'A pair of piano quintets that are as different as could be in terms of musical expression, but prove to be complementary companion pieces that make very appealing listening' (The Daily Telegraph)
Molto agitato e con fuoco [10'34]
Andante, non troppo lento [9'33]
Allegretto grazioso [6'54]
Poco lento – Moderato [10'05]
Larghetto sostenuto [11'35]
Reynaldo Hahn's reputation as the composer of some of the most attractive songs in the French repertoire has increased greatly in recent years with the issue of several recordings, especially Hyperion's 2-CD set (CDA67141/2). His chamber music is now beginning to appear on disc. Like the songs, this Piano Quintet is immediately appealing to anyone with a liking for tuneful, easygoing and not-too-profound chamber music. It was written in 1922.
Louis Vierne's Piano Quintet dates from 1917 and is a much sterner, melancholic work, written in memoriam to the composer's son who was killed in the Great War. Vierne is principally known as the composer of organ music, including six imposing symphonies. His chamber music is much less well known.
‘I am constructing … a Quintet of vast proportions, which will give full expression to my tenderness and the tragic destiny of my child … The wild and furious energy with which I am tackling this task matches the depth of my grief, and I will make something powerful, grandiose and strong … Perhaps one who has suffered every grief, every bitterness, every anguish, may be able to ease and console the sufferings of others—that is the role of the artist …’
Few works carry with them so clear a verbal indication of their emotional temperature. These words, written by Louis Vierne to a friend in February 1918, make painfully clear the aims of a fundamentally romantic musical language reaching beyond any egocentrically poetic escapism to confront only the very cruellest of mundane realities. Revered primarily for his substantial contribution to the repertoire of his own instrument, Vierne has undoubtedly suffered in posterity from an otherwise prevalent and uninformed suspicion that no good can come out of an organ loft. Moreover, even among devotees of Romantic organ music there may lurk a largely subconscious tendency to apprehend only disembodied spirituality under strict control—or else a semblance of emotion rendered somehow neutral by the objective craft of an organist’s training—but not the more turbulently personal emotions of an imported secular world. Yet the harmonic and tonal language of Franck (Vierne’s teacher and a patriarchal figure to composers of this period) is demonstrably consistent as it migrates between supposedly religious spirituality and the illicit yearning allegedly prompted in Franck’s Piano Quintet (1878/9) by his young Irish pupil, Augusta Holmès. In the cases of such composers it is insidiously easy to compartmentalize types of emotion on the precarious basis of a perceived experiential chasm between sacred and secular worlds. While it is true that Vierne sought and found solace and escape in the organ loft, it is misleading to suppose that this entailed shrugging off the emotional conditioning of a harsh life. The painful intensity of his own Piano Quintet bears this out.
Born at Poitiers on 8 October 1870, one of three brothers, Louis Victor Jules Vierne was baptized nine days later at the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre. As he was to record in his Mémoires (1933):
‘I came into the world almost completely blind … Accordingly I was cocooned [at home] in a warm and constant tenderness which from a very early stage nurtured in me an extreme sensitivity. This was to shadow me all my life and to become the cause of both intense joys and inexpressible sufferings.’
Paradoxically, the note of unsparing and external self-appraisal allows full—if laconic—expression to these sufferings by denying in them any hint of true self-pity. In any case, even the briefest chronicle makes the reality of the composer’s tribulations painfully clear.
Predisposed by his condition towards introspective devotion to his art, by his own testimony Louis had settled without anguish for a celibate bachelor existence when, in March 1898, he was invited by his friend Charles Mutin (successor to Aristide Cavaillé-Coll as Head of the latter’s celebrated organ-building business) to be godfather to his newborn daughter. Fatefully, his acceptance brought into his life Arlette Taskin, the child’s godmother. A beautiful singer aged eighteen, she was the daughter of a celebrated baritone at the Opéra-Comique who had died prematurely. First confused and then badly smitten, Vierne thought he had found his kindred spirit. Marriage followed. A son, Jacques, was born in 1900, another, André, in 1903, and a daughter, Colette, in 1907. By the time of Colette’s birth, Vierne, a pupil both of Franck and of Charles-Marie Widor, had already been Organist at Notre-Dame de Paris for seven years, having taken Widor’s advice in applying and gone against his wife’s: an early omen. The death of his mother-in-law had placed further strain by adding his wife’s two younger siblings to his household.
