Suite Orientale for Violin or Flute, Cello and Piano, Op.48
When Saint Saëns, 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.
The Suite Orientale was composed in 1900. It is in three movements and is typical of the 19th century French fascination with things from the orient. The music is evocative or the orient as expressed in the language of late French impressionism. It opens with a Prelude in which echoes of the Call of the Faithful to Prayer The second movement is entitled Danse d'Almées. The Almées were beautiful female dancers who also sang and improvised poetry to the accompaniment of a flute, castanets and tiny cymbals. One would hear them typically at weddings and other festive occasions. The finale movement, Ronde de Nuit (The Night Watch) is a somewhat spooky, lopsided dance.