12 JAN 2017
Piano music echoes throughout the château salon. It is extravagant and complicated music, music written for two pianists. A room full of Strasbourg and Alsatian elite stand frozen with wine glasses in hand. Two twelve-year old boys sit side-by-side playing a four-hands piece masterfully. One is Ferdinand de Turckheim. The other is Franz Liszt. It is the early 1800s and Madame de Bussière is presenting the child prodigy pianist, Liszt, to her friends and the world.
It is in this same house that Franz Liszt performed that Mélanie de Bussière is born and raised. The land and the house are located in an area called the Robertsau. Farmland, the park and forest, and the house all share space in this region. The château has been a feature of the Robertsau for many years and changed many hands before coming into the property of the Bussière family.
Mélanie, 16 years old now, dons her finest dress as if putting on armor before a grand battle. Her childhood spent in the Robertsau, playing in the park and racing through the house with her brother, are soon to end. Today is an important day not just for her, but for all of Strasbourg. Leaving the château amid evening twilight on 19 July, 1852, Mélanie de Bussière and her family make way for the theatre. It is there that Napoleon III is holding a Grand Ball in celebration of the Paris-Strasbourg rail link. A booming and popping sound can be heard off in the distance. Rounding a corner, fireworks light up the sky. Napoleon III is here, bringing promises of stability and prosperity.
Mélanie the debutante, etiquette training well-remembered, garners looks of adoration. The military men certainly are not too shy to stare. The President-Prince himself, Napoleon III, seems impressed. One can assume this is where she may have first met Edmond. She was sure to have been pursued by many suitors.
Edmond, Comte de Pourtalès, and Mélanie de Bussière are a good match, and so are engaged in 1857. They decide to hold their wedding in the Robertsau that same year. The day is warm and bright as any good 30 July should be. Together, they move to Paris. Here, Edmond builds an Italian-Renaissance palace for their family, and straight away Mèlanie sends out invitations for spectacular soirées.
Comtesse Mélanie de Pourtalès entertains the Parisian elite with all of the pomp and circumstance of Victorian-era France. Here, the Countess makes a reputation for being one of the finest hosts in all of Paris. The Empress Eugénie quickly befriends the new arrival. On Mondays, the Empress would gather her friends, Mélanie among them, and discuss the gossip of the town. On other days, Mélanie would stroll through the Tuileries armored in a big, ruffled dress complete with a matching hat for helmet and shielded with her parasol. She is soon to be well-suited for combat. The times are changing, and the Prussians are advancing.
Edmond and Mélanie move to the château. They sire three sons and two daughters. Altogether, they love their peaceful time in the Robertsau and entertaining guests. But it is during this time that Alsace would be threatened. Edmond and Mélanie take the children to visit relatives and friends in Berlin. At a fine dinner of German high society, the Prussian Minister of State, de Schleinitz, turns toward Mélanie:
“You and your beautiful family must stay here with us.”
To which Mélanie de Pourtalès, born and raised in Alsace, says, “I could never leave my home in the Alsace. I love my country too dearly.”
Surprised by her candor in this tense situation, de Schleinitz threatens, “Then it is we that shall visit you. Fair Countess, you are soon to be one of us! Within 18 months, Alsace will have become one of the most beautiful provinces in Germany, and we shall be fellow-countrymen.”
The year is 1870, and the Alsace is now German. It would seem de Schleinitz held true to his promise. The frightened Pourtalès family flees to Switzerland. They are able to reestablish communication with friends abroad and soon travel to England and meet with the exiled Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie. The Prince and Princess of Wales sent their consolations in the form of a gifted bracelet, inset with pearls, bearing the inscription, “The tears of Alsace.” From England, the Pourtalès family return to Paris.
Mélanie’s father, imprisoned at Rastadt until Strasbourg surrendered, refuses the German nationality among 200,000 other Alsatians and is forced into exile. He joins his daughter and her family in Paris. The château is left to the Grand Duke of Baden as spoils of war.
The Baron de Bussière, Mélanie’s father, passes away in 1887, Paris. Inheriting the château, the Pourtalès family decide to return to Alsace and Strasbourg and reclaim their rightful home. Despite it now being in Germany with all of the Alsace, Mélanie maintains the château as an example of French aristocracy. This is her private battle with the German occupation. Her strength and resolve to maintain the French styles prohibited at the time were at first contested by the Germans, but soon enough, they admit defeat. For them, it was worthwhile to have Strasbourg, and the Alsace, be a part of Germany, but Mélanie is allowed to keep the château an island of France after a fashion.
From her debut in court to her time as a rebel aristocrat, Mélanie armored herself in the finest clothes and went to battle with expertly prepared dinner parties at the Château de Pourtalès. The German’s left her to her own, and the French of occupied Alsace sought her home as refuge for days gone by. “Whether the freedom involved is that of a woman or that of a nation, the struggle is the same and the methods used can well stand comparison,” remarks one visitor.
The winter of 1913 has come now, and Mélanie prepares to leave for Paris. She is prescient in saying, “My heart is filled with gratitude to God who has blessed me with the good fortune to live one more year surrounded by the love of my children, my grandchildren, and of so many dear friends in the Alsace that I love so much. Farewell beloved region, farewell beloved home.” In May, 1914, the Countess Mélanie de Pourtalès of Alsace passes away in Paris.
— Text in red are quotes excerpted from the booklet The Château de Pourtalès, published by Kaléidoscope d’Alsace. Most of the details are also collected from this book.
— Text in blue are from the tale of Mélanie as told by Uli Leibrecht.