Posted on:Wednesday 24th February, 2021
Who is Poldowski? The name suggests a man with Polish origins. Poldowski was a composer, but the name is a pseudonym adopted by Irène Régine Wieniawska. If her surname sounds familiar, it is because she was the daughter of the celebrated violinist and composer Henryk Wieniawski, a Pole who settled in Brussels, though she never knew her father as he died less than a year after her birth. The youngest of four children, she was the only one to pursue a musical career. Most of Poldowski’s extant compositions are songs (to both English and French texts) or chamber pieces, and during her lifetime her work was performed regularly in the UK, France, Belgium, the Netherlands and the USA. She also wrote her own texts and performed as pianist and singer.
Her life story is worthy of a mini-series. She was born in Brussels to a British mother, and while little is known of her early life, it is hardly surprising that this daughter of a professional musician had music lessons as a child. Some reports suggest she studied with the Belgian composer François-Auguste Gevaert.1 Mother and daughter moved from Belgium to London in 1896, a move which gave the composer social opportunities far beyond what might be expected of a violinist’s daughter. She continued to study music and published songs with Chappell in 1900 under her real surname of Wieniawska, and her marriage in 1901 moved her into the top rank of London society. Her husband, Aubrey Dean Paul, was a music lover and descendant of the 1st Duke of Marlborough, and following their marriage, she was known as Lady Dean Paul and became a British citizen.
Aubrey Dean Paul
This was not the only new name she adopted: at this time, she also started using the pseudonym Poldowski for her musical activities. What led her to use this name? Surely a combination of prejudice against female composers, her desire to assert an individual professional identity, and a wish to acknowledge her Polish ancestry contributed to her decision to use a masculine nom de plume. It is interesting that her husband also adopted a pseudonym, Edward Ramsey, when he performed as a baritone in song recitals accompanied by his wife: was it considered unseemly for people from his social background to perform in public? The Times music critic reviewed one of their 1910 performances, damning ‘Ramsey’ with faint praise: ‘his baritone voice is of good, if not very flexible quality.’2
Further complicating her cosmopolitan identity, after the birth of her first child in 1904 Poldowski decided to continue her composition studies in Paris, working first with the celebrated theory teacher André Gedalge. Sadly her son died and she returned to London, though she made a second brief visit to Paris in 1907 to study with Vincent d’Indy at the Schola Cantorum, where her classmates might well have included Erik Satie.
On her return to London, her burgeoning reputation as a composer led to performances of her work at the Bechstein Hall (as the Wigmore Hall was then known) and Sir Henry Wood’s Promenade Concerts, by major artists of the day such as the soprano Maggie Teyte, who was closely associated with French music. Wood thought that Poldowski had ‘exceptional talent’ and commissioned an orchestral Nocturne which he conducted at the Proms in 1912. (It was part of a wonderfully eclectic programme that is a world away from today’s standard orchestral concerts.) The piece was inspired by a visit to a Scottish island where Poldowski and her husband had stayed as guests of Lord Howard de Walden; as is the case for most of her large-scale works, the score has disappeared.
Poldowski’s studies in Paris had a lasting impact on her musical aesthetic, and from the early 1910s her affinity with French poetry, particularly Verlaine, became the dominant aspect of her work. She set no fewer than 22 Verlaine poems, ranging in composition date from ‘Bruxelles’ (1911) to ‘A Clymène’ (1927). Most of these exist in more familiar settings – for instance, both Fauré and Debussy composed songs to the poems ‘Mandoline’ and ‘En sourdine.’
Poldowski’s settings irresistibly evoke the world of the salon concert for which they were composed, and her Verlaine is an unequivocally romantic poet. She brings to Verlaine’s poems a heightening of their emotional mood, stressing the passionate climaxes of ‘Spleen’ and ‘C’est l’extase.’ ‘Colombine’ is a lively and lighthearted evocation of the world of the commedia dell’arte characters, full of rhythmic invention. For many listeners, ‘L’heure exquise’ will be almost inseparable from Reynaldo Hahn’s setting, but Poldowski’s supple and romantic song, with the piano underlining the mood of the text and a beautiful poignant conclusion, bears comparison with the more famous version. (Listen to Philippe Jaroussky’s interpretation.) Her ‘Mandoline’ situates Verlaine’s words in a distinctly Hispanic location, with an accompaniment that sounds more like a vigorous Spanish guitar serenade than a mandolin.
Poldowski’s reputation spread outside Europe when she moved to New York for three years from 1919. Records indicate that some large-scale works, including an opera with the intriguing title Silence, were performed, but these scores are now lost. In 1921-22, Poldowski appeared as both composer and performer in a theatrical mixed media presentation that would have been perfect for a Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation event. This recital combined a presentation of three different periods of Verlaine’s life by Cecile Sartoris with Poldowski singing and accompanying herself in her own settings of poems from the period in question. It was unfortunate that a reviewer in the New York Times drew attention to her mediocre voice as much as her compositions.3
Poldowski’s professional success was not matched by lasting personal contentment. She and her husband had two surviving children, but the marriage did not last and they separated in 1921. Her daughter Brenda Dean Paul (1907-59) was an actress and socialite, one of the ‘Bright Young Things’ beloved of 1920s journalists;4 however, she and her brother both struggled with addictions and died prematurely.
Poldowski’s music fell into obscurity after her death, though was not completely forgotten. Jascha Heifetz included her Tango for violin and piano in a mixed recital recorded in 1946, and recent years have seen stronger interest in her work. In 2017, Ensemble 1904 released a CD of her Verlaine settings arranged by David Jackson for their unusual formation of voice, violin, double bass and piano, and contemporary singers of the calibre of Carolyn Sampson have championed her music. While we will never hear her Nocturne at the Proms again unless the score resurfaces, Poldowski’s songs give us a flavour of this fascinating composer and are finally receiving the attention they deserve.
1 Mooney, David. ‘Poldowski.’ Grove Music Online. 2001. Oxford University Press,
https://www.oxfordmusiconline.com/grovemusic/view/10.1093/gmo/9781561592630.001.0001/omo-9781561592630-e-0000045481 (accessed February 2021).
2 Peter Rennie, ‘Poldowski in Concert.’ https://www.wieniawski.com/poldowski_in_concert.html (accessed February 2021).
3 Rennie, ‘Poldowski in Concert.’
4 ‘Bright Young People: Actress, Αddict & ''It Girl'' | Brenda Dean Paul, 1907-59.’ Cocosse Journal, http://www.cocosse-journal.org/2015/05/bright-young-people-brenda-dean-paul.html (accessed February 2021).