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Tales from the Family Free - The Lost Composition of St Gilles

by Iwo Załuski

Tsar Aleksander II
Tsar Aleksander II

Alexandrine Courcelle was born in about 1850, to the daughter of wealthy French banker M. Courcelle of Vesoul. She was the result of a brief affair, at Aix-les-Bains, with the tsarevitch - later Tsar Alexander II of Russia. Since M. Courcelle had just lost a baby daughter himself, he substituted Alexandrine for his dead child, adopted her legally and brought her up in Paris as his own. When Alexandrine - who was named after her biological father - was twelve her mother died of cholera, but just before her death she told Alexandrine about her true parentage, and gave her the medallion that she had received from the tsarevitch as a keepsake. So Sacha Courcelle, as she was known, heiress to a banking fortune, grew up to be a popular and much sought-after socialite, attractive, talented and witty, who revelled in - but never admitted to – the inevitable rumours surrounding her birth. She married the Marquis de Boishébert, and dabbled in everything that the Paris of Napoleon III had to offer, especially music - she was a talented pianist and had a beautiful voice - and spiritualism, her two overwhelming passions.

On the Paris spiritualist salon circuit Sacha, now the Marquise de Boishebert, met Countess Elisabeth Pio de Saint-Gilles, a manic depressive widow who divided her time between the seaside resort of Saint-Gilles, where she lived with her son Paul and daughter Helene, and her Paris residence in the rue Duguay Trouin, near the Jardin de Luxembourg. There the Countess held séances and entertained aficionados of the paranormal, including the “Marquise”. The two women struck up a close friendship, and Sacha became a frequent visitor to the Chateau de Saint-Gilles, Countess Elisabeths’s family’s former ancestral home, which she had repurchased in 1880.

In the nineteenth century Saint-Gilles and Croix-de-Vie were twin towns set astride the twisting estuary of the River Vie. In 1863 the sleepy little conurbation on the Bay of Biscay, whose principal claim to fame had been its sardine industry, was officially proclaimed a seaside bathing resort - one of the first in France, coming in the wake of the fashion set by Empress Eugénie for sea-bathing in Biarritz. Croix-de-Vie lay on the north side of the river, and was served by a new train service from Nantes. The station was situated near the mouth of the estuary, and travellers to Saint-Gilles either took the ferry across the river, or had to go further into town and cross the bridge before making their way back towards the estuary once more. From the 1880s onwards Saint-Gilles and its Atlantic seaboard grew from a scattering of fishermen’s huts to an estate of chateaux and villas of the discerning Parisian sets.

In 1885 Hélène, who was fourteen at the time, recalled Sacha’s first visit to the Chateau. “My brother Paul went to fetch her at the station at Croix-de-Vie,” she wrote in her Memoirs, “and I was frozen to the ground with astonishment when I saw her. Tall, slender and very blonde (oxygenated), her head was covered in short curls - à la Titus. She wore a dress of red andrinople with a red and yellow scarf, and I immediately took her to be a demi-mondaine, like those one sees on the acacia-lined avenues of Monte Carlo. Madame Sacha, as she liked to be called, sang beautifully and conversed wittily, and had become very friendly with my mother. She had a son in the Foreign Legion. Despite my initial shock, I ended up appreciating her talent at the piano and her singing.” Hélène herself was a pianist, and took lessons during her stays in Paris. “I particularly liked the songs of Augusta Holmès, the various airs from Faust, Wagner, Bizet and Gounod that she liked to sing.”

One day Sacha asked Countess Elisabeth if she could bring her new fiancé to Saint-Gilles, and introduce him to her. Her marriage to the Marquis de Boishebert had come to an end, and her son, the young Marquis (whose name is not on record) had joined the Foreign Legion in Algeria. The new man in Sacha’s life was a dashing, handsome and wealthy - or so she had been led to believe - Polish aristocrat, Count Kazimierz Ostaszewski, who was some 20 years her junior. Kazio, as he was generally known, was a brilliant pianist and improviser, and a great-grandson of Polish composer Michal Kleofas Ogiński . He used to entrance women of all ages with his exquisite tone poems at the piano - although he had had no musical training whatsoever, and could neither read nor write music. A mutual love of music had brought Kazio and Sacha together in somewhat unusual circumstances.

