L'allée est sans fin [2'10]
Reynaldo Hahn (1875–1947) has been dismissed as ‘a talented gossip who had a gift for grinding out operettas and little, tastefully performed ballads in limitless quantities’ (H H Stuckenschmidt in Maurice Ravel, Calder & Boyars, 1969). Martin Cooper, on the other hand (French Music, Oxford University Press, 1961), takes a more sympathetic view, likening his fluency and melodic charm to the English composer Roger Quilter, especially in his songs. Certainly the captious ‘in limitless quantities’ is something of an exaggeration, for Hahn wrote some sixty or so songs; and a fair proportion of them date from pretty early in his career.
Hahn was born of mixed parentage (German father and Spanish mother; his name therefore is pronounced with an aspirated initial H—not in the French way, ‘ahn’) in Caracas, Venezuela. He was the youngest of twelve children. When he was three, the family moved to Paris where the boy showed an early aptitude for music. At the age of eleven he was a student at the Conservatoire where he studied composition with Massenet. To the end of his career his style bore the marks of his teacher’s suave and fluent lyricism. He was recognized long before his student days were over as a talented lyricist: Alphonse Daudet, the dramatist for one of whose works Bizet composed the famous L’Arlésienne music, commissioned Hahn to write the incidental music to his play L’Obstacle when he was a mere fifteen years of age. Hahn was always attracted by the stage and was a connoisseur of literature: in 1894 he met Marcel Proust and the famous novelist drew upon Hahn’s character and outlook for the portrait of the musician Santeuil. As a conductor and critic, too, Hahn was active throughout his career, holding a number of posts on influential periodicals and eventually taking charge of the Paris Opéra in the final two years of his life.
Hahn was enough of a scholar to edit some of the works of Rameau; and his scholarship is evident in his ability to write pastiche of effective kind, as one or two of the songs on this disc show. One of his numerous stage works is a light musical piece on the subject of Mozart, a composer whose music he adored. His tastes ranged from Palestrina (‘shattering’) to Ravel (though he did not unequivocally like Debussy). Haydn’s music he found ‘exquisite, powdered and occasionally provocative … poses, gestures but no depth’. Wagner fascinated him without necessarily showing much influence on his style. Beethoven, he said, ‘transports us by the mere vibration of his soul’. But his real gods were Mozart and, in the realm of song, Schumann, of whom he wrote: ‘There is no emotion that he has not experienced: all the phenomena of nature are familiar to him—moonlight bright or hazy, sunrise and sunset, confused shadows, dull weather, radiant weather, fresh scents, the majesty of evening, swirling mists, powdery snow—he has known them all and can impart to us the thousand-and-one emotions associated with them. His Lieder encompass the entire art of melody. Schubert’s genius was as a ‘composer of romances, but Schumann combines depth of expression and sincerity of emotion with respect for the [poem’s] meaning and delicacy of touch. What a prodigious feeling for literature he had! For me, obsessed as I am with the fusion of literature and music, that is the quality that counts first and foremost.’ This range of tastes and styles is some indication why his gently sentimental style rarely degenerates into mawkishness and banality.
The majority of the songs in this recital date from the 1890s, but of the ‘naughty’ nineties there are very few traces indeed, either in the texts or in the music. They all follow the tradition of the salon ballad. Hahn, however, displays a sureness of touch and an ability to colour the moods of the poem in the music that far transcend the ballad-mongers with whom he is so frequently and thoughtlessly classed.
À Chloris, the last song of this collection to be published (1916) is, oddly enough, the most archaic in style—a pseudo-Baroque pastiche of great charm and dignity admirably suited to the text by the seventeenth-century poet Théophile de Viau (1590–1626).
