Discovering the Radical Augusta Holmès: History’s Forgotten Composer

Augusta Holmès

Augusta Holmès

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There have been a lot of conversations lately about why we’re taught about certain people yet others are relegated to the periphery of history — if they’re even talked about at all.

From Black heroes like the “Hidden Figures,” who helped accelerate the Space Race, to Matthew Henson, the actual first man to reach the North Pole, culture tends to focus its energy on those who are most like those in places of influence and power — typically men, and typically white men.

Music is, unfortunately, no exception. Is it any wonder that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is not even close to a household name, whereas those she influenced (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis; just to name a few) will never ever be forgotten?

Likewise, many of the early pioneers of so many genres of music get overlooked by those who followed them, or in some cases stole from them — and who often became rich and famous by picking up the torch on something already founded and pioneered.

Before I get any angry emails from Elvis fans (or impersonators), I don’t say any of this to bash these artists. They are all incredible, I listen to and love their music, and I respect the heck out of them. They deserve their place in the annals of music history. But if there ever was a time to broaden the scope of history and tell the stories of some forgotten pioneers, it’s now.

And it’s time to introduce you to a 19th century composer by the name of Augusta Holmès — whose symphonic and orchestral contributions to concert music are magnificent works of art, and who has gone tragically overlooked in the history books.

Being anything other than a dutiful housewife prior to the women’s suffrage movement was no easy task. Women weren’t taken seriously in nearly any profession, and the arts was certainly no exception. Many female authors of the era, such as Louisa May Alcott and the Brontë sisters, had to use male pen names in order for their works to be accepted and published — let alone sell. Holmès herself adopted this practice early on, using the pen name Hermann Zenta.

Women in music had limited opportunities too — they were generally expected to compose smaller and unassuming pieces, if they were allowed to perform and compose at all, of course. This was partly due to social norms at the time, but it was also a product of the fact that women weren’t given the resources or educational opportunities to compose large, ambitious scores. In the early 1800s, it was unheard of for conservatories to admit women except, perhaps, as performance majors.

No doubt these realities were on Augusta’s mother’s mind when she forbade her from pursuing music. And yet, Holmès began taking music lessons at age 11 anyway — and she was a very fast learner. Knowing that she would be at worst an oddity, and at best an icebreaker for women who followed after her, she embraced the inevitable feminist label, declaring “I must show the males what I am capable of!”

In fact, if there is a thread running through Holmès’ life, this is certainly it — she audaciously and enthusiastically bucked the norms of her day. She never married, even when her father died (though she did have a very open affair). This enabled her to be the sole heir to the family legacy and fortune; giving her the resources and freedom to make music as she wished.

Understandably, her career choices and status as a trailblazer made Holmès quite the sensational personality in the salons of France, where she engaged with the best and brightest artists of her time. And she had no shortage of admirers, either — counting Richard Wagner, César Franck, and Camille Saint-Saëns among them.

Beneath the impressive persona, however, there was substance, even genius. Despite her late start into a music career, she finished her first one-act opera (Hèro et Lèandre) in 1875 at the age of 28. She wrote this opera by herself in its entirety, right down to the libretto (something akin to the script for a play, for you non-opera folks).

Much like her personality, her works were not the small, diminutive, dainty pieces one had likely expected from a female composer of that time. They were dramatic, epic, and grand. One of her pieces, Ode triomphale, which premiered at the 1899 Universal Expedition and was composed to commemorate the French Revolution, was written for no less than 1,200 performers.

After her death in 1903, her works have sadly faded from the public consciousness. We can only speculate on the reasons, but the fact that she was no longer around to advocate for her works may have been a major factor — particularly in light of a culture that may not have been eager to encourage future female composers.

Still, many of the hurdles Holmès faced exist today in modern music. In certain genres, women are hardly present at all. In others, they must present themselves a certain way to be deemed  “marketable.” Progress has been made, but much more needs to be done to correct the imbalances out there, and fostering a wider scope of new creatives, as well as honoring our great trailblazers — trailblazers like Holmès — is one heck of a start.

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