Parisienne walkways

Winnaretta Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and patron of the arts in Paris in the early 20th century
Winnaretta Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune and patron of the arts in Paris in the early 20th century

WOMEN, and some formidable ones at that, are fairly prominent in this year’s Music in the Round Festival, Les Nations: The Extraordinary Musical Life of Paris, which begins at the Crucible Studio next Friday.

We meet the first one 24 hours later (May 12), arguably the greatest and most influential patron of the arts, the Princesse de Polignac – aka Winnaretta Singer, heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune who was born in Yonkers, New York in 1865.

Maggie Steed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Please credit photographer Richard Moran

Maggie Steed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. Please credit photographer Richard Moran

You could say literally, as actress Maggie Steed adds her to the people she has played on her CV with the Studio done up to represent one of lady in question’s salons, which were havens of music modernity – nothing to do with today’s salon music definition!

Her mother being French, Winnaretta ended up in Paris after her father died in 1875 and in 1893 entered into an unconsummated marriage with Prince Edmond de Polignac, a homosexual amateur composer.

Rarely without a female lover, she was a lesbian and had innumerable affairs with women all her life.

Through their shared passion for music, the Polignacs established a salon in the music room of their Paris mansion, to which they invited a who’s who in Parisian society and the city’s artistic world, such as Proust, Monet, Cocteau, Nijinsky and Diaghilev.

And there were the composers: Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Fauré, Ravel, Debussy among them, plus an array of world-class musicians, pianists Artur Rubinstein, Clara Haskil, Vladimir Horowitz, for example.

When Edmond (30 years her senior) died in 1901, Winnaretta commissioned several works in his memory from the likes of Stravinsky, Satie (such was her social clout, she managed to keep him out of jail to write his), Milhaud, Poulenc, Françaix, Weill, Falla and others.

In total, she commissioned 21 works and had 14 dedicated to her, many premiered in her salon, and she supported many a composer whose music would have lasting influence on that of the 20th century.

Not all the music heard in Winnaretta’s salons was contemporary, a very wide range of it from Bach (heard regularly) to Wagner was also performed. In 1917, American rags and foxtrots were performed by a “Yankee pianist” – believed to have been Cole Porter!

In the early 1930s a new name began appearing regularly among the performers at the salons, Nadia Boulanger (1887-1979), who is recalled specifically at a concert in the festival on May 17.

American composer Ned Rorem aptly described her as “the most influential teacher since Socrates” but Boulanger’s greatest desire had been to be a composer. She did write a number of works before finding her vocation as a teacher and educator in general. She was also the first woman conductor of note.

No-one knows how many composers and musicians she taught or who went to her for advice, but 1,000 from across the globe is not an exaggeration. It is known at least 600 from America travelled to Paris, one of the first being Aaron Copland and one the last Leonard Bernstein.

She had a knowledge of music second to none, to the extent that she could look at a student’s score and at sight recognise instantly if something was ‘borrowed’ from another composer, and the piece!

The main thrust of Boulanger’s teaching wasn’t so much influencing her students as developing a personal style and self-discipline. The success of her ‘method’, allied to her uncompromising, iron will in applying it, is indisputable given the number of famous names who benefited from it. She eventually became a friend of the Princesse de Polignac, a purely platonic friendship of two artistic minds as Boulanger “epitomised bourgeois propriety and discretion,” says her biographer Léonie Rosenstiel, totally unlike her sexually rampant companion.

When Winnaretta died in 1943, leaving Boulanger a bequest in her will, it was Nadia who took over organising the former’s salon concerts.