'To wonderful songs … [the artists] bring delicacy, grace, an emotion the more poignant for being understated … Not to be missed' (The Observer)
The most Romantic and endearing of all French composers of La Belle Epoch, Reynaldo Hahn was not French at all. Born in Caracas to a Venezuelan mother and a German father he moved to Paris at an early age and soon became the darling of the salons. His most famous song, If my verses had wings—recorded many times by artists from Dame Nellie Melba to Joan Sutherland—was written when he was 13.
This two-CD set is the most representative recording of Hahn's songs ever made. It includes the complete Etudes Latines and Rondels (both with choir) as well as many of his most familiar songs. It also includes a number of songs never recorded before now.
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Although he wrote and spoke in exquisite French, Reynaldo Hahn’s first language was Spanish, and his surname was German. His mother was a Venezuelan Catholic. His Jewish father, Carlos Hahn, was born in Hamburg and had moved to Caracas as a young man to make his fortune in Latin America. (The family name is thus pronounced with the aspirate H, not in the French manner as ‘Ann’.) Reynaldo used to tell the following story about his homeland: when God created Venezuela he made such magnificent flowers, birds, fruits, trees, gold, diamonds and so on that the angel Gabriel asked the Lord if He wasn’t giving the country too much. ‘Have patience,’ replied the Creator. ‘I haven’t created the Venezuelans yet!’
Reynaldo, the youngest of twelve children, was only three years old when his family left Caracas to settle in Paris. The vicissitudes and intrigues of South American politics made it prudent for his father, who was a brilliant engineer, inventor and businessman, to leave the country while the going was good. Don Carlos Hahn, as he was known, had worked hard, had made a lot of money, and could now enjoy his early retirement in the most elegant town in the world. Hahn père was particularly fond of light music and one of Reynaldo’s earliest musical memories was of being bounced on his father’s knee while fragments of operetta were hummed in his ear. It was thus that the composer first heard the music of Offenbach. Hahn later wrote:
I believe that when I was three, and about the same height as the piano stool, I already knew how to use my fingers on the keyboard. At five, I remember perfectly, I was playing for the pleasure of my family. At eight I was composing. An Italian lady piano teacher had taught me to write music when I was very young. And as melodies were already singing in my young brain, I wrote them down, with that pride one has in fixing something lasting on to paper.
Little Reynaldo had scarcely climbed down from his father’s knee when he became something of a child prodigy: he used to sing airs by Offenbach to the delight of his family. He made his ‘professional’ debut aged six, dressed in a new suit of black velvet, at the salon of that grand old eccentric the Princesse Mathilde de Metternich who was the niece of Napoleon. (‘If it wasn’t for my uncle,’ she said, ‘I would still be selling oranges in Ajaccio.’) The great poet Gautier had reigned supreme at these gatherings before Reynaldo was born; it was typical of the composer’s empathy with resonances of the past that he was later to introduce the song Infidélité, with its touching poem by Gautier, at this salon. At the age of ten, Hahn entered the Paris Conservatoire which was under the directorship of Ambroise Thomas. Cortot and Ravel were among his fellow students in the piano class. Gustave Charpentier was among the older pupils in the class who were astonished at the precocity of the little Venezuelan in his large white collar and knee-length breeches.
Du do premier au final do
From the first C to the last C
Giants of the future were his companions, but giants of the past also took an interest in him. Hahn had been entranced by Gounod’s Faust almost since babyhood. As a result of a special gift Reynaldo had to attract important people to his side (everyone testified to his enormous charm) the venerable Gounod gave the young man composition lessons. Some of this composer’s songs were very much part of Reynaldo’s repertory some years later when he sang to such memorable effect in the grand salons of Paris. Maid of Athens sung in Hahn’s deliciously inflected English to his own piano accompaniment is one of the classic recordings of French song.
Apart from this link with Gounod, Reynaldo’s professor of composition at the Conservatoire was Massenet, a man to whom he was to stay loyal throughout his life despite the declining fashion of that composer’s music.
Massenet was very good to me. He never lost a chance to introduce me to influential people, to speak to me of his friends—to invite me out—he was absolutely charming. He even sang one of my songs for my composition exam at the conservatoire and it was quite a success with the judges.