Kazio’s estate was at Grabownica, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains in south eastern Poland, which was then in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Kazio’s sister, Countess Marynia Dzieduszycka, lived at a neighbouring estate, where a French girl, Pauline Milliot, the daughter of a pharmacist from Vesoul, arrived as a governess for the Dzieduszycki children. Kazio was a frequent visitor to his sister’s house, and it was not long before Pauline found herself in his arms by moonlight. Their affair led to an engagement, and Kazio decided to invite Pauline’s father to Grabownica to discuss wedding arrangements. M. Milliot was delighted to accept, and soon the pharmacist from Vesoul was settled in and enjoying Kazio’s Polish hospitality. Kazio, however, admitted that he was in financial trouble, so M. Milliot, to whom the words Countess Pauline Ostaszewska tripped off the tongue deliciously, was anxious to help. He reckoned he knew just the right person to help Kazio find what he called the necessary finances for his investments. He proposed that he and Kazio should travel to Paris, where he wanted him to meet a certain Marquise, a rich banker’s daughter, also from Vesoul, who was due to inherit millions. Kazio agreed, and the two men set off for Paris, while Pauline stayed at the Dzieduszyckis’, talking French to the girls and waiting anxiously for Kazio’s and her father’s return with good news.

The Marquise in question was Sacha de Boishebert. The meeting between her, M.Milliot and Kazio took place in a private apartment of a smart Paris restaurant, and consisted of a lavish supper of turkey cooked in truffles and Champagne. It was paid for by Kazio, whom M.Milliot described as a rich Polish aristocrat who was looking for something to invest his money in.

The result of the meeting was unexpected. At dinner the conversation revolved around music, and afterwards Kazio played the piano and Sacha sang, and no business was discussed whatsoever. The evening ended late, with Kazio and Sacha becoming engaged. This caused M.Milliot some consternation, as his plans for Pauline’s future had evaporated into thin air. He returned to Vesoul, where, shortly afterwards, he was joined by a heartbroken Pauline.

In fact it would have been all for nothing, as Sacha had been disinherited by her adoptive father for reasons that are no longer known, and was on the look-out for a wealthy aristocrat to marry. Now, it seemed, she had found one, and a young and very handsome one into the bargain. Besides, no one would have suspected that 22-year old Kazio, with beautiful girls swooning at his feet, would have chosen to become engaged to a divorcee in her forties with a son in the Foreign Legion, and a history behind her that would have done justice to a George Sand novel.

When Kazio first arrived by train at Croix-de-Vie he was met by a veritable Bay of Biscay storm, with enormous waves crashing around the estuary. He tried to hire the services of a boatman, who told him it was too dangerous to cut across the estuary. But Kazio, impatient to see Sacha again, insisted and offered him a fee he could not refuse, and managed to arrive safely - if a little wet – at the Chateau de Saint-Gilles.

Hélène was enchanted by the handsome visitor and promptly fell in love with him. “Kazimierz stayed for fifteen days at Saint-Gilles,” she wrote, “I was only a child of fourteen, but I found in him a perfect elegance, yet with an air of delicacy. He played the piano exquisitely, and composed. For me, a silly little girl, he conjured up the nebulous lands of Poland and Hungary and the Carpathian Mountains, and I imagined a wild land, full of wolves, and as my life was serious and melancholy on account of an ailing mother the geographical notion of a hidden Elysium had delighted me. I was seduced by images of the Polish nobility, with their balls and the marvellous delights of their country, the dancing, the horse-riding; to forget for a while all the ugly things of life. One day I crept into our big drawing room where Kazimierz was playing on my Pleyel piano. I was overwhelmed, and, seeing tears flowing from his beautiful eyes I ran to Mama and cried, Oh, Mama, how he loves his Marquise! That is how it is: when one loves, one weeps. I learned later that actually he had quarrelled with her about the proper way to eat a melon!”

