Ever since watching Bernadette Peters play her in the 1991 film Impromptu, I’ve been intrigued by Marie d’Agoult. At the time, I knew only that Chopin had dedicated his second set of Etudes to her, but she was only a name. Several years ago, I discovered that she studied at the Sacred Heart school in Paris in 1820. Phyllis Stock-Morton’s recent biography recounts the young woman’s general unhappiness with the school (and with Eugénie de Gramont in particular!), but Marie’s own memoirs contain a powerful vignette involving Sophie, whom she loved. As described in the novel (“Heloise and Marie,” Part 6), Marie was allowed to have her own room and a piano, which she apparently played exceedingly well.
Eventually married to Count Charles d’Agoult, Marie moved in high social circles, became increasingly interested in politics and hosted her own highly successful salon in the early 1830s. About this time she met the Hungarian pianist and composer Franz Liszt. In 1835 she left her husband and children for Liszt, openly defying the social conventions and allying herself with the artists and intellectuals of her time. She and Liszt had three children.
What the novel does not go into is Marie’s life beyond her affair with Liszt.
Writing under the name Daniel Stern, she became a noted journalist, novelist, and historian. Her three-volume History of the Revolution of 1848 is still highly regarded as a perceptive and multi-faceted chronicle of this event. One American historian recently wrote: “Her incisive portraits of political leaders, and her reasoned analysis of the social factors influencing the outcome of the revolution, would have a profound impact on many subsequent treatments of 1848.” (James Chastain, Ohio University, 2005) Devoted to democracy and social justice despite her aristocratic background, Marie d’Agoult is a provocative figure of her age–a sort of French Mary Wollstonecraft who argued strongly for a better world, including improved educational and property rights for women.
Further reading: The Life of Marie d’Agoult (Phyllis Stock-Morton)
Link to one of Chopin’s Etudes dedicated to Marie d’Agoult (Opus 25, #1): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GOe670xcKhk
Link to one of Chopin’s Etudes dedicated to Franz Liszt (Opus 10, #3) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mpiJbQvBP8A
Recommended viewing: Impromptu (a tongue-in-cheek rendering of the seduction of Frederick Chopin by George Sand, starring Hugh Grant, Judy Davis, Bernadette Peters, and Julian Sands), 1991