At the age of thirteen Reynaldo composed the immortal Hugo setting Si mes vers avaient des ailes which was published a little later by Le Figaro and became an instant favourite. In 1890 Alphonse Daudet invited the young composer to provide the music for the play L’Obstacle. The famous writer invited Reynaldo to come and sing to him in order to allay the painful sufferings of a spinal disease brought on by syphilis. He referred to Reynaldo’s music as his ‘chère musique preferée’. It was at the Daudets’ house in 1893 that the famous singer Sybil Sanderson performed Reynaldo’s songs to the texts of Verlaine. Edmond de Goncourt, who normally disliked music, wrote of them in his journal as ‘de vrais bijoux poétiques’. These were the Chansons grises (recorded by Martyn Hill on). Verlaine himself was present on this occasion. Although prematurely aged and ill he was able to hear these old verses of his receive a musical life which he could understand. Indifferent to Fauré’s settings of his poems, Verlaine wept to hear Hahn’s songs. No less a poet than Mallarmé was moved to write the following lines on that occasion:
Le pleur qui chante au langage
The tear that sings in the poet’s
By the age of nineteen Reynaldo had written quite a number of songs about love, but his worldly sophistication in the fields of music, literature and painting hid a great shyness about his private feelings. As one can tell by his gallant courting of old divas, women adored him, and there was one, three years older than him, who was according to him his ideal. Her name was Cléopatre-Diane de Mérode and he wrote: ‘I worship her as a great and perfect work of art’. He loved her at a distance all his life. The other woman friend of Hahn was more colourful—none other than the grande horizontale Liane de Pougy, celebrated beauty and courtesan. (She was once discovered in flagrante delicto by one of her husbands—a soldier—and he shot her in each buttock in revenge. ‘Will this be seen, doctor?’ she asked anxiously. ‘Madame,’ said the doctor bowing, ‘that depends entirely on you’. It is certain that Reynaldo never even glimpsed these wounds of love.) Liane de Pougy wrote to him: ‘You are the only man to whom I’d give myself and you won’t have me … I don’t want to ask you to come to me: that’s something that will happen of its own accord if it is to happen at all. No, my Reynaldo, we shan’t pluck the fruit of love, we’ll stay with its pretty blossom, we’ll stay at the stage of desire. My Reynaldo, you are quite right, I was your momentary distraction, you are the passer-by and nothing more.’
The similarities of this situation to that described in Ravel’s song L’Indifférent are indicative of the combination of delicacy and frankness with which the subject of homosexuality was broached in fin de siècle France. This was the epoch of Huysmans’ A rebours and Wilde’s A Picture of Dorian Gray. Wilde’s own disgrace was just around the corner and it is significant that he sought refuge in France after he had served his gaol sentence in England. In 1894 at Réveillon, the home of the painter Madeleine Lemaire, Hahn met a man three years older than himself—a writer (it would perhaps be more accurate to say an aspiring writer) who was much less well-known than Reynaldo. He was highly strung and snobbish this Marcel Proust, and people doubted whether he would ever do anything worthwhile with his life. The two men shared a love of painting; Reynaldo knew about literature, Marcel was an avid fan of music, particularly Fauré’s. They collaborated on a work for reciter and piano about painters, they went on holiday together in Brittany and to Venice where the composer wrote his enchanting Venezia cycle (recorded by Anthony Rolfe Johnson on). During this period Hahn developed his own literary skills. He was to become, and remain, one of the best of all writers about music and musicians, particularly in the field of vocal studies. Actors and singers fascinated him, although he always preferred to be in touch with celebrated names from the past and was highly critical of his contemporaries. When asked what he thought of the famous tenor van Dyke (who was one of Chabrier’s favourite singers) he replied ‘I prefer his paintings’. Sarah Bernhardt was at first his idol (he was taken to see her act when he was six or seven) and he became her friend and wrote a book about her. Another older legend was Pauline Viardot, opera singer, daughter of Garcia, sister of Malibran, friend of Berlioz and mistress of Turgenev:
In she comes, rather round-shouldered, very affable. Her famous ugliness is toned down by age. Her white hair is soft, thick and pretty. Her eyes are touched with eye-shadow. She still has all her teeth, which must once have been dazzling; even now they’re yellow they still have some shine about them. Big mouth brimming with laughter, voice of a healthy old woman, low and sonorous. She’s eighty, but everything about her except her almost sightless eyes is full of life and fire. We chat, and straightaway she says ‘They tell me you’re Spanish!’ And then she starts to talk delightful Andalusian with extraordinary speed and purity of accent. ‘Well,’ she said to me, ‘am I not Spanish? And haven’t I spoken Spanish all my life with my sister, my daughters, my father?’ Besides, Madame Viardot has always had the reputation of being a polyglot—she speaks all languages of course, including Russian. She tells me that in Granada, where she sang Norma, the enthusiastic public, after the performances, had clamoured for Spanish songs. One of her partners had to have a piano brought on stage so that she could sing vitos and peteneras still in her Druid costume.
