Hahn’s artistry as a song composer sets him apart but, says Roger Nichols, let’s not ignore the adopted Frenchman’s many other assets
When was Reynaldo Hahn born?
Reynaldo Hahn was born in Caracas, Venezuela in 1874 from a Jewish German father and a Roman Catholic Spanish/Basque mother. His father had not only built up a thriving commercial empire – helpful, given his ten surviving children – but was a close friend of the head of state, Guzman Blanco. When, in 1878, Blanco fell out of favour and emigrated to Paris, it was not surprising that Carlos Hahn followed. The young Reynaldo was the Benjamin of the family and later admitted that he had been rather spoilt by his elder sisters. But the charm that distinguished him throughout his life was no doubt already in evidence, as was his talent for music.
When did Reynaldo Hahn join the Conservatoire?
In 1885 he entered the preparatory class of the Conservatoire ((one of the best music schools in the world) and joined a boys’ choir – his first taste of singing, which was to be the bedrock of his life.
When he entered the Conservatoire proper, among his fellow pupils was Maurice Ravel, though they never became friends, possibly because their Basque mothers came from different social classes, Reynaldo’s the upper bourgeoisie, Maurice’s quite a few layers below. But the Conservatoire teaching suited Hahn down to the ground, not least that of Massenet, who did much to launch his career and remained a friend until Massenet’s death in 1912. In 1892, we even find the 18-year-old Hahn being entrusted with reading the proofs of Massenet’s Werther!
Two facts indicate the breadth of Hahn’s early tastes. Like many of his fellow musicians, he was enthralled by Wagner, and especially by Die Meistersinger. But at the same time he was one of a group (perhaps ‘gang’ is a better word) of students, including the 24-year-old Erik Satie, called Les Vieilles Poules (the old hens) to which both of them contributed musical farces. Neither of these interests, though, accords with Hahn’s first success as a composer, the song Si mes Vers avaient des ailes, published in 1889. Even if Massenet’s influence is unmistakable, here, at the age of only 15, Hahn gave notice of the invaluable contribution he was to make to the repertoire of the French mélodie.
In a letter of 1892, he delivers a tirade against vulgarity – ‘chose insupportable’ – and certainly he lived up to his words. Complicit in this was his meeting in 1894 with Marcel Proust, the two becoming lovers for the next two years, after which they remained close friends. Not that they always agreed with each other – early on, when Hahn admitted liking the music of Mendelssohn and Saint-Saëns, Proust merely laughed; and they never agreed about Debussy, whose music Proust adored, while Hahn found his more extreme inventions downright dangerous. Both men patronised the Paris salons, and Hahn suffered from his reputation as a ‘salon composer’, with its undertone of scorn. Even though the salons were in fact hives of artistic activity, where you might meet anyone from the prime minister or the director of the Opéra to Monet or Zola, the implied criticism doubted that anything written for such an audience could be really serious. Hahn’s continuing fidelity to Massenet’s musical language (patent in his first opera, 1898’s L’Ile du rêve) didn’t help, but one hopes that today, with a longer perspective, we can listen to his music shorn of the idea that music must necessarily ‘progress’.
What is Reynaldo Hahn most famous for?
Hahn’s musical output is extensive, and any brief resumé must confine itself to the high points. Le Bal de Béatrice d’Este was his delightful reworking of 16th-century ideas in a deliberately aristocratic style, hence Queen Alexandra’s enthusiasm. A parallel stylistic reworking is his piano Sonatine of 1907, which begins like Mozart, then introduces some Scarlattian acrobatics, finally in the last movement inserting some Wagnerian harmonies (from Tristan rather than Die Meistersinger). Among his chamber works, the Violin Sonata of 1926 and the Piano Quintet of 1922 stand out. The first movement of the Sonata is interesting in that there’s really only one theme, varied by changes in harmony and texture. The sparkling central scherzo is a prequel of John Adams’s Short Ride in a Fast Machine, inspired by the hectic car journeys Hahn was having to make between gigs in Paris, Cannes and Deauville. The Quintet clearly looks back to that by Franck in its dotted rhythms and downward-sliding chromatic harmonies. This is Hahn at his most powerful and deserves to be heard far more often.
