Piano Quartet No.1 in B flat Major, Op.69
When Saint SaŽns, after hearing this work, remarked to its dedicatee Jean Gounod, "I never thought a woman could write something such as this. She knows all the clever tricks of the composer's trade," this was both a compliment and a sad commentary on the fact that women composers were basically ignored and regarded as second rate.
Mel Bonis (Melanie Helene Bonis 1858-1937) was born in Paris. gifted but long underrated composer. She used the pseudonym Mel Bonis because she rightly felt women composers of her time weren't taken seriously as artists. Her music represents a link between the Romantic and Impressionist movements in France. Her parents discouraged her early interest in music and she taught herself to play piano until age 12, when she was finally given private lessons. A friend introduced her to Cesar Franck, who was so impressed with her abilities he made special arrangements for her to be admitted to the then all-male Paris Conservatory in 1876. She won prizes in harmony and accompaniment and showed great promise in composition, but a romance with a fellow student, Amedee Hettich, caused her parents to withdraw her from the institution in 1881. Two years later she married and raised a family. Then in 1893 she again encountered Hettich, now a famous critic; he urged her to continue composing and helped launch her career in fashionable Parisian salons, where her music made a considerable stir. Saint Saens highly praised her chamber music and could not believe that it had not been composed by a man.
Although her music was much played and praised she never entered the first rank of her contemporaries as she probably would have because she lacked the necessary vanity for self-promotion. It did not help that she was a woman. As a result, by the time of her death, she and her music had fallen into obscurity. She composed over 300 works in most genres. Finally, in the 1960s, historians began to re-examine the contributions of women composers and this set the stage for Bonis's posthumous reputation.
Piano Quartet No.1 was completed in 1905. Its premiere took place at a concert in Bonis' home with her at the piano. Three then famous string players (Louis Duttenhofer on violin, Pierre Monteux on viola and Louis Feuillard on cello) took part and the concert was a great success. Nonetheless the work was forgotten shortly after the First World War, like so many other fine works from this period. The opening movement, Moderato, begins gently but its main theme also shows a marked intensity of feeling. The music has a certain diffidence. The second theme is used to slowly build tension. The second movement, Intermezzo, allegretto tranquillo, also begins quietly but momentum picks up almost immediately, while still keeping the laid back mood of an intermezzo. The lovely Andante which follows is the work's center of gravity. The first part of the main theme has a sad, searching quality while the second half is surprisingly optimistic. From this she branches out, building beautiful tonal episodes. In the finale, Allegro ma non troppo, the relaxed geniality is substituted for passion, drama and excitement.
This is an important work which any piano quartet group, professional or amateur, would be well served playing. Out of print for many years now, it is pleasure to bring it back.