Female Patronage and Music: Music Salons of Belle Époque Paris


Aristocratic patronage has been an integral part of Western cultural history since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The term ‘mecenate’, often used in this context, derives from the name of Gaius Maecenas, a Roman aristocrat famous for having been a patron for many artists, in particular the poets Horace and Virgil. Throughout the years, enlightened rulers and members of the wealthy classes have given generously in order to provide vital financial support for the work of artists. This essay will look at aristocratic salons as a space for members of the aristocracy to support the arts and in particular music. I will focus on a specific time and place, Paris at the turn of the 19th into the 20th century, and will present examples of two salons which are instrumental in the development of early Modernist music in France. Particular emphasis will be given to the role of aristocratic women and their important influence in shaping the cultural world of the time. A lack of academic writing in the field makes this research worthwhile, since much of the discourse on 19th-century women’s history as focused on working- and middle-class women and the changes in their political and social rights. Insight into the historical and social background of music salons in fin de siècle Paris will be presented at first. I will then observe and analyse the characteristics of the music salon of Countess Elizabeth Greffulhe and Princess Winnaretta Singer de Polignac as exemplary of the importance of female patronage in the developments of music in Belle Époque Paris.

The 19th century brought many political changes to France. After the tumultuous years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic rule, France went through a Bourbon monarchy (1815-1830), a brief ‘July’ Revolution in 1830, followed by the July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe of Orleans (1830-1848), the 1848 revolution which started the Second Republic (1848-1851), the Second Empire under Napoleon III (1851-1871), and finally the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). This led to the Third Republic (1871-1940), which ended with the Nazi occupation and the Vichy rule. This constant change between political rule under opposite ideologies had deep effects on the social and economic stability of the country, which reached an end only around the end of the century. The years between 1890s and the First World War are often referred to as la Belle Époque: the term, introduced only in the years between WW1 and WW2, is associated with a nostalgic attitude in remembering a time of relative social and political stability, of economic growth caused by extensive colonial expansion and of a flourishing of the arts as expressed in the birth of movements such as Impressionism, Symbolism and Modernism.

On a social level, the Nineteenth Century saw the definitive end of the absolute power linked for centuries to the Ancien Régime and witnessed a rapid rise in power and wealth of the middle class (bourgeoisie in French). The development of this new social class, quickly gaining a stronger political voice, was responsible for many social changes which affected French men and women in the first half of the 19th century: a decrease in aristocratic wealth and power, development of many state-funded institutions, a more widespread freedom of speech, growing public influence of the press, and a gradual, yet slow, increase in women’s rights.

As presented in Nancy B. Reich’s chapter ‘Women as Musicians: a Question of Class’ (1995), despite the gain in political independence of the middle class, women remained excluded from having a political voice equal to that of men. Over the first half of the 19th century, the widespread belief that a woman’s activities should remain within the walls of her own home, both as mother and as wife, grew in popularity to the point that ‘motherhood was elevated to a position of sainthood’ (Reich, 1995, p.132).

With the development of public institutions and their gradual acceptance of women,  an increasing number of professional female musicians emerged. They were still, however, far behind men in terms of career aspirations: most men (and therefore also most women) still believed that music was a valuable addition to the education and respectability of middle-class women, but women were always discouraged from thinking of music as a professional way of earning money. An example of the unfair system that most women musicians, and composers in particular, had to fight against, can be seen as reflected in female participation in the most prestigious artistic prize in Rome, the Prix de Rome. Women composers were allowed to enter the competition only in 1903 (exactly 100 years after the music prize was created), the first woman to win a prize was Hélène Fluery (who won only the Deuxième Second Grand Prix in 1904) and the first woman to win the Grand Prix, the most prestigious category of the prize, was Lili Boulanger in 1913 (on this topic, read Annegret Fauser, 1998, ‘”La Guerre en dentelles”: Women and the “Prix de Rome” in French Cultural Politics’).

