Skip to Main Content

French Women & Feminists in History: A Resource Guide

Mél Bonis

Theodor Horydczak, photographer. Woman seated at piano in Lightbrown house. ca. 1920-ca. 1950. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Mélanie Hélène Bonis was a late 19th- and early 20th-century composer. Coming from a lower-middle class Parisian family she was heavily influenced by her religious education but she nevertheless found the time to teach herself piano. By the age of 16 even her family had to rather reluctantly admit she had musical talent. The well-known composer César Franck began to give her lessons and took great interest in her early compositions. Purportedly running in circles that included Debussy, it soon became apparent that being a woman was a hinderance to her musical career. She shortened her name to Mél in the hopes of presenting a less feminine impression.

She met Amédée Landély Hettich, a kindred spirit, in a singing class. Unfortunately, her family objected and was eager to distance her from musicians and artists — who they saw as dangerous and unpredictable. She was essentially forced to marry Albert Domange, a much older man, twice widowed and with several children. While she enjoyed an upscale life with Domange that included a mansion and a summer home in Normandy, she no doubt missed music in her life. Her husband did not enjoy music, although he was in most ways an affable man. He did not understand her spiritual ruminations either. She managed her role admirably and had three children with her husband but several years into her marriage she encountered her first love once again and her passion with Hettich was reignited.

Inspired by Hettich who was also married, she began composing again and gained some attention. She struggled both spiritually and emotionally with the heaviness of her love and attraction to Hettich and eventually their love produced an illegitimate daughter who had to be raised in obscurity. Bonis was terribly conflicted about the events of her life and tried to devote herself to music and live a respectable life. While her music was recognized and she wrote over 300 compositions, her gender was still a hindrance and after World War I her work fell into obscurity. Her daughter inherited her depth of feeling and her rather tormented life, falling in love with a man who turned out to be her half brother. While mother and daughter did reunite, neither woman seemed to reach the potential that their talents and sensitivity would have foretold. Ultimately, Bonis wrote with uncommon range including pieces for children and adults; for two hands and four hands; two pianos; one or two voices; about 30 pieces for organ; about 20 chamber music works, including three sonatas, two piano quartets, a septet, etc...; and 11 orchestral pieces. Fortunately, of late, the extraordinary work of Bonis is being newly discovered and appreciated.

Her daughter wrote a biographical book in 1974, Souvenirs et Réflexions, available through Les éditions du Nant d'enfer, Évian.

You can identify additional material by searching the Library of Congress Online Catalog using the following headings:

Women composers--France--Biography

Print & Digital Resources

The following titles link to fuller bibliographic information in the Library of Congress Online Catalog. Links to additional online content are included when available. Many of the books on subjects pertaining to music and musicians are available only in the Performing Arts Reading Room (Madison, LM113).