Pen portraits such as these abound in Hahn’s books of reminiscences, and they show almost a Proustian skill in evoking the feel of a person with the use of seemingly unimportant details (those ‘yellow shining teeth’!). Proust and Hahn were lovers for the first two years of a friendship which lasted until the author’s death twenty-eight years later. From 1895 to 1899 Proust wrote Jean Santeuil, an autobiographical novel in which Hahn figures as the eponymous hero. Though unfinished and ill-constructed, it shows awakening genius and foreshadows À la recherche du temps perdu. Those idyllic two years were perhaps the only time that either artist had a relationship with a real equal. Proust left Reynaldo for the next young man, Lucien Daudet, but as the writer shook off his dilettante way of life and worked obsessively on his great novel, Hahn remained a friend. This was highly unusual in the author’s usual pattern of exiling his former lovers from his life. Reynaldo was the only person who was allowed into Proust’s cork-lined room unannounced by his watch-dog housekeeper Céleste. The elegant and lightweight companions of their later lives were to prove no match for either of them; the lack of intellectual stimulus in a loving relationship was to be keenly felt by both composer and writer. The rest of Hahn’s life was not without distinction, but there is a decided feeling of anticlimax. He became a noteworthy conductor (Maggie Teyte averred that he was the greatest of all Mozartians) and was willing to accompany the handful of singers he admired as correctly schooled (his books on singing show a merciless impatience with anything but the highest technical accomplishment) and he broadened his compositional thrust. As a youngster he had measured himself as a composer of mélodies against Massenet, Saint-Saëns and Fauré but as the bandwagon of the avant garde rolled ruthlessly through the twenties and thirties leaving him far behind (although there was a musical flirtation with Diaghilev) he took refuge in show business. As there seemed to be less and less interest in his own serious music he turned to the world of operetta which has a timeless appeal and which turns the clock back with impunity. He was now spoken of in the same breath as Messager and Yvain, masters of operetta. He had some of his greatest successes in the twenties and thirties collaborating with famous names like Sacha Guitry and Yvonne Printemps, but nothing could bring back the times when great poets had likened him to a young Apollo. Bit by bit he turned into a crusty old bachelor. Modern life seemed increasingly to fill him with bile; nothing could match the achievements and standards of his youth.
Hahn had always loved travel and his journeys from country to country are documented in his diary. Whether he was in Salzburg conducting Mozart’s operas, accompanying the soprano Ninon Vallin on a tour of Germany, with the Romanian royal family in Bucharest, or in Italy on a camping holiday, his expert responses to the painting and sculpture of each country were meticulously noted. The art of ancient Rome moved him to write the Études Latines and one of many return visits to Venice inspired him to write a full-length opera on Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. It is as if a certain melancholy in the composer made him prefer to be somewhere else in his mind. His first opera L’ile du rêve had been set as far away as Tahiti, and a number of his other works are set in historical contexts—sixteenth-century Milan, eighteenth-century France, England in the Regency period, Mozart’s Vienna and so on. Just like his exact contemporary Fritz Kreisler, Hahn had a deft skill in evoking or suggesting different periods in musical history. The publisher Heugel told him that a provincial organist had written asking for information about the seventeenth-century composer Reynaldo Hahn of whom he had never heard. On one occasion the composer was attempting to explain the historical content of one of his works to one of Queen Victoria’s daughters at Buckingham Palace:
Reynaldo: ‘It’s a ballet, Madam—an evocation of former times.’