Hahn’s contributions to musical theatre are split into serious and light operas. His most successful serious operas were Mozart of 1925, including some quotations from the master, and Le Marchand de Venise of 1935, based on Shakespeare; in Shylock’s terrifying aria ‘Je le haïs’ Hahn proves once again that he was no milksop. Of his 12 light operas, by far the most successful was Ciboulette, first staged in 1923 and then around the world, giving rise to talk of ‘the rebirth of operetta’. The sparky heroine of the title, which means ‘little spring onion’, makes fun of middle-class girls with posh names like Julie, Gertrude, Camille and Charlotte (sung with langourous disdain): then, thrown off, ‘moi, j’m’appelle Ciboulette’ in a phrase once heard, never forgotten.
But Hahn would not have been in the least dismayed that his reputation today rests firmly on his 100-or-so songs. His attitude to singing is summed up in one of his many talks on the subject: ‘A person who’s been asked to sing introduces himself in the most natural way. Then suddenly, you hear a voice and wonder where it’s coming from; you don’t recognise the voice that’s just spoken. Instinctively, you look under the furniture…’ True singing is merely an extension of speaking.
In 1891, before he met Proust, he was much smitten with the great beauty Cléo de Mérode, if only from a distance, and dedicated to her a setting of Verlaine’s poem ‘Green’, already set by Debussy. Hahn entitled it ‘Offrande’ and in his two recordings, as almost always to his own accompaniment, with the voice playing rhythmic tricks around a rigorously regular piano part, one is struck by the apparently strange stresses on some syllables, but which work wonderfully. Hahn was very fond, like Fauré, of descending scales, and here a C major scale sets the last two lines, giving the sense of their repose. We note too that on the score the song is carefully dated ‘1891, in the spring’: Fauré made his setting of the poem that summer and autumn.
A more melancholy tone is sounded in the 1892 setting of another Verlaine poem, ‘Le ciel est pardessus le toit’, written when the poet was in prison, having shot at his lover Rimbaud. The atmosphere is at first consoling in the regularly pulsing pairs of crotchets, all at a piano dynamic or lower. Then, like a hammer blow, comes the forte question, ‘What have you done with your youth?’ The rhythm becomes restless, the regular crotchets only returning with a repeat of the opening line – only now the blue sky speaks not of comfort but of Nature distant and uncaring.
To have written both these songs before he was 20 tells of Hahn’s extraordinary talent. For a jollier song we may turn to ‘Fêtes galantes’ on yet another Verlaine poem, again set to music by both Debussy and Fauré (was this deliberate rivalry on Hahn’s part? The first few notes and rhythms of the vocal line unmistakably copy Debussy…).
Hahn was, though, no self-regarding dandy, as his behaviour in World War I shows. At his own insistence and now in his 40s, he fought in the trenches. He got on well with his men, getting them to sing popular songs, and his efforts were rewarded by being appointed chevalier de la Légion d’honneur and awarded the croix de guerre.
Returning to civilian life after distinguished service he was appointed professor of interpretation and singing at the recently founded École Normale de Musique de Paris.
The 1920s and ’30s saw him return to life as a composer, singer, conductor, administrator, scholar, lecturer and teacher. In 1940 the Nazis began cancelling performances of his music but, on receipt of documents of his baptism, first communion and confirmation as a Catholic, pronounced him as being of ‘diluted Jewishness’, and left him alone. But their oppressive presence in Paris distressed him and he moved to Toulon.
When did Reynaldo Hahn die?
Returning to Paris after the Liberation, he was duly honoured by being appointed director of the Opéra. But it was soon clear that he was not his old clearheaded, energetic self : he had a brain tumour and died on 28 January 1947. Let us hope that next year, the 75th anniversary of the death of this remarkable man and musician will spark more performances and recordings.
Top illustration by Matt Herring