Music's Modern Muse

May 2003
29 black and white illustrations
576 pages
9x6 in
Eastman Studies in Music
Library eBook
University of Rochester Press
BISAC LIT004280, BIO004000, MUS006000

Music's Modern Muse

A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac

Sylvia Kahan


Hardback out of stock

A biography of Winnaretta Singer-Polignac, heiress to the Singer Sewing Machine fortune, who befriended and subsidized some of the most important musical and literary artists of the 20th Century, including Stravinsky, Proust, Ravel, Cocteau, and Colette.
The American-born Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was a millionaire at the age of eighteen, due to her inheriting a substantial part of the Singer Sewing Machine fortune. Her 1893 marriage to Prince Edmond de Polignac, an amateur composer, brought her into contact with the most elite strata of French society. After Edmond's death in 1901, she used her fortune to benefit the arts, science, and letters. Her most significant contribution was in the musical domain: in addition to subsidizing individual artists (Boulanger, Haskil, Rubinstein, Horowitz) and organizations (the Ballets Russes, l'Opéra de Paris, l'Orchestre Symphonique de Paris), she made a lifelong project of commissioning new musical works from composers, many of them unknown and struggling, to be performed in her Paris salon. The list of works created as a result is long and extraordinary: Stravinsky's Renard, Satie's Socrate, Falla's El Retablo de Maese Pedro, and Poulenc's Two-Piano and Organ Concertos are among the best-known titles. In addition, her salon was a gathering place for luminaries of French culture such as Proust, Cocteau, Monet, Diaghilev, and Colette. Many of Proust's memorable evocations of salon culture were born during his attendance at concerts in the Polignac music room. Sylvia Kahan brings to life this eccentric and extravagant lover of the arts, whose influence on the 20th Century world of music and literature remains incalculable.

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Table of Contents

An International Child
Life with Mother
A Woman of the World
The Sewing Machine and the Lyre
Marriage and Music
La Belle Epoque
Modern Times
The Astonishing Years
Shelter from the Storm
The Magic of Everyday Things
Cottages of the Elite, Palaces of the People
A Pride of Protégés
All Music is Modern
The Beautiful Kingdom of Sounds


A splendid biography of the munificent princess. --Alex Ross [online at]

Superb new biography. . . The list of her achievements -- music dedicated to her, works commissioned by her, artists supported by her -- are all scrupulously recorded here. . . a dazzling and inspiring array. . . In Sylvia Kahan Winnaretta [Singer-Polignac] has a biographer able to explain her special mixture of arrogance, intelligence and bravery. THE TIMES [Margaret Reynolds]

Her book is magnificently readable. The reader's complaint might be that it stopped after 550 pages and has not yet been made into a movie. THE VILLAGER

A pleasure to read and a good reference book to keep. . . [Winnaretta's] beautiful kingdom created a musical reality that we enjoy to this day. JOURNAL OF THE INTERNATIONAL ALLIANCE FOR WOMEN IN MUSIC [Julie Cross]

The list of those who owed much to [the Princesse de Polignac] is simply breathtaking. . . This biography by Sylvia Kahan [now available . . . in paperback] is easy to read as an adventure story just as much as it is a sideways glance at over half a century's cultural history. GRAMOPHONE [Geraint Lewis]

This is a book to be referred to again and again. . . an authoritative study that will give any interested reader an overview of a fascinating artistic epoch with a complex and intriguing survivor at its helm. Underneath the forbidding exterior, "Aunt Winnie" was a sensitive and selfless philanthropist, both acutely perceptive of genuine talent in others and wide-ranging in her patronage. These aspects shine clearly through the mine of detailed information in Sylvia Kahan's important new study. TIMES LITERARY SUPPLEMENT [Robert Orledge]

Kahan appears to have gotten as close to Singer-Polignac as any scholar could in the many years she worked on this good book. NOTES, March 2005

Kahan does justice to this inspiring woman's legacy by crafting a biography that is heartfelt and stimulating. FRENCH REVIEW, 2006 [Eileen M. Angelini]

Wonderfully researched. . . Sensitively sets Singer Polignac's vibrant lesbianism in the context of the times. CLASSICAL MUSIC [Andrew Green]

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