The radical Augusta Holmès: the forgotten composer of history



(Hypebot) РIn this piece, Daniel Reifsnyder takes a moment to introduce us to the legacy and symphonic / orchestral contributions of the tragically forgotten composer Augusta Holm̬s.

Guest post by Dan Reifsnyder of the Soundfly Flypaper

There have been a lot of conversations lately about why we are taught certain still other people are relegated to the periphery of history – if not even talked about at all.

From black heroes like the “hidden figures” who helped speed up the space race, to Matthew Henson, the first man to reach the North Pole, culture tends to focus its energy on those most like those of places of influence and power. – typically men, and typically white men.

Music is unfortunately no exception. Is it any wonder that Sister Rosetta Tharpe is not even close to a household name, while those she has influenced (Elvis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, to name a few – uns) will never be forgotten?

Likewise, many of the early pioneers of so many musical genres are overlooked by those who followed them, or in some cases stole them – and who often became rich and famous by taking up the torch of something already founded and pioneering.

Before I get angry emails from Elvis fans (or impersonators), I don’t say any of this to disparage these artists. They are all amazing, I listen and love their music, and I respect them tremendously. They deserve their place in the annals of musical history. But if there ever was a time to broaden the scope of history and tell the stories of some forgotten pioneers, it is now.

And it’s time to introduce you to a 19th century composer by the name of Augusta Holmes – whose symphonic and orchestral contributions to concert music are magnificent works of art, and which have been tragically forgotten in the history books.

Being something other than a dedicated housewife before the women’s suffrage movement was no easy task. Women were not taken seriously in almost every profession, and the arts were certainly no exception. Many female authors of the time, such as Louisa May Alcott and the Brontë sisters, had to use male pen names in order for their works to be accepted and published – let alone. to sell. Holmes herself adopted this practice very early on, under the pseudonym Hermann Zenta.

Women in music also had limited opportunities – they were generally expected to compose smaller, unpretentious pieces – if they were allowed to perform and compose, of course. This was in part due to the social norms of the time, but it was also a product of the fact that women had neither the resources nor the education to compose large, ambitious scores. In the early 1800s, it was rare for conservatories to admit women, except, perhaps, as performance majors.

Without a doubt, these realities were on the mind of Augusta’s mother when she forbade her to pursue music. And yet, Holmes still started taking music lessons at age 11 – and she was a fast learner. Knowing that she would be an oddity at best, and an icebreaker at best for the women who followed her, she embraced the essential feminist label, declaring “I have to show men what I’m capable of!”

In fact, if there is one common thread in the life of Holmès, it is this: she challenged with audacity and enthusiasm the standards of her time. She never married, even after her father died (although she had a very open affair). This allowed her to be the sole heir to the family inheritance and fortune; giving her the resources and the freedom to make music the way she wanted.

Naturally, her career choices and her pioneering status made Holmes a sensational personality in the salons of France, where she engaged with the best and brightest artists of her time. And she was not lacking either admirers, including Richard Wagner, César Franck and Camille Saint-Saëns.

Underneath the impressive figure, however, was substance, even genius. Despite her late debut in a musical career, she completed her first one-act opera (Hero and Leander) in 1875 at the age of 28. She wrote this opera on her own, right down to the libretto (something akin to the script of a play, for you non-operators).

Like her personality, her works were not the tiny, delicate little pieces one would probably expect from a composer of the day. They were dramatic, epic and grandiose. One of his pieces, Triumphal Ode, which was created during the Universal Expedition of 1899 and was composed to commemorate the French Revolution, was written for no less than 1,200 performers.

After his death in 1903, his works unfortunately disappeared from public awareness. We can only speculate as to why, but the fact that she was no longer there to defend her works may have been a major factor – especially in light of a culture that may not have been there to defend her works. eager to encourage future composers.

However, many obstacles encountered by Holmes exist today in modern music. In some genres, women are barely present. In others, they must present themselves in a certain way to be considered “marketable”. Progress has been made, but much remains to be done to correct the imbalances and foster a wider range of new creations, as good as paying homage to our great pioneers – pioneers like Holmes – is a hell of a start.

Daniel Reifsnyder is a Grammy-nominated, Nashville-based songwriter, having started his musical journey at the age of 3. Besides being an accomplished commercial actor, his voice can be heard on the theme song “The Magic School Bus” and in Home Alone 2 Throughout his career he has had the honor of working with Michael Jackson and Little Richard among many others. He regularly contributes to several music-related blogs, including his own,


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