Holmès, a naturalized French composer of Irish descent was rumored to have been fathered by the celebrated novelist and poet Alfred de Vigny, who conveniently also doubled as her Godfather. Showing musical aptitude at an early age, she initially published her own compositions under the pseudonym Hermann Zenta. Franz Liszt and Richard Wagner hurriedly evaluated her musical scores, and Holmès began to enjoy popularity in the sophisticated circles of Parisian society. In fact, she began to exert a muse-like influence on her surroundings, prompting Saint-Saëns to remark “this beautiful pythoness was not satisfied with cultivating art and preaching art; she caused it to flourish all about here. As Venus fecundated the world when she knotted her tresses, so Augusta Holmès shook over us her reddish locks, and when she was prodigal with the lightning of her eyes and the brilliance of her voice, we ran to our pens, our brushes; and works were born.” For several years, she was the mistress of Catulle Mendès—husband of the poet and historical novelist Judith Gautier—and depending on what source to believe, bore him either four or five children. To the dismay of Félicité Saillot, Holmès became a private student of her husband’s in 1876. Although Franck undoubtedly admired her musical and artistic talent, he simply could not ignore “her bold beautiful features, abundant golden hair, and handsome breasts of which she was justifiably proud”. Holmès in turn, considered Frank “her real master”, and we can only assume that she was primarily referring to his compositional instructions. Be that as it may, this intimate and scarcely platonic relationship inspired Frank to publicly disclose his feelings in the Piano Quintet, prompting a critic to quip “the piano quintet is, by any measure, not quite the sound that anyone would expect to hear from the organ-loft”.
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