Thursday, 29 October 2009

Marion Scott, our map and guide

Marion Scott entered the 20th century with her ears tuned to the future, writes Pamela Blevins. As a violinist, she often programmed new music in her recitals. In 1908, she formed her own string quartet to champion contemporary British music, some so new that the ink was barely dry on the manuscript page. As a regular contributor to The Music Student from about 1911 to 1918, she enlightened readers about the latest chamber music and wrote extensively about the work of contemporary women composers and performers.

As the 20th century progressed and music moved in different directions, Marion moved with it, always staying open to new music that often stirred controversy and provoked outrage among critics and the concert-going public. Never one to dismiss a work because it strayed from accepted norms, she embraced the “radical” music of her day and wrote about it with an insight and clarity that opened the minds of her readers. She made the seemingly inaccessible, accessible. As a critic/commentator for the Christian Science Monitor, the Daily Telegraph, The Observer, The Listener, the Radio Times and other publications, she introduced new works by Bartok, Webern, Tippett, Luytens, Dallapiccola, Britten, Messiaen, and many others to her readers.

One of Scott’s guiding principles in music rested in her belief that “Design in music is desirable, if that music is to be intelligible. Without it, great music is impossible. For design is not a machine-made pattern. It is the projection into the human consciousness of a divine and beautiful order. …Just as the laws behind natural phenomena do not die, so the realities behind music continue to exist whatever the changing phases of concrete music. Design is one of the hardest obligations for a composer to fulfill.” She found that design even in the most abstract music.

On an “arctic” February night in 1929, Marion attended the British premiere of Bartok’s third and fourth quartets performed by the Hungarian String Quartet. She regarded Bartok as “a composer who is a focal point in the work of his generation” and described his Third and Fourth String Quartets as “testaments in music’s new language”.

Writing in the Christian Science Monitor, she observed: “On the whole the third quartet is the more approachable of the pair, even though ordinary listeners will feel in either that they enter upon the unknown region. ‘No map there, no guide,’ as Walt Whitman would have said. Yet though old maps are of little use, Bartok’s music gives evidence of powerful design throughout. It has the same kind of strength and sparseness met with in modern architecture.” In both quartets, Scott found “melodic material…in a minority” and that Bartok seldom used “more than the minimum necessary for thematic differentiation. …Of beauty in the sensuous style there is next to none”. Bartok “constantly employs harmonies drawn from the upper series of the harmonic overtones, and matches them by sound effects drawn from the non-normal kinds of string tone”.

But Marion found both quartets full of “harmonic character, exhilarating rhythm, patterned ideas, and swift logic. … Even on a first hearing it is possible to feel the strength which has bound all these elements of sound and modern mentality into firmly consistent works. Bartok’s style may be – and is – stark, but it is never dark, and never shallow. He has the dramatist’s, not the film producer’s gift.” She came to regard Bartok as “one of the greatest, and most dynamic musicians of modern times”.

She faced the challenge of Webern’s String Trio, op. 21 with an equally open mind. “Webern’s thin sounds, skewed phrases, and silences are about as much like ordinary string music as Shakespeare’s ghosts that did ‘squeak and gibber’ were like human beings. Even the programme note described the two short movements as ‘wraiths’. But this must be said: If they are wraiths, they are so in their own right; they are not phantoms of older music. Maybe that is because they have never lived. Will they later? – that is what matters. Is this exposition of Schoenberg’s theories by Webern the foreshadowing of a new era in music? Remembering that steam from a kettle and the twitching of a frog’s leg are now historic as first hints of steam power and electricity, must we regard Webern’s music as a portent of things to come? Time alone will show.” (No date.)

In 1929 Marion became the first person in England – as far as I know – to produce an in-depth study of Paul Hindemith and presented her findings before the Royal Musical Association. (Donald Tovey wrote his essay in 1936.) I think it is fair to say that some who attended her lecture were wary of Hindemith’s new music. After all he was regarded then as the enfant terrible of Europe, a composer who embraced atonality and whose music was too cerebral and abstract for some. W.W. Cobbett who attended the lecture admitted his "ignorance” of Hindemith and acknowledged that after Scott’s talk, he left “knowing” on the subject.