The piece that Kazio was playing at the time was La Grande Marée, which, inspired by the storm outside, he was composing. In this richly romantic tone poem Kazio was describing the dramatically crashing waves, and the deep emotions he felt in which his love for Sacha was superimposed onto the turbulent mood of the Bay of Biscay.

Kazio described little Hélène as a reed in summer, because she was blonde, very slim and had enormous blue, almost violet eyes. She was not a great beauty, but had a very light coloured skin. She was the very picture of youth, fresh as springtime.

After his sojourn at Saint-Gilles, Kazio stayed in Paris for several months, enjoying the Deuxième Empire ambience with Sacha before returning to Poland to prepare for his marriage. Sacha remained in Paris, where, possibly because she never believed that Kazio would go through with the wedding, she married a certain M. Tessier, who called himself the Marquis de St Maur, in a civil ceremony. When she realised her mistake from a devastated Kazio, she set about in a panic trying to correct matters. “Kazimierz came from a staunch Catholic family,” wrote Hélène, who came from a staunch Protestant family with a Huguenot pedigree, “and had expressed that he would only marry in a Catholic church.” That meant arranging another divorce and two annulments, as the Catholic Church did not recognise divorce. The agent for these searches was Countess Elisabeth’s secretary, a defrocked Breton priest by the name of Abbé Houssary. ,“Divorce proceedings against Tessier were put in motion,” wrote Hélène, “then the marriage with the Marquis de Boishébert had to be annulled.”

The following summer, at St Gilles, the Abbé undertook to obtain the necessary documents. He managed to acquire forms for baptism certificates and publications of banns, and even a document of annulment, supposedly from Rome! “Sometimes,” continued Hélène, “he asked me to make copies of Latin documents, in my still very childish hand, birth certificates, as well as a statement of annulment which he rubber-stamped with the seal of Saint-Gilles. When all the paperwork was cobbled together, it was sent in a package to Kazimierz, who had to pay 20,000 francs, which Sacha and the priest divided between themselves. The whole process took two years and cost Kazimierz a fortune.”

The parish priest at Grabownica accepted the fake documents in good faith, and in 1888 Marquise Sacha de Boishébert travelled to Poland, and married her handsome Polish Count at the Parish Church of Grabownica.

Music was always in the air at Grabownica, especially in the early days of Kazio and Sacha’s marriage, when both played the piano frequently to one another, or Kazio accompanied Sacha’s singing. He also composed a great deal, mostly lightweight salon pieces which were written out for him by his uncle, pianist, composer and friend of Liszt Count Karol Bernard Załuski, as he was unable to write music. A great favourite was Kazio’s composition, La Grande Marée, which he was frequently called upon to play, especially as it reminded Sacha of Saint-Gilles and the endless stretches of silver sands on the Bay of Biscay.

But all was not well in their relationship. In his music Kazio found an escape from his marriage responsibilities, which were now becoming burdensome, while Sacha found Grabownica and the Carpathian Mountain region isolated and boring. She longed for the bright lights, shops and social whirl of Paris and the delights of Saint-Gilles, all of which she missed terribly. Soon Kazio and Sacha were leading very separate lives, he with his English thoroughbred horses, his music and other financially unsuccessful projects, she wandering round the estate wishing desperately that she were in Paris, Saint-Gilles or Vienna.

