Reynaldo Hahn

By Mordey, Delphine | Fontes Artis Musicae, January-March 2009 | Go to article overview

Reynaldo Hahn


Mordey, Delphine, Fontes Artis Musicae


Reynaldo Hahn. By Jacques Depaulis. Biarritz: Seguier, 2007. [183 p., ISBN 978-284049-484-3, 20[euro]]

Jacques Depaulis specialises in leading lights of the Belle Epoque who have all but completely faded from view. His previous studies have included Ida Rubinstein, une inconnue jadis celebre (Honore-Champion, 1995), and RogerDucasse (1873-1954): compositeur bordelais (Seguier, 2001). Now we have Reynaldo Hahn, a life and works study of a composer who was celebrated within his lifetime, but is now mainly remembered, if at all, for a handful of melodies, for his operetta Ciboulette, and for his close friendship with Marcel Proust.

This book reminds us that there is much more to Hahn than this and goes some way to filling a significant gap in the literature. Indeed, relatively little has been written about the composer to date, although mention should be made of two earlier biographies: Bernard Gavoty, Reynaldo Hahn, le musicien de la Belle Epoque (Buchet-Chastel, 1976) and Daniel Bendahan, Reynaldo Hahn, su vida y su obra (Italgrafica, 1973). That so little should have been written is perhaps surprising, given that he is in many ways an ideal subject: a highly successful composer, conductor, writer, speaker, and performer, whose career spanned the turbulent times from the Belle Epoque to the end of the Second World War.

In this book, Depaulis guides us through Hahn's fascinating life at a brisk pace. Reynaldo Hahn, affectionately known as Nano, was born in Caracas on 9 August 1874, the youngest of twelve children to a Jewish father from Hamburg and a Catholic Venezuelan mother of Basque origins. Reynaldo's father Carlos (a man worthy of his own biography) had a successful career as an entrepreneur, dabbling in communications systems, gas, electricity, and newspaper publishing; he was also a friend and economic advisor to the President, Guzman Blanco. It was this friendship that made it necessary for the Hahn family to head for Paris in 1878, as political trouble began to brew in Venezuela. The family was quickly welcomed into the heady world of Parisian society, attending many of the foremost salons of the day, including that of Princesse Mathilde (Napoleon III's cousin), where the young Reynaldo made his precocious musical debut. Hahn's musical talents led to his entry to the Conservatoire in 1885, where his classmates included Maurice Ravel and Alfred Cortot.

It should already be clear that, from a very early age, Hahn was well connected. Indeed, throughout his life he encountered many prominent political and cultural figures, a number of whom make cameo appearances in this biography; these include Jules Massenet, Marcel Proust, Alphonse Daudet, Pierre Loti, Sarah Bernhardt, Sacha Guitry, Catulle Mendes, King Edward VII and his wife Queen Alexandra, Pauline Viardot, and Jean Cocteau. The notion that Hahn met everyone who was anyone is a point that is emphatically emphasised throughout the book and whilst the frequent, lengthy lists of such notables certainly reinforce the point that Hahn moved in illustrious social circles, such lists become a little tedious and detract from the otherwise lively and engaging prose style.

Hahn rose to fame during the Belle Epoque, the period with which he is most closely associated, thanks in particular to the success of his songs and lyric works. But these years also saw Hahn developing a reputation outside composition: as a lecturer for Yvonne Sarcey's Universite des Annales; as a conductor, specialising in Mozart, whose music he conducted at the Salzburg Festival; and also as a writer. Not only did Hahn carve out a secondary career as a music critic, starting work for La Presse in 1899, and eventually taking up a post at Le Figaro in 1935, but he also completed five books, including a biography of Sarah Bern--hardt. Hahn was also a prodigious letter writer, and it is clear from the many excerpts from his letters that Depaulis reproduces in this book, that Hahn had a great gift for writing elegant, often witty, prose. …

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