Scott had researched Hindemith’s life and studied his music, an odd choice for a lecture, it might seem, coming from a woman in her fifties who was standing on the threshold of becoming an internationally acclaimed authority on Haydn. Marion had read the entire scores of three of Hindemith’s early atonal operas with librettos so daring that she doubted they would make it past the English censor (one wonders how she got the scores into England). Marion observed that “Paul Hindemith is an apostle of Atonality and Linear Counterpoint. But he is also a real person in music -- a genuine composer who gives off music as a piece of radium throws off energy. That is what makes him interesting, and his music worthy of study.”

In drawing links between the musical designs of Bach and Hindemith, Scott observed that “composers of today, with Hindemith in the vanguard, have revived the structural designs of the seventeenth and eighteen centuries. ...It may be said without irreverence that Hindemith’s masterful and quite terrible music for the mob in his opera Cardillac would have been impossible if he had never known Bach’s supreme treatment of the crowd in the St. Matthew Passion.” She held Cardillac in very high regard.

“Hindemith’s concentration and economy function at their highest power throughout the opera. …The contrapuntal parts, tingling, darting with vitality, are complex in appearance, clear in reality. Two of the most tremendous effects in the music are made by means so simple that one almost gasps on realizing how violently – on account of the context – one reacts to them. The first is the dead silence when Cardillac murders the Cavalier; the other is the long soft common chord of E flat on which the opera ends. For two hours Hindemith has held one…in a clenched fist, listening to his atonal, strangely staccato style. Then at last comes this diatonic, legato chord. The fist opens, one drops out, exhausted and amazed.”

Scott’s understanding and appreciation of Hindemith are clear yet she felt something was missing: “[Hindemith] is too radically a musician to evade for ever the great emotions that go with genius. If they thaw the little piece of ice that lies in his artist’s heart, the effect will be amazing.”

After World War II, Marion welcomed the opportunity to review concerts of contemporary music and found London “as music minded as ever, and infinitely more so than it was ten years ago”. She covered the “outstanding” Festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music in July 1946 that united countries so recently at war.

On Luigi Dallapiccola’s Songs from Captivity for chorus, percussion, harps and two pianos: “Only the last two movements were given at this concert [Boethius’ Invocation and Savonarola’s Farewell -- the first movement is Mary Stuart’s Prayer]. Technically they are distinguished by fine craftsmanship: and though not atonal they are fundamentally modern in their harmonic texture. But what winged the music straight into the sympathies of the hearers was its intensity of feeling. ‘These are they which came out of great tribulation’ one said to oneself.”

On Olivier Messiaen: “…another work was performed which also came out of captivity, but in this case it took the form of a mystical, apocalyptic quartet for violin, cello, clarinet and piano…called Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps. Here was a man to whom in captivity had come the vision of that transcendental freedom where Time is nothing and Eternity everything. His eight movements were each touched with a strange, unworldly quality; some were exceedingly lovely, and the scoring had often an almost ethereal frugality which yet was never untender, except where the composer intended fierce effects, as in the ‘Danse de la fureur’, which was plangently aggressive.”

“It was,” she wrote “a strange experience to come away from these concerts that had brought together so many nations, and then to turn up a little alley between shells of buildings and come suddenly upon a view of one of our own quiet griefs – a great devastated area…of open ruins…[where] now grew pink willow herb, wild fern and golden yellow weeds, in a great silence beneath a half moon…”.

For more on the music and life of Marion Scott, see Pamela Blevins' Ivor Gurney and Marion Scott, available from your favourite bookseller.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

When all the notes are right: Songs, Sex and Schoeck

‘He sums up Schoenberg in twenty minutes and then spends half a bloody hour on some guy called Othmarrrr Shirk’ – I still remember the disgust with which a Scots fellow student rolled his broad Rs around Robin Holloway’s approach to music history. The occasion was Robin’s lecture course on the twentieth-century, back in 1983 in Cambridge. He had indeed dealt with Schoenberg remarkably swiftly that day (though memorably, as always – I shall never forget his summing up of the Wind Quintet as a work ‘masterly in every way except that all the notes are wrong’, which really says it all). And it was true that he had also spent a lot of time – in relative terms – on a Swiss composer called Othmar Schoeck (1886-1957), hitherto unknown to almost all of us. As it happens, I was probably the only one who had heard of him, as I’d accompanied a student’s final song recital the year before, whose programme had included ‘Herbstentschluss’ from the cycle Elegie. The song was utterly compelling. And when Robin played us the second movement of the song cycle Notturno in the recording by Fischer-Dieskau and the Juilliard Quartet, I was hooked. Being something of a Germanophile – I’d first gone to German-speaking Europe at the age of 14 with our local youth orchestra and had since spent every summer there – I was already on the lookout for a possible doctoral topic on something suitably German. Schoeck was Swiss, but German Swiss, and I reckoned that he might do as well as anything more northernly Teutonic. So I went to Robin, borrowed his Schoeck scores and records, and he put me in touch with Derrick Puffett, a friend from his own Oxford student days who had done his doctoral thesis on Schoeck’s song cycles.