The concatenation of disasters which now overwhelmed Vierne must be related in brief, from which its distressing impact may gain rather than lose. He had lost his father and a beloved uncle many years earlier. On 18 May 1906 a street accident (uncannily like that which had befallen Franck in 1890 and led to his death six months later) almost necessitated amputation of a leg.
Convalescence was yet incomplete when typhoid struck. Driven ever further into his interior world and isolated from his family by both blindness and these added privations, Vierne seems barely to have sensed the deterioration of his marriage. In due course, however, his wife’s adultery was borne in upon him, with the added blow that it involved Mutin, his supposed friend. Upon his divorce in 1909 (conditional upon his never remarrying), Vierne was granted custody of his son Jacques, while André and Colette remained with their mother, seemingly on account of their tender age and their father’s blindness. Vierne repaired to his mother’s home, where she supported him greatly in the upbringing of his elder son. She, however, died of uremia in 1911 (after what her grieving son described as ‘eighty-three days of the most dreadful agony a person ever witnessed’), followed four days later by Vierne’s friend and colleague Alexandre Guilmant, a victim of the same disease. Guilmant had been Professor of Organ at the Paris Conservatoire. Anticipating that there would at least be the consolation of inheriting his friend’s job after his own eighteen years as an unpaid volunteer assistant professor, Vierne now found himself passed over as the blameless victim of a row between the Principal, Fauré, and his own erstwhile teacher, Widor.
Worse was to come. Separated from his father, in 1909 André had contracted tuberculosis. On 7 September 1913, aged barely ten, he died, setting the scene for a harrowing encounter between the estranged parents, both consumed with grief but unable to help one another. The next day they parted again. The Great War loomed. In 1915 came the onset of the glaucoma which was to deprive Vierne of his last vestiges of sight. Damage had been done to Notre-Dame, and there was little to keep him in Paris. It was in Switzerland, whither he had gone for further optical treatment in the last two years of the war, that he received news of the death of his only surviving son, Jacques, killed in action at the age of seventeen. Alone, almost sightless and bowed down by innumerable tragedies, he threw himself into the Piano Quintet for his son. How this was accomplished in purely physical terms is unclear: in the past he had worked with his nose almost literally to the grindstone, writing huge note-heads on greatly enlarged manuscript staves and much aided by his beloved younger brother, René, himself an accomplished organist. Clearly no single component was to be easy in the making of this costive, turbulent music.
The Piano Quintet in C minor is cast in three immense movements. The restrained piano octaves of the opening (‘Poco lento’) uncoil an ominous sequential ‘sidewinder’ of a theme, its tonality studiedly obscure and its mood darkly impenetrable. The string homophony summoned in response bears a striking and immediate resemblance to the early mature style of Frank Bridge, one of the very few English composers at that time to display the pronounced influence of Fauré. The alternation of piano with strings contracts, launching the first movement ‘proper’ (Moderato), in which string exploration of the opening note-row against rippling piano figuration expands rapidly. There is little or no perceptible distinction between natural thematic extension and an actual transition, and the suddenness with which this process is cut short by an unlikely tonal sidestep makes the initial impact of the second subject (initially a cello solo over funereal piano chords) all the more arresting. Here the composer’s specified grief and tenderness make themselves felt in a haunting inspiration, the sorrowing sequential descent of which neatly mirrors the ascendant spiral of the more neurasthenic first subject. The pervasive influence of Franck and the precedent of his own essay in this medium make themselves apparent both in the melodic intervals and in the unobtrusively satisfying symmetry of the secondary idea, which clearly held deep significance for Vierne and is accordingly developed at once into an immense restatement. Both Franck and Fauré are evoked in unison (not octave) string doubling, a resource by which both had already achieved a distinctively Gallic plangency in their own moments of heightened drama.
