Strong, Amazing Women - Pt. 1

I struggled to find a purpose behind this blog post. There’s a reason I never started a blog myself - I never thought I had anything particularly inspiring to say, so why put anything out there at all? I’m trying to tamp down that self-deprecating tendency in 2021 and rather than put all the pressure on myself, I will attempt to inspire with some program notes about the strong, amazing women whose music we chose to perform.


After choosing the two arias we recorded, the first art song I decided on was Poldowski’s “L’heure exquise.” Poldowski = Régine Wieniawski, daughter of Polish virtuoso violinist Henryk Wieniawski. Régine was born into music. Her late father taught at the Brussels Conservatory after a successful performing career and her mother’s family boasted connections to the likes of Rossini, Meyerbeer, Jenny Lind and, through her Irish uncle and composer George Alexander Osbourne, Berlioz and Chopin. She allegedly met and befriended Australian diva Nellie Melba at the age of 8! Having received excellent musical education in Brussels, Paris, and London, Régine began publishing her compositions in London, starting from when she moved there at 16. It was after the devastating death of her first-born son and subsequent dissolvement of her marriage that she began using the pseudonym “Poldowski.”


While Régine wrote several larger works for orchestra, she especially excelled in setting texts of French poets (Victor Hugo and Paul Verlaine in particular) to song, her mélodie reflecting a strong Debussy influence. Many notable singers of the time performed her mélodie in recital, but many felt that the best interpreter of her work was the composer herself. She often accompanied others on the piano and sometimes accompanied herself singing in concert.


It’s not a stretch to think that Régine may have struggled with making a real name for herself while living in the shadow of a famous violinist father who died six weeks before she was born. While she was able to provide for herself by performing in recitals, designing clothes for her aristocratic friends, and benefitting from lifelong connections to the elite, she was often faced with a disastrous financial situation, perhaps at least in part due to the socialite family’s drug habits. Financial instability and poor health followed Régine to her death.


We took an interest in Régine because she set so many texts that we recognize as canon when set by other (male) composers. For example, Paul Verlaine’s text in “L’heure exquise” is most popularly set by Reynaldo Hahn. Régine also set “En sourdine” and “Mandolin,” which are texts introduced to young singers through settings by Fauré and Debussy, respectively. Carson and I agreed it was a cool idea to perform a piece with text perhaps already familiar to listeners but set in a new, unique way by a lesser-known (and bonus, female!) composer. A lot of interest in Régine’s work died with her, but an ongoing revival may be the result of Poldowski being featured in the 2001 second edition of The New Grove Dictionary, which published articles written about the many female composers that had been left out of previous editions.


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“And now go, and make interesting mistakes,
make
amazing mistakes,

make glorious and fantastic mistakes.
Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here.
Make good art.”

                                                     -Neil Gaiman