York City. Twenty-three-year-old Isabella keenly felt the solitude of country life. 

The Singers’ home on Fifth Avenue had always been filled with Isaac’s business associates and friends, but in Yonkers the Singers were isolated, ignored by the local population. The only people her own age that Isabella saw were Isaac’s older children. In addition to caring for two infants, she had to minister to the needs of a fifty-three-year-old husband who was beginning to suffer from rheumatism and the other encroaching discomforts of middle age. Isaac’s ailments had no effect on his virility, however: only a few months after Winnaretta’s birth, Isabella found, to her dismay, that she was pregnant once more. She suffered a miscarriage in June, but was pregnant again by September. Finally, Isabella insisted that she could no longer endure the rural existence: if she must continue to bear children, she wished them to be born in Europe. This time her husband acceded. In November 1865, Singer sold The Castle and its possessions—including the canary-yellow carriage—to a hat manufacturer, and sailed for London with his growing brood. 

Early photographs of Winnaretta posed with her mother and three brothers when she was about three years old show a very serious-looking little girl. In these family portraits, Winnaretta’s chin juts out and the corners of her mouth turn downward, taking the shape of an upside-down “U.” This unfortunate configuration of features became a cause for comment by contemporary chroniclers in her adult life; one wonders therefore what sort of reaction Winnaretta’s seemingly “negative” demeanor may have evoked in those close to her during her formative years. The pretty and vain Isabella may have rejected a daughter who was not fashioned sufficiently in her own lovely image. The extant letters from Isabella to her own mother, which extend through Winnaretta’s fifteenth year, lend credence to this theory: after writing in March 1865 that her two-month-old daughter “is getting on very well,” Winnaretta is never again mentioned in her mother’s letters.

Winnaretta entered the world of patronage during her first marriage, to Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard. The marriage was an unhappy one, given Winnaretta’s nascent lesbianism, but her aristocratic milieu gave her the opportunity to establish herself in Paris’s music circles:

That summer, the Scey-Montbéliards made the round of villégiatures, or country house visits, an obligatory part of the aristocratic calendar. They traveled with Winnaretta’s brothers down to the Château de Tencin, the Grenoble estate of the Marquise Joséphine (“Mina”) de Monteynard, where Winnaretta and the Marquise spent their days painting and playing through the latest songs by Fauré. From there the Sceys continued on to Bayreuth to attend performances ofParsifal and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. That summer Meg Baugnies had arranged a mysterious “lottery,” whose proceeds allowed the impoverished Fauré and fellow composer André Messager to fulfill their unrealized dream of traveling to Bayreuth. Fauré was ecstatic to be in attendance, but he was puzzled by some unspecified behavior of Winnaretta’s, which prompted him to write to Meg, “Madame de Scey-Montbéliard is three parts mad!!!” It was a madness that clearly appealed to the composer, however. Upon his return to Paris he gave Winnaretta a gift of a little piece of music, a one page manuscript in his own hand bearing the comical title Pensée fugitive mais définitive—“Fugitive but Definitive Thought, by Roger Jourdain, transcribed for three hands and one foot by G. Fauré.”

In November 1888 the Scey-Montbéliards traveled to Paignton for a series of balls and festivities given in honor of the coming-of-age of Paris Singer, who had married in 1887, and was now a family man and the new proprietor of the family estate. Other than brief mentions in newspaper articles, there is not much indication of how the Prince de Scey spent his time during his marriage. But it is clear that while Winnaretta may have paid obeisance to social convention on the surface, privately she did what pleased her, with or without her husband. She continued to entertain her avant-garde friends. An anecdote concerning Chabrier recounted by Francis Poulenc, who had had the story confirmed by Winnaretta herself, reveals the extent to which the composer felt free to speak “in the vernacular” in front of his hostess. One evening after the performance of Gwendoline, Chabrier dined with the Princesse de Scey. When his hostess had passed him asparagus, he leaned over to her, and said in an easily audible stage whisper, “You eat that, Madame, and it will make your urine stink!”

A second marriage, to Prince Edmond de Polignac, a composer and a homosexual, proved to be much more fortunate. It was a true love match for both Winnaretta and Edmond, and their love, while not sexual, was consummated through their mutual love of music:

Prince Edmond de Polignac by James Tissot, 1868. Source: Wikimedia commons

With Edmond at her side, Winnaretta began her second career as an aristocratic musical hostess in Paris. Despite the fact that the Carriès and Fauré commissions had not been completed, Winnaretta decided nonetheless to “open” her atelier in early 1894, albeit without the intended fanfare. By day, the newly renovated atelier was Winnaretta’s painting studio; by night it became a recital hall. Measuring ten by twelve-and-a-half meters (roughly thirty-three by forty-one feet), the room was large enough to seat comfortably one hundred people. The vaulted ceiling was two stories high; a narrow balcony, built around the upper story’s west and south walls, housed the magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ, whose pipes rose impressively to ceiling height. Below, the room was decorated in Louis XVI style, with Winnaretta’s favorite colors of blue and green predominating. Two grand pianos dominated one wall. Despite the formal décor, the wood-panelled walls gave the room a warm, homey atmosphere.