A piano solo launches the development section, anticipating the start of Fauré’s late Second Piano Quintet with its nervous semiquaver pattern over the motto theme. The first theme is intensively explored in cellular fashion before a further, polyphonic string examination of new sequential possibilities in the second subject. An approaching climax is cut short before the attenuated menace of the work’s opening phrase returns, rising again from the depths. By now the piano is in more obvious melodic competition with the string complement, and the deliberate effect is of straining the medium almost beyond its inherent bounds. An immense climactic paragraph is again cut short by the second subject, articulated this time by the piano over triplet-based string figuration. This time rhapsodic extension leads to a dolce restatement, polyphonically elaborated to particularly poignant effect. The movement ends on a quiet chord of C major. This final restraint, like the torrential earlier emotion, suggests a parallel with the Second, Third and Fourth Symphonies of Vierne’s senior contemporary, Albéric Magnard, where rugged, sometimes overpowering drama repeatedly finds its quietus in an almost apologetically understated conclusion: the underlying rawness of emotion is all the more unsettling for being dourly denied by a last-minute restoration of Magnard’s stiff upper lip. To those familiar only with Vierne’s organ music, the confessional quality of the Quintet’s passion may come as an immense surprise, and the sense of unfinished business is palpable here.
The second movement blunts the sharp edge of grief with its trance-like evocation of distant memories. The much-delayed piano entry over a bass pedal point, followed by muted string lamentations, suggests the actual momentum of Fauré’s chamber slow movements, while still evoking Frank Bridge to a point where one wonders whether Vierne could have encountered that composer’s imposing Piano Quintet of the preceding decade. Eventually the piano breaks out of this interior world to effect an abrupt dislocation. After nervously disjointed tremolandi and other fragmented effects the music settles again, but its long melodic line is subjected to further hostile commentary and interruption. This escalates (partly via inverted transformations of the work’s opening theme) until the monumental central climax, where the precedent of Franck’s Quintet is appropriated in music of intense anguish. A recapitulation of the opening section initially presents melodic lower strings against tolling piano chords and discreet arabesque lines from the violins. The piano’s regression to sparse octaves is both a textural recollection of the first movement’s opening and a return to the start of the second.
The prolonged introduction to the third and final movement opens with painful stabbing chords from the piano and a withdrawn string response which sinks immediately back into despairing lassitude. String tremolandi accompany a revisiting of the work’s opening theme, in characteristic Franckian, ‘cyclic’ fashion. The ensuing piano solo passage is yet again uncannily close to Frank Bridge, but this time the Bridge of the astringent Piano Sonata dating from 1922–5. That work, too, commemorates a Great War fatality (Bridge’s friend and fellow-composer, Ernest Farrar), and in doing so amounts to a passionate denunciation of all human conflict. It is moving to sense a degree of common musical speech springing up by apparent accident between these two men, both reserved and inwardly troubled in their different ways, as each struggled to sublimate ideological or personal anguish in the face of the world events which assailed them.
In due course Vierne’s finale gets fully under way with a striding theme in compound rhythm (drawn from the introduction) over a short-lived ‘drone’ pedal. The effect is momentarily that of the scherzo from Schubert’s great C major String Quintet inexplicably played in the equivalent minor key. After a grandly expansive opening paragraph the music recedes somewhat and assumes a troubled scherzando character whose contrapuntal possibilities are more implied than explored. Here the main theme emerges de-synchronized with the inexorable progress of the beat, thereby suggesting a parallel with the mischievously cunning final pages of Brahms’s F major String Quintet, Opus 88.
The first theme of Vierne’s finale recurs in the dominant, G minor, and later in A minor as well after powerfully rhythmic dialogue between all instruments. The frequent ambivalence of burlesque and nightmare qualities is resolved predictably enough as a central section subsides into ghostly stillness. A piano solo over a tremolando bass strongly—and perhaps deliberately—evokes Liszt’s two late pieces titled La Lugubre Gondola (inspired by the sighting of a water-borne funeral cortege in Venice). Muted string chords and tolling piano ‘bells’ intensify the funereal effect before cyclic reference to both the first movement’s main themes occurs before the music re-ignites in a driven recapitulation. Here the prevailing moto perpetuo rhythm recedes to form a background for mournful restatement of the first movement’s second subject (heard with its original unhurried momentum virtually intact against the newly flurrying accompaniment). This suggests another nod at Schubert, whose use of the same device in the finale of his great E flat major Piano Trio is one of that work’s most telling inspirations. Vierne rises to the occasion with several ingenious harmonic transformations.