I visited Derrick not long after, staying on a camp bed in his rooms in Wolfson College (being a student from the distant industrial north, I didn’t have the money for a hotel of even the flea-ridden variety). When I told him I was thinking of doing a doctorate on Schoeck’s operas, he said: ‘Don’t bother with that. What we need is a biography’. ‘Oh, OK’, I replied, and that was that.

Further visits to Derrick followed over the next months, I went to Zurich to do some research in the Schoeck archives at the Zentralbibliothek Zürich – making many friends who have remained friends ever since – and I got a place at Christ Church Oxford to begin my doctorate the next year. As luck had it, Derrick at the exact same time got a job in Cambridge, so we sort of crossed, metaphorically speaking, at Tring. I was allowed to retain him as my main supervisor (thus seeing rather a lot of Tring from the window of a bus over the next couple of years), but was also assigned an Oxford man in order to have someone on the spot. This was John Warrack, who was somewhat bemused, admitting readily that he knew little about Schoeck. While most of my work was obviously with Derrick, whom I visited in St John’s Cambridge about once a term, I remember my conversations with John with no less fondness, and owe him far more than I think he ever realized.

It was clear that visiting Switzerland in the summer holidays wasn’t going to be enough to get the information I needed to write a biography, so after a year in Oxford I applied for a postgraduate scholarship from the Swiss government. I left for Helvetia in July 1986, intending to return to Oxford a year later, but in fact have never lived in England since. Once the doctorate was done, I survived for a while as a freelance translator of everything from chocolate adverts (sadly no free samples) to TV thriller scripts. Then it was off to Munich on a Humboldt Fellowship, researching into Richard Strauss. But in 1990 I found myself back in Zurich with what one’s mother always calls ‘a proper job’, running the very same music library whose avid visitor I had been during my studies.

My Schoeck biography finally came out – in German translation – in 1995. I had sworn back in the mid-80s that three or four years researching into an obscure Swiss composer would be enough for any healthy young fellow, for as such I regarded myself. But I found that the man’s music had a remarkable hold on me. It wasn’t anything exclusive or obsessive, thank god (my desert island discs remain Parsifal, the Magic Flute and Mendelssohn’s Octet), but rather like the advert for a certain beer back in England, I still find that Schoeck reaches parts that many other composers don’t. Of course he also wrote some weak music. But of his three hundred songs with piano, the majority are very fine, while his best half-dozen works (above all the instrumental song cycles Lebendig begraben and Notturno) are wonderful and can bear comparison with the greatest works of the age. His orchestration at its best has the luminescence of Berg and the delicacy of Ravel. Of how many composers could one say that?

My research also led to close ties to the Schoeck family, in particular to the composer’s nephew Georg, his wife Elisabeth and their seven children (yes, seven, and they’re not even Catholic!). Elisabeth became godmother to our first daughter, who bears her name, while our third child and only son has Elisabeth’s eldest daughter Salome as his godmother; he is also named after Salome’s three brothers: Alvaro Wolfgang Konrad Walton. (Confused? Never mind, so’s my son.) As I write this, I’m about to go off to the Schoeck family home in Brunnen, where the eldest son (called Alvaro, of course) is getting married tomorrow. Perhaps unusual for composer families, the Schoecks have always been wholly supportive of my research, helping wherever they could, and never once batting an eyelid whenever I criticized in print their ‘Denkmal-Onkel’, as they occasionally call him. As Derrick once said of another composer: it’s a poor tribute that confines itself to praise. And as a family of scholars, the Schoecks knew that any serious biography can’t discuss the good without offering a critique of the bad. Two years ago, Georg and Elisabeth died within five weeks of each other; I miss them still, much, just as I often think of Derrick, who died just before his fiftieth birthday over a decade ago.