On Tuesday nights during that first winter of their marriage, the Polignacs hosted a series of “organ soirees,” where the great organists of the capital —Gigout, Widor, Vierne, Guilmant, Fauré—performed on the Cavaillé- Coll. Le Figaroreported on Winnaretta’s “organ evenings, so highly sought after in Parisian high society,” helping to add luster to her growing reputation as a musical hostess. On other evenings, chamber music was played. Still other gatherings featured Edmond’s music, often accompanied by Winnaretta or Fauré. Not all those who frequented the Polignac salon were there to hear the music, however, nor were they prepared to respect the musical interests of those who were. Some of the guests were there simply to see and be seen in the newest salon in the Parisian social landscape. Many of them had no qualms about jostling their spoons against their teacups, concentrating their attentions on their neighbors’ garb, or, worse, chattering to their neighbor through the course of the performance. Some of the husbands, required to accompany their wives on their social rounds, simply slept through the sonatas or the arias. But for the true mélomanesin the crowd, those who had come expressly for the performances, the seriousness of purpose surrounding the execution of the music must have been a welcome surprise.

The Polignacs’ music room became the hub of the Parisian musical avant-garde. The “first wave,” which included Debussy and Ravel, came to hear daring new works in acoustically ideal surroundings. Marcel Proust, Jean Cocteau, and Colette would figure among the writers who chronicled their impressions of hearing music in the Polignac salon.

After Edmond’s death in 1901, Winnaretta devoted the rest of her life to promoting his memory by commissioning new works of music from modernist composers. The list of composers who were recipients of her largesse is long and impressive: Fauré, Stravinsky, Satie, Falla, Poulenc, Germaine Tailleferre and Kurt Weill, among others. Winnaretta’s original idea was to create a body of repertoire that was suited particularly to the small space of a home music room. Stravinsky received the first commission:

Listening to Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, Winnaretta experienced something of an epiphany, setting her on a path that would define the rest of her life as a patron. She was struck by the opera’s small dramatic proportions and play-within-a-play format, which included comic elements and characters drawn from the Italian commedia dell’arte. The music too was written for small ensemble, a chamber orchestra of thirty-six players. In short, Ariadne was a work that might fit comfortably into a sufficiently capacious home space like the Polignac salon…She started to imagine her salon as the ideal place to launch a new repertoire reflecting this new style, and she decided “to ask different composers to write short works for me for small orchestra of about twenty performers.” And the first composer who came to mind was the one that most represented to her the future of musical modernism: Stravinsky. By the time she returned to Paris Winnaretta’s plan was fully formulated. She wrote to Stravinsky on 20 November.

You know my very great admiration for your talent. You will not be surprised then that I thought of you in asking you to write for me a pantomime, or a symphonic work, which would belong to me and which I would have played in my music room which you are familiar with. It would obviously have to be a short work and for a small orchestra—maybe 30 to 36 musicians. Will you permit me to propose that you accept for this work a sum of 3000 francs—and to ask you if it could be finished around the 8th of April so that I can have it performed at my house around the end of April or the beginning of May.

Igor Stravinsky, 1921. Photographer: Robert Regassi. Source: Wikimedia commons

Stravinsky apparently responded to the plan with enthusiasm, offering Winnaretta the exclusive rights of performance until such time that the part would be published. She jumped into the details of the plan with fervor:

Does the following orchestra suit you? 5 1st violins, 5 2nd violins, 3 violas, 2 cellos (or 3), 1 bass, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 1 harp, 1 percussion. The performance date could be put off until the month of November next if your work prevents you from being ready earlier. I had thought of a piece which could last around 15 minutes.

And two days later: 

To my list of yesterday there could be added perhaps a piano and a celesta—but do what will suit you best. Do you have something for 2 pianos or 4 hands that I could play?

It is astonishing to read these words, in which Winnaretta essentially dictates the orchestration of the proposed work to the composer, but Stravinsky did not seem to take offense; on the contrary, he got into the spirit of things:

Now having thought about my future work I have decided to compose a Concerto for Piano and Orchestra. So here are the instruments that I would need: 2 Flutes (the 1st changing to the piccolo), 2 Oboes, 2 Clarinets (the 2nd changing to the Bass Clarinet), 2 Bassoons (and the Contrabassoon if that would be possible), 2 Horns in F, 2 Trumpets in C, 2 Tympani, a Grand Piano (of course), a Harp, 2 Quartets (2 First Violins, 2 Second Violins, 2 Violas, 2 Cellos) and a Double Bass. . . . Unfortunately I have nothing to offer you in the way of 2- or 4-hand music except an old thing (4 Études pour piano—rather difficult besides) that you wouldn’t like, I’m certain.

Paul Morand, circa 1925. Source: Wikimedia commons

Paul Morand, a young attaché in the French foreign ministry and a budding author, chronicled many of these dinner musicales. Morand’s recollections of Winnaretta’s lively dinners include incisive descriptions of “the celebrated Madame Bulteau . . . whose hard jutting chin contradicts the sweetness of her gaze,” and of Athelstan Johnson, British chargé d’affaires in Budapest, “his face shriveled up under the ice cube of his monocle,” who softened only when he heard the marvelous Borodin string quartet that followed the meal. Morand’s best-known anecdote concerns Winnaretta’s querulous friend Madame Legrand. The cantankerous “Cloton” visited Winnaretta so frequently that she practically lived at avenue Henri-Martin. She was born into the socially prominent but cash-poor Fournès family, and Winnaretta’s life of ease never ceased to arouse her ire. One evening, in a fit of jealousy, she spat out furiously, “Don’t forget that the name Fournès is worth more than that of Singer.” “Not at the bottom of a check,” replied Winnaretta. 

This guest post was written by Sylvia Kahan, Professor of Music at the Graduate Center and College of Staten Island, City University of New York. She has published two titles with the University of Rochester Press: In Search of New Scales and Music’s Modern Muse.

Music’s Modern Muse
A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac
by Sylvia Kahan
Paperback / 9781580463331 / £14.99 or $19.46

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