Eventually the music accelerates towards a stormy coda which contrives to continue that process seemingly into and beyond the finish, thus leaving a deliberate sense of unresolved drama: of demons anything but laid to rest. And, alas, for this most tragic of composers such a conceit was to prove prophetic of one further blow, seemingly more terrible ultimately than all the others. Vierne’s brother René, his junior by eight years, had served as his amanuensis at several crucial stages in earlier life, and had accepted his lesser talents as a musician with affectionate admiration rather than envy, eventually prospering from his elder sibling’s instruction and much hard work to become an accomplished organist in his own right and the author of many effective and often virtuosic short works for the harmonium. On active service for his country at the age of forty, since the death of Jacques he had consoled his brother with his letters, which, however, had latterly begun to take on a fatalistic and implicitly premonitory tone as they recalled more and more scenes of childhood, as if the better thereby to fix himself in the memory of Louis.
On 30 April 1918 René’s letter to Louis reported that he had just been awarded the Croix de Guerre. With touching modesty he lamented having nothing better to offer the largely unsighted Louis, recalling that he had always done what he could as if for both of them:
‘… while, each year, you have enriched our whole heritage … [You and our brother Edouard] represent all that I still have to love in this world. Oh, when will we be back together round the same table or in the lamplight at the same piano?’
This was to be René’s farewell. Volunteering for a raiding party on 29 May, Corporal René Vierne was reported missing, presumed dead. Actually he had been all but blown to pieces by a high-calibre shell. Only after a month of increasing dread did Louis learn the truth from René’s commanding officer. Despite Edouard (to whom he had never been as close), Louis now felt alone in the world, seemingly a broken spirit. These events lend a harrowing intensity to the title Solitude which he gave in the same year to a four movement poème for piano, inscribed ‘À la mémoire de mon frère René, mort pour la France’. And yet concert tours abroad, many more Paris years and several of his most notable works were yet to come, these last including the Fifth and Sixth solo symphonies for organ and the four suites of Pièces de Fantaisie: food for thought wherever it has been lightly assumed that this music responds solely to a comfortably dusty ‘organ loft’ spirituality. ‘René, I have provided for you the resting place which God had denied you’, wrote Louis a mere five months before his death. ‘I have dug it for you here in my heart’. Famously, he died in mid-recital at the console in Notre-Dame on 2 June 1937, in the presence of Maurice Duruflé, his pupil with whom he was sharing the programme.
Like Saint-Saëns, Vierne had endured the loss of both his sons and a painful end to his marriage; and, like him again, he had been a devoted father. As we listen to the anguish of the Piano Quintet, some earlier words of his lend a particular poignancy: ‘I cannot work any more’, he had once written. ‘All of a sudden my thoughts desert the sketch on the table before me and fly away to my little ones who are far from me. Every so often I sense a kind of struggle between my love for my children and my devotion to music: could our “children” of the spirit feel jealously towards our children of the flesh?’
By way of complete contrast, Reynaldo Hahn is a colourful and seemingly carefree figure, in posterity as in life. Circumstantial detail does not colour our enjoyment or understanding of his Piano Quintet in F sharp minor, and details of his career may be summarized more for their entertainment value than for any profound emotional significance. One curious detail is his date of birth, often recorded erroneously as 1875. The mistake is seemingly replicated from his military records. His birth certificate and baptismal records nonetheless state that his date of birth was 9 August 1874.