Renowned for his charm and manners, the composer was paying a high personal price for his unruffled outward demeanour. Unlike Proust, Reynaldo had no great confessional novel with which to exorcise his feelings. Conservative by nature, it seems that it was far from easy for him to accept himself and his way of life—years later he was still secretive:
As to my sorrows, there is no one in the world who can know the reason for them, because nobody in my circle of friends knows the person who has caused them. From now on my life will be poisoned by an incurable regret: but if anyone has any affection for me, there is only one way of proving it, namely never mentioning my troubles.
And with this fastidious and melancholy statement made from within what today might be termed ‘the closet’, the central tragedy of Reynaldo’s life is made apparent. For him, life was never more exciting than during the glorious successes of his youthful years when his alluring charm was a passe-partout to every great house. Of course he remained welcome and valued wherever he went, but the beautiful young men who were once to be found admiring the singers and courting the older ladies more assiduously than the younger were now themselves young enough to be his children; they went to jazz clubs and took opium. With the passing of time and the decline in his looks Reynaldo was no longer the centre of a beau monde; society had so completely changed that a beau monde scarcely existed—at any rate not one within which he felt comfortable. Fashionable society now belonged to the young Poulenc’s generation. In a far less creative way than Proust, Reynaldo became obsessed with the past and increasingly hostile to the new in music, painting and writing. For him, Fauré was the last of the great composers; even Debussy was not above stringent criticism. The ascendancy of Stravinsky in the years before the First World War, and Les Six soon afterwards, must have been anathema to him. Reynaldo was never truly to belong to the twentieth century: he cocooned himself in memories. The great successes in the world of operetta in the twenties and thirties made his name more of a household word than ever, but he was all too aware that as a composer he was functioning far from centre-stage. He was too intelligent to confuse commercial success with the artistic respect given to great creators, an artistic respect that he had taken for granted, and so enjoyed, in his youth. Forced to leave Paris during the Nazi occupation because he was Jewish, he made a brief return to the public arena in 1945 when he was appointed the first director of the Paris Opera after the war. He died soon afterwards without being able to execute the reforms for which his supporters had hoped. One should not forget that the composer was renowned as an organiser of formidable intellect. This might have been a grand new phase in his career.
Reynaldo Hahn freely acknowledged that Fauré was a greater master of song; indeed he knew perfectly well that he himself was petit maître. At times he wished he was more, and there are a number of bigger works where he almost convinces us that he deserves a greater appellation. But the qualities that he did have in plenty, where literary sensibility and elegant charm did not preclude deep feeling, seem rarer than ever in our own days (this last phrase sounds an authentically conservative and Reynaldian note). He represents for us more than a sum of his musical parts: his music evokes a Paris, indeed a way of life, forever gone and, like Proust’s world, retrievable only in precious moments where taste, sight or the sound of a musical phrase provoke the memory, or even perhaps the collective unconscious. Most of us are far too young to have memories of that Paris. Europe is now homogenised and the banality of a tunnel removes the effort, and thus the magic, of the journey between the hitherto opposing worlds of the Anglo-Saxon and the Gaul. If we long to travel in time as well as space, Eurostar will just not do; we need the power of a ‘petite phrase’ to set the journey in motion. But who might be the composer of this music both elusive and allusive? Those who, at the turn of the century, like Proust hankered after the Second Empire and La Belle Epoque found the muse of Reynaldo an indispensable vade-mecum. That Hahn’s mélodies can continue to open the doors of that Parisian past is the reason why these songs have never lost their audience, and why Reynaldo is regarded by his devotees as very special: one is somehow fond of him, this most charming of guides, and grateful. We understand the astonished affection that was felt for him by Proust who left us with this pen-portrait which has remained posterity’s image of this composer, languid and insouciant, suffused with a world-weary sophistication that could not disguise a loving heart:
When he takes his place at the piano, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, everyone is quiet and gathers around to listen. Every note is a word or a cry. His head is slightly tilted back: his mouth is melancholy and rather scornful. Thence emanates the saddest and warmest voice you can imagine. This instrument of genius, by name Reynaldo Hahn, moves our hearts, moistens our eyes, cures us one after the other in a silent and solemn undulation. Never since Schumann has music painted sorrow, tenderness, the calm induced by nature, with such brush strokes of human truth and absolute beauty.
Graham Johnson © 1996
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