Notes on week 16 :: French Salons

A SALON IN 1900  by Colette

Can I say that I really knew him, my illustrious collaborator, the author of L'Enfant et les sortilèges? I met Maurice Ravel for the first time at Mme de Saint-Marceaux's, who used to receive on Friday evenings after dinner. Forty years ago, the gatherings at the Saint-Marceaux mansion, rather than a worldly curiosity, were more a reward accorded to the musical faithful, a sort of elevated recreation, the bastion of artistic intimacy. Two drawing-rooms of modest dimensions joined into one were, over a long period, the place which consecrated the reputations of composers and virtuosi under the aegis of a good female musician. In fact, Mme de Saint-Marceaux did not appear to seek anyone out and the favour of becoming a familiar of those Fridays had to be solicited.

A dinner, always excellent, preceded these reunions, where the mistress of the house maintained an atmosphere of ‘ordered liberty’. She did not insist that one listened to the music, but suppressed the slightest whisper. Everyone was free to arrive whenever he wished, provided that the men were in lounge-suits, the women in the equivalent. “My Fridays”, explained Mme de Saint-Marceaux, “welcome hardworking friends, tired after their day's endeavours, neighbours who decide at the last moment to desert their fireside to come and sit at mine, painters attached to their undress. I've spent twenty years ridding them of all distrust, accustoming them to comfort without affectation. If Fauré, leaving his duchesses in evening-dress, comes to swagger at my house, Messager, who is affectation itself, will feel humiliated and assume his sad palikare (“heroic” in Greek )face. No, no, no more panache!”

Princess Edmond de Polignac always appeared in a high-necked dress. I admired, intimidated and from a little distance, the character of indestructibility bestowed by her intense blue gaze and her conqueror's chin. Her husband never quitted a light beige vicuna shawl which sometimes draped his chilly shoulders, sometimes warmed his knees. He was charming, young in heart, and resembled a great ironic bird. To listen to Fauré at the piano, or Edouard Risler, or Bages who sang Schumann, or the brief melodies of Pierre Bréville, the Prince de Polignac installed himself at the end of one of the sofas and sketched. How did the pretty little caricature, so flattering, that he did of me, get mislaid? I miss it.

Large shaded lamps, accessible tables well strewn with reviews, newspapers, and cigarettes, warmth in winter, cool drinks and petits fours in the adjacent dining-room…. No one was distressed because Saint-Marceaux buried himself in a book, because the three Baugnies brothers, sons of Mme de Saint-Marceaux, retired to the top floor, because the painters Clairin, Billotte, Besnard, Jeanniot were absorbed in a painters' argument, because Gabriel Fauré preferred to music the pleasure of drawing in three of the pen a portrait of Koechlin, long and bearded, or one of Henri Février, father of Jacques. Sometimes the phalanx  of musicians threw themselves on the music-books, played, sang with spirit the melodies of Loisa Puget, ransacked a repertory of 1840 haunted by madmen on the heath, Breton fiancées leaning on harbour walls, young girls intoxicated by the waltz. ... A basset bitch, Waldine, gave ear. A delightful female marmoset came to eat the cake crumbs and a small banana, wiped its fingers  delicately with  a handkerchief, fastened its  alert, golden, unfathomable eyes on ours. . . . Such discreet, almost familial,  liberties gave us much pleasure. Yet we felt ourselves governed by a hostess quick of wit and tongue, basically intolerant, with beaked nose and roving eye, who fought for music and became tipsy with it.

It was there that I saw the score of Pelléas et Mélisande arrive one evening. It came in Messager's arms, clasped to his heart, as if he had stolen it. He began to read it at the piano, to hum it with passion in a rusty zinc voice.  He stopped, resumed :  “And this? … And this? . . .” and singing Mélisande's part he almost closed his eyes…

Often, side by side on one of the piano-stools, Gabriel Fauré and Messager improvised with four hands, competing in sudden modulations and departures from the key. They both enjoyed this game, during which they would exchange duellers' ripostes : “Take that! . . . And that, were you ready? . . . All right, I'll catch you out. . . .”  Fauré, a swarthy emir, tossed his silver crest, smiled at these ambushes and went one better. . . . Chabrier's parody quadrille for four hands, containing the themes of the Tétralogie, often sounded the curfew....

