Princess Winnaretta Singer Musical Legacy

Winnaretta Singer: Music's Modern Muse(Photo: University of Rochester Press)
Winnaretta Singer: Music's Modern Muse(Photo: University of Rochester Press)

I’ve been spending some time with a piece new to me, Stravinsky‘s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments, preparing for this weekend’s performances by the Columbus Symphony. In my research I was pleased to see a name that has long intrigued me, and the subject of a recent biography by Sylvia Kahan, Winnaretta Singer.

Princesse Winnaretta’s Life

Winnaretta was one of twenty-four children born to Isaac Merritt Singer. That was not a typo and you did not misread it.

Mr. Singer was the heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune, and he was rich enough to raise all of his massive brood in style. Winnaretta was born in 1865 in Yonkers, New York but was raised in London and Paris. The French capital was her home for most of her adult life, though she died in London in 1943.

What’s interesting about this gilded heiress? She was openly lesbian, but in 1893 she married the penniless Prince Edmond de Polignac, who was thirty-five years her senior and who himself preferred same sex partners.

The story goes that Winnaretta was captivated at being addressed as “Madame la Princesse,” and Prince Polignac needed a roof over his graying and noble head. In fact, the marriage became one of great mutual devotion and lasted happily until Poliganc’s death in 1901.

The Princesse’s Musical Legacy

The Princesse Edmond de Polignac became one of Europe’s most generous patrons of the arts. Gounod, Faure, Granados, Casals, Ravel and Stravinsky are a few of the artists whose work she supported, both financially and in sponsoring public concerts at her home on the Avenue Henri-Martin-today the Avenue Georges-Mandel, a few doors down from where Maria Callas died in 1977.

The Princess’s music room had massive pipe organs installed at either end (for concerts by Saint-Saens and Widor) and comfortably seated 200. Ravel dedicated his Pavane pour une infante defunte to her.

The aforementioned Stravinsky concerto was premiered in the princess’s music room in May of 1924. Her salon inspired Proust, who was a confidante, and the Princesse de Polignac’s patronage extended to Jean Cocteau, Darius Milhaud, Erik Satie, Francis Poulenc, Serge Diaghilev and Colette. The lady had taste.

Not everyone was enchanted. Virginia Woolf sniffed, “To look at her, you’d never know she’s ravished half the virgins in Paris.”

Winnaretta’s Charity Work

The Fondation Singer-Polignac was founded in 1928. Its works continues today, in support of the arts and in public housing, the idea of which the Princess pioneered after the effects of the Wall Street crash began to be felt in France.

With all her good works and generosity, the Princess still had time for a busy private life. Romaine Brooks and Ethel Smyth were among her lovers. The story goes that the outraged husband of one of her partners was heard to bellow, “If you are half the man I think you are, you will come out here and fight me!” That’s too good a line to be made up.

Sylvia Kahan’s biography, Music’s Modern Muse, A Life of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac is a bloody good read.

Stravinsky’s Concerto for Piano and Wind Instruments is an energetic, jazz-influenced work, a lot of fun packed into twenty minutes. It’s on the program this weekend with the Columbus Symphony. George Manahan conducts, with pianist Aleck Karis. I promise really interesting pre-concert talks.

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