Hahn’s Jewish father, Carlos, moved from Hamburg to Caracas and married a Venezuelan Catholic girl. Thus Reynaldo’s first language was, strictly, Spanish. The youngest of no fewer than twelve children, he was only three when his family emigrated to Paris (presumably a source of little anguish, since in later life he would tell a story of how God gave Venezuela such mineral and environmental riches that the angel Gabriel suggested easing up a bit, only to be told ‘Patience—I haven’t created the Venezuelans yet’). Reynaldo is said to have made a solo debut at the age of six, singing extracts from Offenbach at the salon of Princess Mathilde, a cousin of Napoleon III. In this context we already find him accompanying himself exquisitely on the piano, a facility for which he was celebrated as an adult but which has undoubtedly contributed since to benign underestimation of his talents: the image of the singer seated at the keyboard is redolent of a dilettantism all too likely to engender preconceptions beyond the sphere of the songs for which he was celebrated, and it is perhaps accordingly that his more formal concert output has suffered. Bernard Gavoty, friend and biographer of Vierne, heard him sing:
only once, … too little to speak of him at length, enough to be entranced. Was it beautiful? No, it was unforgettable. The voice was nothing exceptional, … [but] ruled with a marvellous intelligence. … An interminable cigarette dangled from the line of his lips, not as a ‘pose’ but out of habit. He sang as we breathe—out of necessity.
Reynaldo entered the Paris Conservatoire at the stately age of eleven (not ten, as the inaccurate birth date has led many to suppose) and studied solfège, harmony and counterpoint, composition and the piano. Already he was showing a prodigious compositional facility, and when he was seventeen his teacher Massenet effected an introduction to Heugel, the publishing house, who issued the first of many collections of songs. However, by 1921 Hahn’s song-writing career had given place to involvement in opera, operetta and early film music, all of which secured for him a larger audience.
Seemingly loved by all, Hahn was a swarthily handsome man, a flamboyant homosexual whose gallant—if nonchalantly transparent—show of masculine attention flattered ageing divas and amused courtesans (Parisian attitudes were notably more enlightened and relaxed than those in England at the time). One such lady, to whom he showed a devotion founded in chaste aesthetic appreciation of her charms rather than genuine desire, was allegedly shot in both buttocks by her enraged husband during a far-from-uncommon in flagrante encounter. ‘Will this show?’, she asked her doctor. ‘That depends entirely on you, Madame,’ he responded with a bow.
In 1894 Hahn had met Marcel Proust (three years his senior). The relationship developed into a passionate amour before settling into a warm friendship which lasted until Proust’s death in 1922. This may well have enhanced the flair with which Hahn wrote his books of personal reminiscences, these being enlivened in any case by his encounters with celebrities in many walks of artistic life. Hahn wrote extensively as a music critic and maintained a prolific correspondence with his family and many friends.
As an author, in 1930 he published La grande Sarah, a tribute to his friend and idol, Sarah Bernhardt, on which he had worked for nine years. He became noted as a conductor and a particularly sensitive interpreter of Mozart’s operas. Endowed with easy linguistic ability through his parentage and childhood migration to Europe, he travelled widely in Italy, Russia, Austria, Germany and Egypt. In 1940, fearful on account of his part-Jewish ancestry, he fled Paris for Cannes, returning in 1945 to take up musical direction of l’Opéra. He died on 28 January 1947 after a short illness, an attractive and mostly sunny personality but still missing keenly the intellectual fulfilment of his two-year romance with Proust a full half century earlier.
Hahn’s Piano Quintet was composed in 1922 and published the following year. It shares its relatively uncommon key of F sharp minor with a fine example by his senior American contemporary, the demurely self-styled Mrs H H A Beach. Its compactly arresting first theme is strikingly close in all particulars to that which opens the First Piano Concerto of another contemporaneous figure, the Swedish composer Adolf Wiklund. In general terms this work is as far removed from Vierne’s Quintet as one could imagine. Its opening is fresh, agreeably direct and completely without preamble. The style is both comfortably eclectic and unashamedly retrospective: modulation techniques suggest the most youthful works of Fauré, such as his A major Violin Sonata, Opus 13 (1875/6), while the natural songwriter’s intermittent taste for unassuming chordal repetition in the piano accompaniment to overt thematic exposition suggests a remote debt to Schubert. The music—and in particular its fleet-footed but economical piano part—has a deft, lucid mobility and an economy of rhetorical gesture far less easy to achieve than it sounds. A Dvorák-like openness and quasi-vernacular charm comes and goes, while at other times the pianist’s indefatigable ripplings suggest Mendelssohn’s piano-trio writing. A memorably successful second subject gives place to resourceful examination of both principal ideas. F sharp major expansiveness asserts itself late on in the movement, only to be subverted by the almost tongue-in-cheek terseness of a final return to the minor.