Tyndaris, to a poem by the neo-classicist Leconte de Lisle (1818–1894) is a subtle piece in which the piano’s opening phrase is used as a kind of motto. The striking, almost monotonous recitative-like voice part in La chère blessure starts out as if it were a mere counterpoint to the tune in the piano part, but it develops a momentum of its own. L’air conveys the sense of the words with an accompaniment as light as gossamer and a vocal line that makes its point by skilful use of syncopation.
Quand je fus pris au pavillon is to a poem by Charles, Duke of Orleans (1394–1464). Hahn, ever the stylistic chameleon, matches the ancient poem with a delightfully mock-archaic style. Les étoiles (poem by Théodore de Banville, 1823–1891) shows the composer’s skill in building up to a climax by intensifying and then relaxing the rhythm of the accompaniment. L’automne (also by de Banville) is in a 7/4 metre and subtly combines mellow regret with a kind of exhilaration admirably suited to the mood of the text. Infidélité is a setting of a poem by Théophile Gautier (1811–1872), the apostle of the doctrine of art for art’s sake (de Banville was one of his followers). Both here and in L’enamourée (text by de Banville), Hahn shows a suppleness of melodic inflexion and a capacity to convey an atmosphere that is almost visual.
Si mes vers avaient des ailes is probably Hahn’s best-known song. The text is by Victor Hugo (1802–1885), and Hahn’s setting dates from 1888, when he was a mere thirteen years old. Even if he was no Mozart at the time, he already possessed a memorable suppleness of melodic gift and the ability to write an effective illustrative accompaniment, allied to a fine sense of harmonic colour. Few French composers of that age—Fauré alone excepted—could match the sheer technical skill of this piece.
However well he set other French poets of his age, it was to the subtly musical verse of Paul Verlaine (1844–1896) that Hahn responded most fully. Other composers—notably Fauré—invested Verlaine’s poetry with a dignity that possibly reads more into the verse than is there: none caught the elusive and allusive atmosphere of the poems better than Hahn. The Chansons Grises, dating astonishingly enough from 1891/2, display a maturity of technique quite remarkable in a sixteen-year-old—and an empathy with the poet quite unexpected in a musician of any age. It is as if Verlaine himself had composed the music—a fact that the poet might wryly have appreciated, for his aesthetic credo stressed the musicality of verse; and his somewhat irresponsible comment on the imminent entry of the Prussian army into Paris in 1870—‘Good: that means we shall have some decent music’—is too notorious to need comment.
Chanson d’automne is a languid, perfumed piece; the very simple accompaniment echoes the vocal line to create the requisite drowsy atmosphere. Tous deux, with its rippling accompaniment, conjures up the radiance of the scene and the subdued ecstasy of the lovers—Hahn never takes the voice part above mezzo forte and throughout resists the temptation to paint in emotive details such as ‘shimmers’ and ‘shivers’ because the point of the poem is that it refers to future hopes, not present delights. L’allée est sans fin, with its gentle syncopated piano accompaniment and very restrained voice part, is an imaginative triumph. En sourdine and L’heure exquise contrast finely with one another as portrayals of tender calm; and the ‘greyness’ of Paysage triste, with its drifting arpeggios that seem almost as if the pianist is improvising them on the spot, and the unaccompanied first entry of the voice, can be unforgettable. The big broad phrases of La bonne chanson are a complete contrast; and its self-confident declamatory style is quite different (and perhaps more conventional) than the rest of the cycle.
Offrande also dates from 1891 and, like the other Verlaine settings, shows an enviable mastery of harmony and ability to colour the mood of the poem through the accompaniment for a boy of sixteen. L’incrédule is slightly later (it dates from 1893) and skilfully conveys the contrast between the credulous, superstitious young lady and her sceptical lover who doubts everything except her charms. Fêtes galantes and D’une prison, the one with its almost Watteau-esque delicacy and most un-Victorian rhythmic flexibility, and the other with its insistently gentle chords in fifths in the right hand against the voice part, draw a fine contrast between idyllic calm and pathos—a technique of which Hahn was a master throughout his career.
James Day © 1982