Following her visit to Venice with Félix-Joseph Barrias in 1890, Winnaretta Singer [Princesse de Polignac] returned for four months the following year with her brother, Washington, and his wife, Daphne Helen Travers. Fauré (above, by John Singer Sargent) whom she had first met in Normandy in the mid-1870s, was one of her guests on this visit and was to become a lifelong friend. The Singers rented part of a small palazzo in San Vio on the Grand Canal belonging to the artist and writer, Count Alexander Wolkoff-Mouromtzoff, a colourful Russian émigré who had lived in Venice for over a quarter of a century and had been a friend of both Wagner and Liszt. The Casa Wolkoff, as the Count’s palazzo had come to be known, was next door to the Ca’Dario. Although the interior was modest in comparison to the Ca’Dario, a large top-floor studio commanded excellent views of the city, the lagoon and the Giudecca. Winnaretta spent much of her time painting either in the studio or out on the lagoon, or copying master paintings in the Accademia. As to music, she had brought with her a miniature, five-octave ‘yacht piano’ made by Cramer of London, a gift from ‘one of my brothers’, most likely her travelling companion, Washington. In the years to come, it proved to be of great use in Venice on several occasions.
Fauré was joined at Casa Wolkoff by the artist Ernest-Ange Duez and his wife Amélie, a talented and well-known amateur singer. Fauré divided his time between the Café Florian and the Casa Wolkoff, working on Cinq melodies “de Venise”, (Op. 58), a song cycle based on poems by Paul Verlaine. He later dedicated it to Winnaretta, who affectionately recalled the work in progress:
I carefully prepared a quiet room with a piano as a study for Fauré to work in, but I had forgotten how fond he was of cafes; and I am obliged to say that he wrote his five Melodies de Venise at a little marble table at the Cafe Florian on the Piazza, in the midst of the noise and turmoil of a busy Venetian crowd, rather than in the peaceful room I had arranged for him.
Several Parisian friends were staying with me at the same time as Gabriel Fauré; one of them, Madame Ernest Duez, having a lovely voice, we were in the habit of going out on the lagoon after dinner in a Peata (or large fishing boat) and we had got together an orchestra of five or six musicians. When Fauré brought back nearly every day one of his lovely songs, Madame Duez and the little orchestra rehearsed them on the lagoon, Fauré playing the little yacht piano that one of my brothers had given me. And thus I heard for the first time Mandoline, En Sourdine, and the three other songs that he dedicated to me, and they form the five Melodies de Venise that are so beautiful.
Fauré was pleased with Melodies and considered it groundbreaking work. He wrote to Winnaretta later that year, in Paris, expressing his satisfaction and explaining that the cycle was more than a simple collection of songs: in the final song, L’Extase, the themes of the preceding songs are reprised and combined in a complex pattern of echoes, conferring a final sense of unity and balance on the cycle as a whole. In a letter to Marguerite Beugnies on Friday 12th June 1891, during his stay in Venice with Winnaretta and other mutual friends, Fauré wrote:
But what a place! And what a life we are living here! Divine doesn’t cover it: let’s just say there’s no word for it! Nor is there a word to express the extent of the admiration and almost something more (ouch) that I feel for our adorable hostess! A parenthesis at this point! BUT YOU MUST SWEAR NOT TO GIVE ME AWAY! Not that it makes any difference since we are going home soon and it will all be over! But Venice I am finding morally DELETERIOUS!!! I thought I was accommodated once and for all! But this, I repeat, is a crisis, the last one of course and I have a feeling that as soon as I step into the train to go home it will all blow over and I shall be left with nothing but great amazement!