Wife Winnaretta Singer, buried together
Fondation Singer-Polignac, 43 Avenue Georges Mandel, 75116 Paris, Francia
Torquay Cemetary, Torquay TQ2, Regno Unito
Prince Edmond Melchior Jean Marie de Polignac (19 April 1834 – 8 August 1901) was a French composer.
In 1875 a new friend entered his life, Comte Robert de Montesquiou, a beautiful and intelligent man twenty-one years his junior. They shared many interests, and it is possible they began a sexual relationship at that time. In his later years, Montesquiou used his wit to shield himself from sincere emotion. He is remembered as a model for des Esseintes in Joris-Karl Huysmans' À rebours, and the Baron de Charlus in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu. Through Montesquiou's circle, Polignac made the acquaintance of Élisabeth, Countess Greffulhe and of Gabriel Fauré, and became a member of the Société Nationale de Musique, where his compositions were performed alongside those of Chausson, Debussy, and Fauré.
In 1879, Polignac independently "discovered" the octatonic scale, which had been used in Russian folk music for centuries. He used it for his three-part Passion oratorio, Échos de l'Orient judaïque, and in his incidental music for Salammbô. The works, though played, proved puzzling to audiences and critics.
When a youthful John Singer Sargent was first launching his career, some of his closest associates were very flamboyant. Most conspicuous among them was Robert de Montesquiou - "the so-called "Prince of Decadence"" - whose incarnation of dandified aestheticism was to Paris what Oscar Wilde's was to London. Another was Samuel Jean de Pozzi, whose sexual exploits were almost as legendary as his pioneering work in the field of gynecology; both aspects of his character were dashingly suggested in Sargent's full-lenght portrait of 1881, Dr. Pozzi at Home. In the summer of 1885, Sargent have these friends (and the composer Prince Edmond de Polignac) a collective letter of introduction to Henry James, who dutifully arranged a dinner for them to meet James Abbott McNeill Whistler for a chance to see the artist's fabled "Peacock Room" in the home of Frederick Richards Leyland, a shipping magnate whose house was at 49 Prince's Gate. According to James, "on the whole nothing that relates to Whistler is queerer than anything else." That all three Frenchmen would later resurface in the masterwork A la recherche du temps perdu) of another gay writer, Marcel Proust, makes the anterior coincidence queerer still.
From left to right, standing: Prince Edmond de Polignac, Princess of Brancovan (Rakoul (Rachel) Musurus), Marcel Proust, Prince Constantin Brancoveanu (brother of Anna de Noailles), and Léon Delafosse. 2nd row: Madame de Montgenard, Princesse de Polignac, Countess Anna de Noailles, 1st row: Princess Helen Caraman-Chimay (sister of Anna de Noailles), Abel Hermant
By 1892, Polignac, aged 57, inept with money and impoverished through investments in a series of get-rich-quick schemes, was destitute; his nephews helped him with loans but noted that desperate action was needed. The solution that they suggested was marriage to a woman of appropriate means. Polignac discussed the matter with Montesquiou, who in turn discussed it with his cousin Élisabeth Greffulhe, and out of these conversations the name of Winnaretta Singer, daughter of Isaac Singer, the sewing machine tycoon, arose. Her marriage to Prince Louis de Scey-Montbéliard had lately been annulled. Her social status could be improved by marrying a prince, even a poor one. And the arrangement would have other benefits: Polignac's homosexuality would not be an issue as Winnaretta was a lesbian She was intimately interested in music, however, something the two did have in common. Polignac asked the comtesse Greffulhe to sound out Madame Singer on the subject of a mariage blanc (unconsummated marriage) in which each partner would have their own bed but would share artistic interests. Montesquiou, who collaborated with Winnaretta on some artistic projects, asked her to speak with Madame Greffulhe, and there the arguments were reviewed; her social position, compromised by divorce, would be improved by an alliance with one of the oldest and most distinguished aristocratic families in France; with the thirty-one year age difference, and the predilections of the bride and groom, Winnaretta would be free to lead her personal life as she wished, with no sexual demands from Edmond.
The advantages clear, a friendship and affection grew. In November 1893, Edmond proposed marriage to Winnaretta, and she accepted, a year after the idea had first been broached. On 15 December 1893, the couple was married by the Abbé de Broglie in the Chapelle des Carmes in Paris. The union received the blessing of Pope Leo XIII. Montesquiou, who felt Edmond owed him a debt of gratitude for effecting this marriage of convenience, felt slighted when Edmond was not sufficiently effulgent, and the friendship was irrevocably broken.
The marriage freed Edmond to create, and Winnaretta was happy to promote his creations. The happier they became, the more scurrilous the stories Montesquieu would spread about them. Winnaretta became close with Edmond's niece, Armande de Polignac, who was also a composer and musician. Winnaretta became a patron in public musical circles. With her husband, she hosted a music salon in her renovated atelier. With a vaulted two story ceiling, 12 x 10 m, and housing a Cavaillé-Coll organ and two grand pianos, the room became a haven for Paris's musical and artistic avant-garde.
On Tuesdays, her organ evenings were especially sought after and featured the great performers of the day, including Charles-Marie Widor, Eugène Gigout, Louis Vierne, Alexandre Guilmant and Gabriel Fauré. In 1894, Marcel Proust was introduced to the Polignacs through Montesquiou; as of 1895, he was a regular in the Polignac salon, often attending in the company of his current love interest and mutual friend of the Polignacs, composer Reynaldo Hahn. Much of Proust's musical "education" took place in the Polignac salon, and his letters to Edmond de Polignac reveal a profound admiration of the prince's music.
In 1894, Winnaretta produced a performance of Edmond's octatonic compositions at a charity event for the benefit of an orphanage. In 1901, she mounted another "all-Polignac" concert at the Conservatoire.
Through his friendship with Vincent d'Indy, Edmond became involved with the founding of the Schola Cantorum de Paris. Armande was among the school's first students.
During the Dreyfus Affair in 1894, Edmond and his brother Camille were staunchly pro-Dreyfus, but most of the rest of the Polignacs and a remarkable number of musicians were anti-Dreyfus.
The time remaining to the couple's marriage was spent in touring Europe, acquiring a palazzo in Venice and promoting Edmond's compositions. Shortly before his death, Polignac collaborated with the dancer Isadora Duncan.
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