Lili Boulanger

Lili Boulanger

The establishment of the newly-born middle class had effects on aristocratic patronage too. While, for centuries, the salons of the noble classes had been the sole place where the arts were cultivated and sponsored, this now became a prerogative also of the middle class. While still hosting musical events in the private sphere of their homes, wealthy women now turned their financial support to public institutions as well as individual composers. By donating money to educational institutions, public theatres, concert halls and symphony orchestras, these women continued their financial patronage outside of their salons, while still dictating the artistic trends of the society of the time. ‘Discouraged from entering the labor market, educated and displayed as status symbols for their husbands, wealthy women with leisure time looked to involvement in cultural activities to escape the isolation of their homes’ (Whitesitt, 2001, p.482). As we will see shortly, the case of Countess Greffulhe is a particularly clear example of this trend.

It was due to this shift in musical activities from the private homes of wealthy women to the sphere of public institutions and organisations, that the importance of salon culture decreased significantly during the years of la Belle Époque. However, a few wealthy and influential women continued to organise private music gatherings in their homes until well into the first half of the 20th century, and it is against this background of historic and social changes that I will analyse the importance of two Belle Époque salons, that of the Countess Greffulhe and that of Winnaretta Singer de Polignac.

Countess Élisabeth Greffulhe (1860-1952), born de Caraman-Chimay, was a Belgian woman, daughter of a diplomat, Joseph de Riquet de Caraman and his pianist wife, Marie de Montesquiou-Fezenac, who had studied with Chopin’s last pupil and Clara Schumann. A passion for music and interest in arts patronage was a family tradition: her great grandfather had contributed to the building of Brussels Conservatoire, while her family home had hosted, for several decades, a very renowned music salon, which attracted all the major European composers of the time. Most of her close family members played a musical instrument: Elisabeth played the piano, her father was a violinist, her mother a pianist, and her brothers played violin and cello (Pasler, 2008, p.292).

In 1881, she married Henry Count Greffulhe, descendant of a family of bankers. Unfaithful, possessive and strictly conservative, Count Greffulhe imposed several restrictions on her wife’s social activities throughout the years of their marriage. He was concerned with the task of ‘educating’ her in the values of a respectable woman of the French aristocracy and was committed to making appear perfect in order to ‘show her off’ to the rest of the Parisian society.

As a reaction towards the restrictions imposed on her by her husband and his family, Élisabeth started to seek opportunities to expand her activities and influence outside of the private sphere of her home. While still living in her in-laws’ palace, she established her own music salon and opened it to the most enlightened representatives of Paris’ contemporary artists. Initially, performers at her salon were mainly her close family members, with the exception of a few Conservatoire professors. By mixing private amateurs and professional musicians, Élisabeth was already starting to push the boundaries of the aristocratic salon traditions of her time.

From the 1880s her marriage was deteriorating, and this had positive effects on her freedom of action, both within her salon and, increasingly, outside of it too. She slowly introduced changes in the organisation of her musical gatherings, inspired by her attendance at public concerts: she programmed music without mixing genres (which wasn’t common practice at the time), she chose to include performers from the Opéra-Comique, the Opéra and the Conservatoire, as well as young French composers and Conservatoire students.

It was during these years that Countess Greffulhe started to experiment with her organisational skills and interest in entrepreneurial activities. By opening her home to influential artists, international diplomats and members of the aristocracy, Countess Greffulhe was able to use her natural charm and financial patronage to support contemporary artistic trends, while at the same time imposing her own artistic taste on the Parisian public, both in her salon and in society. She started to gain a reputation in society, heightened by favourable press reviews of her gatherings, as a ‘modern’ woman with progressive political ideas (her family and friends had royalists views but she was sympathetic to republican ideals) and innovative musical taste.

Countess Greffulhe

Countess Greffulhe

In the early 1890s, Countess Greffulhe organised her first public concert, taking care of all the organisational details herself. She rented one of Paris’ biggest concert halls, all the necessary performers as well as the Opéra’s conductor, and chose to perform Handel’s Messiah, a work still unknown in Paris. The success of the performance, praised as one of the greatest events of the year, strengthened Élisabeth’s aspiration as an organiser of public events.

Fresh from her recent success, Countess Greffulhe decided to found a society with the aim of promoting living French composers, whom, she believed, had been long forgotten by the contemporary musical world, too focused on performing music from the German masters (Mozart and Beethoven above all). This idea appealed to those nationalists and patriots in society, interested in reevaluating the French cultural world after the defeat in the Franco-Prussian world. Through her friendship with Gabriel Fauré, Countess Greffulhe had learnt how difficult it was for young musicians and composers to perform and promote their work, and she made it her personal mission to support them.