As the fiftieth anniversary of the composer’s death approached in 2007, I began to think about publishing the original English version of my Schoeck biography. After all, most of his works have since been released on CD, which means that the potential Anglo-American reading public now has access to the actual music (a complete recording of his songs on eleven CDs was published back in the 1990s on the Swiss label Jecklin, featuring singers such as Ian Bostridge, Kurt Streit, Lynn Dawson and Christiane Banse). But there were two problems. First, I had in the meantime published so much more on Schoeck, and had discovered so much more about him, that I couldn’t really regard the old book as up-to-date any more. Secondly, the rights to the book lay with the original publisher. So I decided to write a whole new book.

The original doctorate had been a ‘life’, with the music discussed only in passing. But since it was unlikely that a book on Schoeck in English would prompt a rapid flood of further studies of him, any new biography would have to go the full Monty and deal with the music as well as the man. So I went ahead and wrote it in my last year as a professor in Pretoria, before we returned to Switzerland. Having already brought out a book with a Boydell imprint (my Richard Wagner’s Zurich), I was keen to repeat the experience, and so approached the University of Rochester Press. To my delight, they accepted it. The manuscript was dreadfully long, but upon re-reading it, I saw that there was much ballast that could be excised easily. I naturally hope that the result is a leaner, fitter Schoeck. It’s a pretty meaty Schoeck all the same, as the text alone is over 150,000 words, not counting the bibliography and all. But still – I hope – within the bounds of what the average public is prepared to read. And it has some very nice photos.

The second biography parallels the first in many ways, but that’s only because they are both about the same composer writing the same music, married to the same wife and with the same friends. I could no more change my ‘cast list’ than could a Beethoven biographer leave out nephew Karl, the Immortal Beloved or Beethoven himself. But my two biographies are in fact very different, especially because the new book discusses the music in some detail (offering a plethora of music examples compared to the first book’s none). I’ve also allowed rather more sex to penetrate the new book, as it were, and there’s a bit more deconstruction too (though to the reader, I hope it will smack more of common sense than of anything remotely theoretical). The more observant reader might even spot a reference to the Dead Parrot Sketch in the first chapter – as I plummet into middle age, I become ever more convinced that mainstream musicology can only benefit from a good deal more Python. As for me personally, I can never read Adorno without thinking of the Spanish Inquisition.

What’s been oddest for me, writing this new book, is that the quarter-of-a-century since I began its predecessor has seen the passing of most of the witnesses upon whose memories I depended so much. When I started my research on Schoeck, he had been dead for just twenty-six years, and many of those who had known him were still alive. I also found them remarkably candid – aged 70, 80 or more as they were, they obviously felt themselves too old to be embarrassed about anything. Thus it was that as a twenty-four-year-old student, I on one occasion sat listening to a lady in her 70s, reminiscing about her mother’s death-bed confession of how fantastic Schoeck had been between the sheets. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book for more details. You’ll also learn how the humble sandwich takes on a whole new meaning in Schoeck scholarship.

As I wrote the book – and as I write now – the faces and (above all) the voices of the men and women I interviewed, but who are now no more, were and are as fresh as when I met them. In some cases, even their exact words and their tone of voice are etched into my memory. I realize now that they in their turn had equally vivid memories of Schoeck himself, and how lucky I was to meet them. They are almost all dead, so Schoeck researchers present and future must content themselves with second- and third-hand information. I shall remain ever grateful to have been granted instead the privilege of such proximity to the source.

Othmar Schoeck is available from all good booksellers, along with Chris Walton’s previous book, Richard Wagner’s Zurich. Read a sample from Schoeck here and an earlier post by Chris here. We congratulate Chris on winning the 2009 Max Geilinger Prize.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Living with the Polignacs

We will be taking a short break while we ply our trade at the Frankfurt Book Fair next week (hall 8, stand number C926 in case you’re passing by). To keep you entertained during our absence here is a rather longer-than-usual post by Sylvia Kahan, teacher, pianist and author of two superb books, In Search of New Scales: Prince Edmond de Polignac, Octantonic Explorer, and Music’s Modern Muse: A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac. Here Ms Kahan introduces us to this talented, unusual and – dare we say, glittering couple:

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 of Parsifal 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:

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 Figaro reported 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 mélomanes in 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.

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.

Winnaretta was a formidable, headstrong woman whose fortune and sphinx-like inscrutability allowed her to hide in plain sight. But "Tante Winnie," as she was called by her familiars, had a mordant sense of humor. One of the most famous stories involves her pulling rank with her querelous friend Madame Legrand:

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.

Music’s Modern Muse and In Search of New Scales are both published by the University of Rochester Press available now from all good booksellers.