Settling the score: celebrating the women erased from the musical canon

Augusta Holmès’ compositions won awards and acclaim from admirers including Liszt and Saint-Saëns, so why is she, and so many of her female contemporaries, all but forgotten today?

Augusta Holmès was a remarkably gifted French composer, pianist and singer with a voice of extraordinary range and colour. Rossini told an audience after one of her early concerts: “Mark my words, you will hear a lot more from her. Remember that Rossini told you this.” Liszt wrote that the works by her male contemporaries were mere trifles compared to her 1870 opera Astarté.

She was a prolific composer of music conceived for large forces. She wrote her own texts and libretti, and took part in designing sets and costumes for her operas. She was well connected in Paris’s cultural circles, counting among her friends and supporters Saint-Saëns (who repeatedly proposed marriage), César Franck, Vincent d’Indy, Stéphane Mallarmé, Rodin and Renoir, who painted her three daughters.

One critic of the 19th century wrote, ‘We do not want to open the doors of our opera​ houses to women composers’

Today, International Women’s Day, you might hear her music on Radio 3 or be reading about her, but why is she, and so many of her female contemporaries, not celebrated every day? It’s not for lack of ambition, talent or accomplishment.

Holmès set up home with poet and critic Catulle Mendès. They had five children, who were largely left to the care of their father, so Holmès could concentrate on her career. But because she never married, she was able to retain financial independence by being able to claim the fees for her work, and was one of the few female composers who – aside from a handful of her first songs at the age of 14 – did not publish under a pseudonym.

By 1875, her compositions were widely performed in France, and she became the first female composer whose symphonic works were premiered by prestigious orchestras and conductors, and whose opera was performed at Paris’s Palais Garnier. She won a commission to write an ode celebrating the centenary of the French Revolution and set it for a 900-strong choir and an orchestra of 300 players. After the performance, Saint-Saëns declared that France had finally found its muse, and critics championed her as a musical Marianne. Her Hymne à la Paix premiered in May 1890 to an audience of 4,000, who called her out 18 times.