1874 — 1947
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Reynaldo Hahn was a French composer, conductor and critic of Venezuelan birth whose works include operas, ballets and a number of songs and instrumental works. He is particularly renowned for his vocal settings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine.
Reynaldo was the youngest of twelve children of Elena Maria Echenagucia and Carlos Hahn. When he was just a small boy, Hahn already showed musical promise. Just short of the age of four, Hahn and his family moved to Paris. There, he began to play piano, making his début at the age of six at a musical event hosted by the niece of Napoleon I, Princesse Mathilde.
Hahn continued his studies at the Paris Conservatoire starting in 1885. There he studied with the composer Jules Massenet, among others. He also became acquainted with the French composersMaurice Ravel, Alfred Cortot and Edouard Risler. His earliest works consist of songs, one of which brought him national recognition. This work,Si mes vers avaient de ailes (part of the cycle 20 Mélodies, 1888-96), was dedicated to his sister Maria, the wife of painter Raymundo de Marazo. The gatherings at this couple’s house would prove influential, as Hahn met many important artists of the time and gained the opportunity to compose incidental music for Daudet’s playL’obstacle (1890) at the age of 16.
An early song cycle, 7 Chansons grises (1887-90), that Hahn completed as a Conservatoire student contains his popular song ‘L’heure exquise’. The cycle was premiered by the virtuoso soprano Sybil Sanderson at Daudet’s house. The cycle is a setting of Verlaine’s poems and the poet himself was also present at the premiere. This song remained well-known, even after his death.
The publisher Heugel published a successful collection of 20 of Hahn’s songs in 1895. Hahn became a household name, and was given approval to adapt novelist Pierre Loti’sLe marriage de Loti as the opera L'île du rêve (1891-93). Unfortunately the timing of the opera’s premiere at the Opéra-Comique coincided with the Dreyfus affair, the political scandal which effectively divided France. Hahn joined the anti-clerical, pro-republicanDreyfusard camp, along with two of his closest friends, but his life was still dramatically affected by the conflict, due to his Jewish heritage and his loyalty to France. Perhaps as a result of the political climate, the opera did not earn its place in the standard repertory.
Hahn’s second attempt at an opera resulted in La Carmélite (1902), which was premiered in 1902 with Emma Calvé. However, to Hahn’s great disappointment, this opera also failed to establish itself in the repertory.
Hahn took a break from composing operas and instead focused on concert works and the balletLe bal de Béatrice d’Este (1907), which was positively received and remains one of his most well-known works. During this time he also composed the song cycleEtudes latines (1900_-and a series of piano pieces, Le rossignol éperdu (1902-10). These piano pieces are his most impressive works from this period. The works bring about evocations and memories, both of places and ideas.
As a conductor, Hahn’s career took off in the first decade of the 1900s. Not only did he conduct concerts of his own music, he also conductedDon Giovanni in Salzburg and organized aMozart Festival in Paris. During this period he also began working as a critic, from 1899 forLa Presse and from 1904 for La fleche.
In 1909, Hahn took French nationality and a few years later volunteered for the army despite being over the official age limit, at the outbreak of the war. During the war he served first as a private and then a corporal. Some of the works he composed while serving include the five-movement song cycle based on the poems of Robert Louis Stevenson. He also began to draft an opera based on Shakespeare’sThe Merchant of Venice.
Hahn returned to Paris after the war and composed the nostalgic operetta Ciboulette(1923), which brings about memories of 19th-century Paris and is set in the old market of Les Halles. This great success preceded his musical comedy Mozart(1925), about the adventures of a young Mozart in Paris. The work was created for Yvonne Printemps, the wife of playwright Sacha Guitry, who also played the role of Mozart. This work, along with a second collaboration,O mon bel inconnu(1933), were revived several times.
Hahn achieved success again with one of his next works, the Piano Concerto, premiered by Magda Tagliaferro, who collaborated with him on a recording of the work. He also composed theLe marchand de Venise (1935) for the Paris Opéra, which received mixed reviews but was still revived several times. The work is light and operetta-like. The biggest problem with it is the unnatural combination of the light mood that permeates the work with the dramatic style he uses for the character of Shylock.
Another blow to the popularity of Hahn’s music occurred during the Nazi occupation of France from 1940-44. Because of his Jewish ancestry, his music was banned and he spent much of his time in hiding. While in hiding, he composed songs, instrumental works and one last work for the stage, the operetta Le oui des jeunes filles(1942), which was premiered after his death.
After his return to Paris, Hahn was appointed director of the Paris Opéra. While there he conducted a revival of Méhul’sJoseph and concerts with Tagliaferro and Ninon Vallin.
Hahn’s output includes approximately 200 works including operas, operettas, choral and vocal works, many ballets, orchestral and chamber works and many works for piano. His music was widely ignored after his death. Many critics dismissed his works as they found them to be simply evocations of the 1900 Paris salons. After 1970, his music began to gain attention, most notably his settings of Verlaine and Leconte and hismelodies. His most popular instrumental works include his concertos for piano and violin, in addition to his various works for piano. These works provide a balance between romantic and experimental ideas and have experienced a renewal of interest since the 1990s. His operaCiboulette has also become a standard part of the repertory, mostly in France. Revivals of his light operas have also taken place in recent years.
Images courtesy of Harvard University and public domain