Facing poverty on top of boredom, Sacha set about reclaiming her inheritance. “One springtime Sacha came to Paris to pursue some claims,” wrote Hélène, “and after a while wanted to take me back to Poland with her, where, she declared, she was dying of boredom, having no one to talk to and feeling left out because of the language barrier, as she had been too lazy to learn Polish.” Hélène, tempted by the prospect of adventure, jumped at the idea, and travelled to Poland to become Sacha’s companion.“We set off together in the summer, and I was thrilled to be going to a country about which I have heard so much, and read books about the unfortunates and martyrs who had been deported to Siberia, and all the riots and revolutions. Despite my French education and years of living in Paris, I have never really liked towns, and dreamed of life in the country, and now I was completely struck with Grabownica.”

At first the arrangement seemed to work, but as time went by, Hélène’s teenaged crush on Kazio came to the fore again, especially when he began to flirt with her. She fell in love with him all over again, a fact that did not escape Sacha’s notice.

Back in France, the Abbé Houssary, who had prepared the documentation for Sacha’s marriage annulments, had been visited by pangs of conscience, largely instigated by Countess Elisabeth, and had applied to his bishop to be re-instated. He resigned from the anti-clerical Société de l’Etoile, renounced his writings against the Church, and had offered to come clean on the matter of Sacha’s documents, which, he admitted, were forged. When the news broke in Grabownica, the repercussions caused astonishment and consternation. “The poor parish priest came with an announcement from the bishop that all the documents were false,” wrote Hélène, “and as a consequence the marriage was null and void and the couple must separate forthwith under pain of mortal sin. The priest lost his parish for having conducted the marriage ceremony.”

Sacha, afraid of a further long, protracted and costly trial, on top of her process for the reclamation of her inheritance, asked Hélène to deny, under oath, that she had copied out some of the documentation in her own handwriting. Hélène refused, with the result that the two women seriously fell out. “She was so furious and frightened me so much that I wanted to leave that same night,” wrote Hélène. “Kazimierz had to go to Kraków, so I went with him.” Hélène continued on to Vienna and finally back to Saint-Gilles, where for several months she took stock of her situation.

Her so-called marriage over, Sacha left Grabownica never to return.

With the century drawing to a close, Hélène returned to Poland and her beloved Kazio. Under the circumstances, it would never do for Hélène to live under the same roof as Kazio, so she stayed at a nearby estate with Kazio’s cousin Countess Zofia Wysocka. Shortly afterwards she became engaged to Kazio. The family disapproved on religious grounds: Hélène was a Protestant. What was more, to their dismay, Kazio found that he was still married in the eyes of Austrian law to Sacha, because legally any church wedding was automatically a civil wedding, and subject to civil divorce laws on top of church annulments. This news precluded a legal, civil marriage. It took a further four years for the mess to be sorted out.

While waiting for Kazio’s matrimonial case to be resolved, Hélène went to stay at the Convent of the Sisters of Felicjanki in Kraków, where she took instruction and converted to Catholicism, something she had wanted to do for a long time. Her brother Paul had done likewise, and was now at a monastery in the nearby town of Przemysl. Her conversion put a completely different complexion on her engagement. By the turn of the century Kazio’s matrimonial state was finally resolved legally, and he was free to marry again. Hélène travelled back to Meudon, south of Paris, where her mother now lived, to break the news to her. Countess Elisabeth had certain reservations, on the grounds that Kazio was too old for her, and, besides, he had no money. Her objections, however, were overuled. The wedding of Kazio Ostaszewski and Hélène Pio de Saint-Gilles took place on September 26 1901 at the Church of les Pères Redemptoristes at Antoni, Paris.

The Ostaszewskis settled in Poland, and had two daughters, Olga and Jolanta, who was also a talented pianist and violinist. Kazio died at his estate at Ladzin, close to Grabownica, in 1948, followed by Hélène in 1965.

“La Grande Maree!” Jolanta Ostaszewska said to me a century after her mother’s second marriage, “my father’s masterpiece! I’ve kept meaning to write it out. I’ll play it for you next time we’re near a piano, and you can record it.”

But before I could do that, Jolanta died, and La Grande Maree with her.

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