Augusta Holmès is generally ranked a minor figure among French composers of her time, though a growing number of admirers consider her unjustly neglected. Her output includes a range of orchestral and choral works, songs, and operas.
Holmès was born in Paris in 1847 of Irish parents. She was raised in Versailles in an environment that provided her the finest education: at 12, she could speak English, German, and Italian, besides French, and was already composing songs, often using her own texts.
There is much myth surrounding Holmès' life -- myth she often encouraged. It is highly unlikely she ever attempted suicide in her teens because her mother tried to discourage her study of music; and the claim that her godfather and mentor, poet Alfred de Vigny, who bore a resemblance to her, was her biological father, is also probably untrue.
Her early music teachers included Versailles Cathedral organist Henri Lambert, with whom she studied harmony and counterpoint, Hyacinthe Klosé (orchestration), and Guillot de Sainbris (voice). In 1870-1871 Holmès was a nurse in the Franco-Prussian War, shortly after which she acquired French citizenship (despite her Parisian birth, she had been considered a foreign national).
Around 1875 she became a pupil of, or at least developed ties to, César Franck. Living in Paris now, she was financially secure as the sole heir to her father's considerable holdings. Though she had remained productive as a composer in her pre-Paris years, her output up until then included mostly songs. In the 1870s and thereafter she focused on larger works, like the successful 1878 choral piece Lutèce.
It was in the 1870s, too, that Holmès met librettist and critic Catulle Mendès, who would become her lover and father of her five children. She remained active as a composer during their two-decade relationship, producing many large works, among them the only opera of hers to be staged in her lifetime, La montagne noire, completed in 1884. The Opéra de Paris premiered it, but not until 1895, when it was tepidly received.
Holmès achieved great success with the symphonic poems Irlande (1882), Pologne (1883), and Ludus pro patria (1888), nationalistic works that fostered yet another myth, that she actively promoted the causes of oppressed peoples from abroad. Her last completed work, Le jugement de Naïs, for orchestra, dates to 1902. She died in Paris in January 1903.