Measure by Measure

The Man Who Loved Proust

Reynaldo Hahn and the sounds of the beautiful age

By Sudip Bose | May 24, 2018
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek (Wikimedia Commons)
Photo-illustration by Stephanie Bastek (Wikimedia Commons)

Today, at the Sotheby’s branch in Paris, a remarkable collection of papers associated with Marcel Proust will be put up for auction. Among the contents of this literary treasure trove are letters, until now in the guarded possession of Proust’s descendants, that the writer exchanged with the great love of his early 20s—the composer Reynaldo Hahn. Although the relationship was hardly a secret in the fashionable salons of late-19th-century Paris, the public was largely unaware of it while both men remained alive. To many people today, Hahn is merely a peripheral figure in the life of a great writer. But as aficionados of art song know, Hahn was a distinguished artist in his own right, indeed, one of the most celebrated composers of French mélodies of his time.

His father was born in Hamburg and moved to South America with hopes of striking it rich—he soon did just that, upon settling in Caracas and marrying a Venezuelan woman. The couple had 12 children, of whom Reynaldo, born in 1874, was the youngest. With connections to prominent government officials, the family enjoyed a life of wealth and prestige, until the country’s political situation deteriorated in 1877, forcing the Hahns to decamp for Paris. Though he continued to speak Spanish at home, Reynaldo grew up very much French. The cultural atmosphere of the capital, embodied by the Paris Opéra and the Opéra-Comique, nourished the artist to such a degree that it might as well have been his birthright.

He wrote his first songs at the age of eight, gaining admission to the Paris Conservatoire at 10 (a notoriously difficult feat at an institution that looked down on child prodigies with a skepticism bordering on scorn). There the boy studied composition with some of the leading lights of French music, including Charles Gounod, Jules Massenet, and Camille Saint-Saëns. Though he would, over time, compose works on a larger scale (including a bright and effervescent Violin Concerto), his true métier was art song, his work coinciding with the full flourishing of la belle époque. He wrote nearly a hundred songs—six were in Italian, five in English, but all the rest were in French. Stylistically, he did not stray very far from the models he inherited from Gounod and Massenet. The hallmarks of his music, which resides squarely in the Romantic tradition, are elegance, grace, beauty, tranquility, and charm, his unadorned phrases ever faithful to the nuances and imagery of his texts. Listen to Hahn’s mélodies, and you are transported at once to a very specific time and place—few other composers are so recognizably French, or so vividly representative of their era.

He wrote many of his most enduring mélodies as a teenager: hymns to love that exhibit a striking maturity and level of skill. Take one song that he composed in 1888, “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” (“If Only My Verses Had Wings”), set to a poem by Victor Hugo. Over a watery 16th-note accompaniment on the piano, the voice floats serenely, melodic and utterly natural:

My verses would flee, sweet, frail,
To your beautiful garden,
If only my verses had the wings
Of a bird …

Eloquence and simplicity are the governing principles here, but the song is not without its startling moments—the leap of more than an octave in a single measure, for example, the ascending legato phrase culminating in a stirring G#. Or, even better, the final bars of the song, when the singer whispers the word l’amour, descending a half-step from a G# to a G, lingering there for a haunting, uncertain moment, before the cadence is finally resolved. For me, the whole song is made by that one phrase. How much depth there is in that unexpected drop of a half-step, how much wisdom and feeling!

Even as a teenager, Hahn was a fixture in the Parisian salons, where he often thrilled the city’s artistic elite by singing his own music. His biographer Bernard Gavoty described Hahn’s voice this way: “Was it beautiful? No, it was unforgettable. The voice was nothing exceptional … a fine baritone voice, not very large, flexible as grass, ruled with a marvelous intelligence, a reflective divination. An interminable cigarette dangled from the line of his lip, not as a ‘pose’ but out of habit. He sang as we breathe, out of necessity.” Others interpreted his work just as enthusiastically. Once, in 1893, the American soprano Sybil Sanderson performed Hahn’s Chanson grises, at the home of the novelist Alphonse Daudet. In attendance that day was none other than Paul Verlaine, who had written the poems that Hahn had set. By that point, Verlaine was impoverished and an alcoholic, drug-addled mess, and when he heard his gray and melancholy verses sung that day, he broke down in tears. Listening to “L’heure exquise” (“The Exquisite Moment”), one of the songs in Chanson grises, one can understand why Verlaine would have wept. It’s simply one of the most moving mélodies in the repertoire, this nocturnal depiction of white moonlight, a pond’s reflective waters, and the wind weeping through the leaves of a black willow tree. Although the singer inhabits a fairly narrow vocal range, so much emotion simmers just beneath the surface of things. Much of this feeling is conveyed by the harmonies in a piano part consisting of rippling figures of triplets. After the second stanza, the singer declaims, Rêvons, c’est l’heure—“Let us dream, this is the moment!” It’s a truly exquisite moment, and when I hear it, I do not want it to end.

Throughout his life, many famous people were drawn to Hahn. When he met Proust, however, at the home of the artist Madeleine Lemaire in 1894, the writer was a fledgling artist of little renown. Proust was three years Hahn’s senior, and the two had deep mutual interests in music, painting, and literature. During the two years that their romance bloomed, they saw each other nearly every day, embarking on vacations in Venice and Brittany. Even after the affair ended, they remained good friends. It seems clear that Hahn was conflicted about his sexuality: he remained in the closet, had relationships with women, and was scathing about homosexuality in his correspondence. Still, the letters to and from Proust, those on auction today, reveal a touching, if veiled affection. In a letter dated March 1896, Proust writes: “I want you to be here all the time but as a god in disguise, whom no mortal would recognize.” “Mon petit Reynaldo” is how Proust addresses his friend, upon whom the protagonist of his sprawling, autobiographical, unfinished novel Jean Santeuil is based.

With the advent of the First World War, Hahn enlisted in the French Army (he was 40)—that’s when he wrote his English pieces, the Five Little Songs, set to texts by Robert Louis Stevenson. After the war, Hahn led the first performances at the Salzburg Festival (he was a well-regarded conductor of Mozart) and wrote persuasive music criticism for the newspaper Le Figaro, all the while maintaining his presence amid Paris’s music scene. In 1940, he left the capital with the arrival of the Nazis, returning only at the end of the war to take up the directorship of the Paris Opéra. The appointment would not last long, however. In 1947, Hahn died from a brain tumor.

His music may have spurred no revolutions, his harmonies and rhythms looking backward, not forward. And his legacy lies not in symphonies or operas but in fewer than a hundred songs. Yet Hahn well knew his own scope and limitations. “With each passing day,” he once wrote, “I grow fonder of balance, moderation, elegance. The Himalayas, Michelangelo and Beethoven are beyond my ken.” Some artists reach for the cosmos in their work. Others, like Hahn, are content to cultivate their small, satisfying plot on Earth.

Listen to Gérard Souzay sing Hahn’s “L’heure exquise,” accompanied by pianist Dalton Baldwin, in this recording from 1963:

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