It was in this setting, echoing but responsive to meditation, jealous of its prerogatives but capable of gentleness, that I first met Maurice Ravel. He was young, this side of the age whence comes simplicity. Side-whiskers – yes, side-whiskers! – of voluminous hair exaggerated the contrast between his imposing head and tiny body. He loved striking cravats, linen with ruffles. Seeking attention, he feared criticism; that of Henry Gauthier-Villars was cruel. Perhaps inwardly shy, Ravel maintained a distant air, a dry manner. Apart from listening to his music, which I undertook initially from curiosity, then from an attachment to which the slight unease of surprise, the sensual and malicious attraction of a new art, added their charms, that was all I knew of Maurice Ravel for many years. I cannot recall any particular encounter with him, any friendly abandon.

Came the day when M. Rouché asked me for a libretto for a fantasy-ballet for the Opéra. I still don't know how I was able to give him -- I who work slowly and with difficulty -- L'Enfant et les sortilèges in less than a week. . . . He liked my little poem and suggested composers whose names I greeted as politely as I could.

“But,” said Rouché after a pause, “suppose I suggested Ravel?”

I emerged clamorously from my politeness and expressed my hopes in no niggardly fashion.

“We must face the fact,” added Rouché, “that it may take a long time, even if Ravel accepts. . . .”

He did accept. It was long. He went off with my libretto and we heard no more of Ravel, nor of L'Enfant. . . . Where was Ravel working? Was he working? I did not realize what the creation of a work demanded of him, the slow frenzy which possessed and isolated him, heedless of hours and days. The War took Ravel, silenced his name with a hermetic seal, and I lost the habit of thinking about L'Enfant et les sortilèges.

Five years passed. The finished work and the author emerged from the silence, escaped the blue, day-blind eye of the Siamese cats who were Ravel's confidants. But he did not treat me as a privileged person, granted me no commentary, no preliminary audition. He seemed concerned only with the 'duo miaow' between the two Cats, and asked me gravely if I saw any problem in his replacing the ‘mouao’ by ‘mouain’, or possibly the other way round....

The years had deprived him, not only of the ruffled shirt and side-whiskers, but also of the arrogance of a short-statured man. Mingled white and black hair crowned him with a sort of plumage and as he spoke he crossed his delicate rodent hands, touched everything with his squirrel's glance. . . .

The score of L'Enfant et les sortilèges is famous now. How can I express my emotion at the first drum-roll which accompanies the procession of the Shepherds? The moonlight dazzle of the garden, the flight of the dragonflies and the bats . . . “It’s amusing, isn't it?” said Ravel. But I was choked with unshed tears : the Beasts, with an urgent, barely articulated whispering, bent over the child in reconciliation.... I had not conceived that an orchestral swell, spangled with nightingales and fire-flies, could raise my modest work so high.

I did not have the distress of witnessing Ravel's decline. At Montfort-l’Amaury his solitude and his strange 'belvedere' preserved him from a public downfall. When Hélène Morhange returned to Paris, worried because 'Ravel is very, very ill,' we did not yet see much difference between the Ravel shyly ensconced in the midst of his work, evasive, silent, and the Ravel who was being dragged down. But his confidante, the great violinist to whom he dedicated the Sonata for violin and piano and entrusted the honour of realizing it, Hélène Morhange, was not deceived. The hand that forgot musical writing and other graphisms, the lips that speech deserted, all the vain self-conscious efforts, these Morhange witnessed. She saw, as he drew away from music, one who, in 1907, said to Jules Renard with a sort of ingenuousness – “It is not my intention to add, through my music, to the value of the words, I wish only to interpret them. I feel and think musically and I should like to think the same things as yourself. There is intellectual music: d'Indy. There is sentimental instinctive music – my own.”

Before the end of his life, Ravel suffered a period of the worst mental confusion. I gather that his disease granted him remissions, the gleams of  light and the relapses which alternately delude and desolate a condemned genius. One Sunday, his steps found without effort the little road which connects Montfort to the hamlet of Mesnuls, and he arrived at Luc-Albert Moreau's after lunch. Thin, greyish-white like the mist, he could still smile. Seeing me, he said: 'Hullo Colette . . .' in a normal voice. But he made no effort to say any more and, seated among us, had rather the appearance of a being who risks dissolution from one moment to the next. He resembled the living Ravel as Luc-Albert's portrait resembles the dead Ravel: a large nose, already remodelled by the invisible hand, the chin of Dante, the vigorous badly-shaven beard of the dead, a spreading shadow under the orbit and at the root of the nose. ... I think it was on that day that Ravel pronounced my name for the last time.

