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Reynaldo Hahn in 1898: A composer of astonishing precocity

Of all the injustices meted out by the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians when it was first published in 1980, few were as ill-deserved as the minimal space, amounting to little more than a column of text, accorded to Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), surely the most lovable composer of third-rate music who ever lived. There is nothing wrong, to be clear, in writing or enjoying third-rate music; indeed there are times when it is the only music that will do. The Belle Epoque (that easeful period of French cultural life under the Third Republic, identified as a golden age only in the retrospect of the Great War) breathed a spirit that is especially well-suited to the music of its also-rans. The preservation in sound of this era was achieved above all through the dazzling early promise, remarkable facility and exquisite taste of Hahn. Happily for the composer, Grove’s omission has been repaired over many years by Graham Johnson, whose exploration of the byways of French song matches his especial contribution to the study of German Lieder. Both in concert and the recording studio, Johnson has championed Hahn and gained new converts to this most endearing of song-writers.

Born in Caracas of a Venezuelan mother and German-Jewish father, Hahn arrived with his family in Paris at the age of three. At five, he was playing proficiently; by eight he was composing. At ten, he was studying at the Paris Conservatoire alongside Ravel, and received composition lessons from Gounod and Massenet. He found his voice early. For a long time, Hahn’s reputation rested on the song which he wrote at the age of 13, “Si mes vers avaient des ailes”, to a text by Victor Hugo. No precocious composition, not even the early chamber works of Mendelssohn, is quite as astonishing as this work, written by one barely adolescent. As Johnson has said, “The distinguishing marks of Hahn’s style are all there: an accompaniment which undulates in the background like the slow unfurling of a skein of sumptuous material, a background of seemingly little import which nevertheless shapes the melody as if the accompanist wielded the lightest of hands on a potter’s wheel; a vocal line which is derived from the intimacy of speech but which contains in it the seeds of a wonderful melody truly to be sung . . .”. To which one would only add that the word-setting is entirely natural, and whilst it appears to place the text in the foreground, the art of the piece lies in the fact that words and music are held in perfect equipoise.

Amid many imperfect verses, the poet Verlaine wrote one or two immortal expressions of the French language. Perhaps the most haunting is “Clair de Lune”, which begins (untranslatably) “Votre âme est un paysage choisi/Que vont charmant masques et bergamasques.” It is a pity that Hahn, unlike Fauré and (in a different way) Debussy, never set this poem, but the poet himself was able to listen to Hahn’s settings of his verse, at Alphonse Daudet’s house in 1893 — and he was moved to tears. One of the songs he heard, and one of Hahn’s finest, is “L’Heure Exquise”. The poem itself offers an attractive if formulaic description of evening, a rising moon, the outlines of a willow tree and their reflection in water. In Hahn’s imagination, they become something special. A simple arpeggiated accompaniment is perfectly calibrated to bring the best out of the verse, while Hahn knows exactly when and how to alter the harmony so as to make us attend yet more carefully to the words (as in the last stanza, where the poet speaks of  “Un vaste et tendre appaisement/Semble descendre du firmament/Que l’astre irise”).
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