The Société des Grandes Auditions was born in 1800. Although all the decisional and organisational power of the Société was concentrated in her hands, in order to gain more support Countess Greffulhe established a committee which included Conservatoire teachers, opera singers and renowned composers such as Gounod and d’Indy. She gained financial support for her project from many members of the aristocracy (including donations from over 600 high-society women), and was able to utilise many public spaces through collaborations with the Conservatoire and other public institutions.

By using a mixture of diplomatic connections, influential friendships, artistic patronage and philanthropic ideals of the arts as an international good by which different people could be united despite their political differences, Countess Greffulhe established a music society which both realised her personal aspirations and produced public good. Praised by the press as Paris’ ‘Queen of Music’, she became known for her artistic interests as exemplary of the cultural trends of her time. Her fame remained unparalleled for years as she had started Paris’ first music society run by a single aristocratic woman who had utilised her power and patronage to produce musical events in the public sphere, by organising public concerts with hired professional performers. For the first time in the history of aristocratic patronage, the sphere of influence of a patron was no longer the private world of her salon: Countess Greffulhe was now using her connections and her reputation in high society in order to provide artistic entertainment for a wider public, this time including individuals from lower classes too. For this reason, and from then on, artistic patronage started to gain a much more influential role in shaping the world of contemporary music, which can also be seen, although in very different ways, from the salon activities of Winnaretta Singer.

Winnaretta Singer (1865-1943) was the daughter of the inventor of the Singer sewing machine, Isaac Singer, and Isabella Boyer, a Parisian model. Since her adolescence, she had shown a strong passion for the arts, music and painting in particular. From the moment she turned 21 and gained complete control over her substantial portion of her father’s inheritance, she chose to administer her money in the interest of emerging contemporary composers.

Aware that being a single woman, however rich, would not have opened any doors in the society of her time, Winnaretta decided to marry a titled aristocrat who would be instrumental in giving her the respectable reputation she needed to be accepted into the higher circles of the Parisian aristocracy. In Prince Edmond de Polignac, an amateur composer, she found not only the title she needed, but also a life-long companion and friend, who shared the same artistic interests as her. It was thanks to her desire to promote her husband’s compositions that Winnaretta decided to start her own music salon and to commission music from her contemporaries.

Unlike Élisabeth Greffulhe, who was completely financially reliant on her husband, Winnaretta Singer was the sole owner of her fortune, and was free to administrate it as she pleased. Her commissions followed solely her own artistic taste, as she never needed to rely on other people’s financial contributions to  realise her ambitions. As we shall see, this gave her an invaluable reputation in the musical world of the time, since most of the living early-Modernist composers depended financially on her contributions. Her salon, therefore, became the richest and most sought-after nest of avant-garde music, both French and foreign.

Winnaretta’s salon was officially open in the early 1890s, and remained active for around 50 years until the months before the First World War, when she was forced to flee Paris and seek refuge in England. Especially during the early years as a salonnière, Winnaretta’s efforts and activities were always centered around her home and aimed at heightening her reputation as a musically-enlightened patron. This included organising almost weekly musical events in her salon, as well as commissioning new works from emerging composers which would forever ‘belong to her’ and celebrate her patronage and reputation. While Countess Greffulhe used her musical patronage as a step towards the wider Parisian society, Winnaretta attracted a very specific list of selected artists and influential people to her own home. Her guests, in fact, could attend her salon by invitation only, and it was thanks to her carefully calculated network of influential relationships that many musical collaborations began. Being a pianist and organist herself, she had enough musical knowledge to be able to recognise a composer’s talent early on in her or his career. She became known for her refined musical taste and for her understanding of repertoire still unknown in Paris at the time: from the early music of Bach, Handel and Rameau to complex Modernist avant-garde music. Many composers and performers owe their initial success to Winnaretta’s patronage: Gabriel Fauré, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Manuel De Falla and Nadia Boulanger among others.

Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger

Stravinsky and Nadia Boulanger

Her main tactic was to commission new works from composers who were still quite unknown, and to give them the opportunity to have their pieces performed in the sheltered setting of her salon. By financing all the necessary expenses, Winnaretta was able to organise ambitious performances in her atelier, which increased her reputation, while at the same time providing ‘her’ composers with enough publicity and support to secure them unquestionable success at the public premiere of their new works, which would always happen a few days after her salon’s avant-premiere.

Thanks to her financial and titled status, and because of the private influence of her activities, Winnaretta had obtained the freedom she needed for her musical ambitions. Due to the widespread ‘cult of domesticity’ of 19th-century Paris, an aristocratic woman’s occupations and aspirations were limited within the walls of her home. Winnaretta didn’t let this frustrate her career and managed to accept these limitations and create her own private world where she had all the necessary power to organise any musical performance she desired. Her activities had no limits in the realm of her salon: because of her financial status, she had the freedom to programme any work she wanted, without it being necessarily commercially viable.

Over the years, Winnaretta’s area of influence slowly shifted from the private sphere of her home to a wider public arena. The turn of the 19th into the 20th century saw the relative decline of pompous aristocratic salons in favour of more public-oriented forms of patronage. Winnaretta’s salon, however, continued to be influential for Modernist music in France up until the late 1930s, but the articulations of her patronage were then very different from when the salon started 40 years earlier. This process of change can be observed in Winnaretta’s patronage of the composer, teacher and conductor Nadia Boulanger, whom she supported financially also in her ‘public’ musical activities such as tours to America and conducting engagements with orchestras in France and in England. Much of Winnaretta’s financial support towards public performances by Boulanger and her Ensemble was dependent on some of Winnaretta’s commissions being included in the programme: while helping Nadia Boulanger in launching her career, Winnaretta was still increasing her reputation as music patron. At the same time as being involved with public performances, and often still being supported by Winnaretta (who would cover Boulanger’s travel and publicity expenses, as well as hire concert halls and musicians), Nadia Boulanger still continued her activities as ‘house musician’ at Winnaretta’s salon, often with the aim of extending her professional networks. For more information on the balance between private and public sphere of Winnaretta’s patronage, read Jeanice Brooks’ 1993 article ‘Nadia Boulanger and the Salon of the Princesse de Polignac’.

Nadia BoulangerNadia Boulanger

The salons of Countess Greffulhe and Winnaretta Singer are just two examples of how influential some aristocratic women were in dictating the artistic trends of their time. As explained in Elaine Leung-Wolf’s DMA thesis ‘Women, Music and the Salon Tradition: Its Cultural and Historical Significance in Parisian Musical Society’:

Because of the salon’s central position in the lives of the nobility and upper classes, these society elites were in the position to contribute directly to the development of culture through their activities, beliefs, and opinions by acting as arbiters of taste in etiquette, language, philosophy, literature, the arts, and politics (p.336).

Salons were the place where professional connections and friendships could be made, and where it was possible to be exposed to the most modern trends in music and the other arts. For example Wagner’s music, as well as that of other foreign composers, was first introduced in Paris through the gatherings at aristocratic salons, were French men and women could explore and discuss new and foreign music. Many of the performers linked with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, as well as the organisation itself, owed their survival to the patronage of wealthy women such as Countess Greffulhe, Winnaretta Singer de Polignac, Coco Chanel and Misia Sert.

Cocteau and DiaghilevCocteau and Diaghilev

The role of women, whether titled aristocrats or professionals from the middle class, changed very much during the 19th century. Political ideologies such as Republicanism and Socialism were growing in popular support, and this had profound changes in state legislations throughout the second half of the 19th century, with a gradual, but slow and yet incomplete, consciousness of women’s rights. With the increase in professional careers available in public places such as music institutions and concert halls, women started to receive more recognition for their professional aspirations without being secluded to their own homes anymore. A few examples of these changes can be seen in Lili Boulanger winning the Prix de Rome in 1913, Nadia Boulanger establishing an international career as a female conductor and renowned pedagogue or Isadora Duncan enchanting the Parisian public with her modern vision of dance and movement. As described in the words of American diplomat Morrill Cody:

It was the women among us who shaped and directed and nourished the social and artistic and literary life of the young. . . . Without them, the colony [of American writers] would have neither the historical richness nor the cultural significance that has made it for years such an absorbing subject (as cited in Leung-Wolf, 1996, p.317).

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