The slow second movement presents a soulful, song-like theme in C sharp minor. Fauré seems to preside more closely over the unhurried triple time and the instrumentation itself. Tritonal opposition of non-cadential dominant sevenths and ninths enhance the ‘sidestepping’ effect of key changes, perhaps reminding one that the youthful Fauré had pursued Wagner performances to Bayreuth and to England in company with Messager in the eighteen-eighties, and suggesting that Wagnerian technique (not generally very apparent in Fauré’s stylistic make-up) might nonetheless be a productive subliminal influence for the perceptive Fauré disciple. This movement remains predominantly introverted, ostensibly heading towards a climax but then relaxing into the idyllic retrospection of an unexpected F major episode (ushering in a change of time signature). The dominant pedal note underpinning this passage conveys a certain quasi-rustic wistfulness which again suggests the prayer-like sensibility of certain quiet Dvorák chamber movements. Subsequent features include string unison writing (typical of Fauré) at moments of heightened intensity, ingenious combination of the themes from both foregoing sections (and time signatures), and a reprise of the secondary paragraph, heard now a semitone lower than before. The movement reaches an unhurried conclusion in the key of C sharp major.
The Quintet’s third and last movement plays a time-honoured ‘is-it-a-scherzo/intermezzo-or-a-finale?’ game, launching itself with amiable simplicity as another would-be rustic conception over a musette-like pedal note. As this proceeds it begins to admit a touch of melodic ‘neo-Baroquery’. This, in studiedly perverse combination with the homespun wistfulness of the initial conception, seems almost to suggest the improbable intrusion of some synthetically conceived public school song. More to the point, it conveys a shrewdly misleading impression of much more episodic and unassuming structural thinking than is actually at work, as does the Schumannesque cleanness of the ensuing episode’s dialogue between melodic piano octaves and punctuating harmonic strings. Soon the main theme burgeons momentarily in E major. The thematic material of the first movement now becomes more prominent. Some ingeniously resourceful combination of these ideas with those of the slow movement ensues (embracing a mischievous false recapitulation in the key of F major, not F sharp) before a radiant statement of the inspired second subject from the work’s first movement bursts forth in A major. This, however, is not allowed to gain ideas above its station, and nor are we as near the end of the work as its appearance seems to suggest. The generalized example of Fauré and the specific one of Dvorák’s A major Piano Quintet seem to compete amicably (and convincingly) for the limelight. A recapitulation beset by agreeable sleights-of-hand extends the canonic and other possibilities of the music in an F sharp major coda which is in no hurry to end the proceedings but which, thanks to the memorably distinct nature of the principal themes, never threatens to outstay its welcome.
As Professor Graham Hough wrote in a published essay on the nature of criticism, it is futile to compare a minutely observed social satire like Pope’s The Rape of the Lock with such as Shakespeare’s King Lear, an engulfing tragedy whose terms of human reference are universal. Viewed on its merits and against its demonstrable intentions, Vierne’s grieving attempt at ‘something grandiose, powerful and strong’ may not succeed as entirely as—on its lesser plane—Hahn’s unapologetic mastery of received manner and matter, nor is the listener likely to feel ready for his anguish as often as for the younger but more conservative composer’s uncomplicated good company. Nonetheless, of the two it is Vierne who speaks from the depths of all-too-authentic experience, and Hahn who might seem the embodiment of Ravel’s splendidly unanswerable alleged reply to a critic who diagnosed artifice: ‘It never seems to occur to people that one might be artificial by nature’. The meeting point between the two may perhaps best be provided by these words, not easily attributable to one rather than the other:
‘… Singing is the faithful and docile companion of the lonely, the friend who, in solitude, comforts the sick heart, puts grief to sleep, makes waiting bearable, gives rhythm to labour. It comes or goes at the pleasure of the one who suffers, who works, who grieves. And when … we are joyful, singing is again the friend who shares our happiness, who voices bright joy without bitter reservation.’
These words were spoken by Hahn in a series of lectures on singing, given just before the Great War broke out. It is possible to imagine Vierne echoing them as it ended, and even to hear him doing so as he mourned his son in the pages of his Piano Quintet.
Francis Pott © 2001