From Colette, Looking Backwards (translated from the French by David Le Vay). Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1975, pp. 18-22)


At the home of Madame de Saint-Marceaux, amid a congenial atmosphere of musicians, writers, and artists (who caricatured the musicians as they performed), Fauré often presided at the keyboard. Among the guests on any given evening, one might encounter writers Pierre de Bréville, the young Colette, and Marcel Proust, musicians Claude Debussy and Vincent d'Indy, or composer/conductor André Messager.  Fauré’s salon associations influenced him toward the direction of French mélodie. He began collaboration with symbolist Paul Verlaine in late 1891, at the behest of princesse de Scey-Montbéliard (later the princesse de Polignac). He eventually composed the song cycle La bonne chanson (1892), setting nine of Verlaine's twenty-one poems.

Fauré, in turn, introduced Maurice Ravel into the salon of Madame de Saint-Marceaux in 1898. According to Ravel’s biographer Gerald Larner:  Success at the musical evenings of the formidable Madame de Saint-Marceaux, wife of a fashionable sculptor, was almost as important in establishing a composer’s reputation as favorable reviews in the newspapers. The Saint- Marceaux house, not far from Fauré’s home in the boulevard Malesherbes, was open to musical guests after dinner on Wednesdays, when formality was discouraged but any hint of a whisper during the musical performances severely frowned upon. It was here that Ravel first met Colette, future librettist of L’enfant et les sortilèges…

Apparently, Ravel participated in the informal performances of contemporary music and, on one occasion, improvised at the piano as the young American dancer, Isadora Duncan, performed interpretive dances….

The salon of Madame René de Saint-Marceaux (1850-1930) was one of the most highly regarded musical salons in Paris at the turn of the century. Marguerite de Saint-Marceaux, known to her close friends as Meg, was an accomplished singer and pianist. From 1875 until 1927 she ritually received at her home, every Friday evening, artists, musicians, writers, and dancers, most especially young and upcoming talents. Musicians Alfred Cortot, Claude Debussy, Manuel de Falla, Gabriel Fauré, Reynaldo Hahn, Giacomo Puccini, Maurice Ravel, and Ricardo Viñes, along with writers Colette and her husband Willy, Pierre Louÿs, and Gabrielle d'Annunzio were among the regular or occasional guests invited to her residence at 100, boulevard Malesherbes.

During World War I, Madeline Milhaud reminisced about these meetings:   Fridays gained in distinction what they lost in social brilliance.…Composers were more welcome than ever. On February 7, 1917, Roussel came to play his still unpublished opera Padmâvatî in front of Messager, who was being reluctant to put it on at the Opéra, and on February 3, 1920, Falla played his Sombrero de très picos which was being produced by Diaghilev and his Nuits dans les jardins d’Espagne. On January 14, 1921, Ravel played La valse on two pianos with Jacques Février and accompanied Claire Croiza in Shéhérazade, and on May 18, 1927, he played Ma mère l’oye with Marguerite Long. That same evening, the young Poulenc, probably introduced by his teacher Ricardo Viñes, played Napoli and risked singing his Chansons gaillardes.

The princesse de Polignac (Winnaretta Singer, 1865-1943) convened another influential salon during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Her assemblies in St-Leu-la-Forêt were frequented by artists, musicians, writers, and performers alike, including Jean Cocteau, Colette, Serge Diaghilev, Manuel de Falla, Wanda Landowska, Claude Monet, Francis Poulenc, Marcel Proust, Erik Satie, and Igor Stravinsky, among others. The music room in the de Polignac hôtel particulier on the avenue Henri Martin was large enough to hold full-scale concerts.

From the dissertation: Chamber Music In France Featuring Flute and Soprano, 1850-1950, and A Study of the Interactions Among the Leading Flutists, Sopranos, Composers, Artists, and Literary Figures of the time, By Susan Nanette Hayes, Doctor of Musical Arts c 2006.