Holmès, Augusta (1847–1903)

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Holmès, Augusta (1847–1903)

French composer of Irish parentage whose La montagne noire was one of the few operas written by a woman to be performed in the 19th century. Name variations: Augusta Holmes; Mary Anne Holmes. Born Augusta Mary Anne Holmès in Paris, France, on December 16, 1847; died in Paris on January 28, 1903; only child of an Irish officer who settled in France (orAlfred de Vigny) and a mother of mixed Scottish and Irish origins; mistress of Catulle Mendès; children: (with Catulle Mendès) three daughters.

Augusta Holmès was born in Paris, France, in 1847, the only child of an Irish officer who settled in France and a mother of mixed Scottish and Irish origins. Augusta did not study music until she was 11. Although her parents moved in Parisian artistic circles of the period, her mother discouraged her daughter's musical aspirations. She did, however, encourage Augusta to paint and write poetry. Alfred de Vigny was her godfather and may have been her actual father. When her mother died, Augusta began to study with Henri Lambert, organist of Versailles Cathedral. She took instrumentation from Klosé, and in 1875 César Franck became her teacher. She also corresponded with Franz Liszt who admired her talents. In 1869, Wagner's Das Rheingold changed her perception of music, and Wagner would remain a dominant creative influence, though Franck also influenced her greatly. Although a brilliant pianist, she attained distinction entirely through her compositions. In 1875, Holmès wrote the opera Hèro et Lèandre, including all her own librettos. This was followed by Astarté and Lancelot du lac and her four-act lyric opera La montagne noire which was produced at the Grand Opera in 1895.

Holmès preferred to write about epic themes on classical or mythological subjects. Her model was the large orchestra and even her songs seem orchestral. She also liked dramatic symphonies and symphonic poems, but her greatest success was with choral works, such as Les Argonautes (1881), Ludus pro patria (1888), and Ode triomphale (1889). Probably best remembered for her songs (she wrote over 130), Holmès' music had great breadth and vitality but was sometimes noisily orchestrated. Describing her work, Ethel Smyth declared that it contained "jewels wrought by one who was evidently not among the giants, but for all that knew how to cut a gem." Holmès was a dominant figure in French musical circles as well as in literary salons. Beautiful and vivacious, she enjoyed the company of poets and musicians. "We were all in love with her," commented Saint-Saëns, who wanted to marry her, while Franck, Wagner, D'Indy, De l'Isle-Adam, and Mallarmé were among her many admirers. A passionate Irish patriot, Augusta Holmès cherished her ancestry and converted to Roman Catholicism shortly before her death at age 56.

John Haag , Athens, Georgia

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Holmès, Augusta (1847–1903)

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