The music of Reynaldo Hahn is enjoying a much-merited revival. It is true that some of his wonderful songs have always been in the repertoire, and some of his stage works have remained popular in France, his instrumental music has, until recently, rarely featured in concert programmes and on recordings. The present recording is the first to present all of Hahn’s original works for two pianos and for piano duet.
Although he moved permanently to France at the age of three, Hahn is still celebrated for being one of Venezuela’s finest sons – he was born in Caracas on 9 VIII 1874, and died in Paris on 28 I 1947. His composing style is late Romantic, an embodiment of La belle époque, full of Gallic wit, and above all, charm. Indeed, Hahn’s charm is so pervasive that one is often temporarily distracted from noticing just how splendidly crafted his music is.
Hahn was a celebrated performer in the salons of Paris around the end of the 19th century, both as singer and pianist – he frequently sang his own songs to his own accompaniment – and his piano writing is assured and grateful, as we can see in his Piano Concerto, his Piano Quintet, and the delightful piano parts of his songs. His understanding of the idioms of two-piano music and piano duet – starkly different ways of composing for the instrument – is impeccable.
Le ruban denoué [The untied ribbon] is the most important of Hahn’s works represented here. (The last of these wonderful pieces also provided the composer with material for a song: Puisque j’ai mis ma lèvre (Victor Hugo) which appeared in the composer’s second set of 20 songs.) Composed in order to soothe his comrades during grim times in the French army at war on the Western Front, these pieces are characterised by simplicity, nostalgia and, above all, a transparent sincerity of utterance. Décrets indolents du hasard [Indolent decrees of chance] compels the attention with two very simple devices: the sequence, and combining the 3/4 of the waltz with patterns both melodic and accompanimental that offer 4 or 8 equal notes to the bar. An unforgettable melody to describe fate! At face-value Les soirs d’Albi [Evenings in Albi] is pure music-hall escapism were it not for the little subtleties of modulation. Souvenir…avenir… [What is past… what is to come…] is a slow waltz with a melody marked ‘amoroso’, punctuated by a defiantly hopeful tune made from an apparently endless upward scale. Danse de l’amour et du chagrin – the title says it all – leads directly into Le demi-sommeil embaumé [The embalmed doze], where the title says nothing except that Hahn has a sense of humour. The somnolence of the music is capriciously twisted with counter-rhythms until a new theme brings real peace. L’anneau perdu [The lost ring] is a universal metaphor for anxiety and nostalgia, caught to a T in this lovely bit of ephemera. Not for the first time, we are reminded of Schumann’s great waltz sequence Davidsbündlertänze in the Danse du doute et de l’espérance [Dance of doubt and hope], the two elements constant and inextricable. La cage ouverte [The open cage] begs the question whether we are free to escape ourselves or merely to let free the metaphorical bird. Either way, the music liberates all sombre thought. Entirely the opposite mood obtains in the Soir d’orage [Stormy evening]: do not look for musical depiction of the raging elements; this is a piece of ineluctable foreboding. Les baisers [Kisses] harks back to the first piece in the set, and its elusive tenderness evaporates into Il sorriso [The smile], a very French piece for all its Italian title, with a scurrying melody in 2/4 imposed over the top of a regular waltz time, and then a simply ravishing pastoral melody of complete tranqullity. Le seul amour [The only love] is simply one of the great tunes. Hahn described how it came to him whilst he was travelling on military duty in September 1915, and haunted him until he properly captured it on manuscript paper some weeks later, in October, for this radiantly glowing finale.
In January 1915, Hahn wrote Pour bercer un convalescent [For rocking the cradle of a convalescent] and dedicated it to ‘Henri Bardac, sergeant in the 306th Infantry, grievously wounded at the battle of the Aigne’, which had taken place on the Western Front in September 1914. Hahn’s suite of three pieces is simple and deeply moving: the first is a rocking accompaniment that supports a fragile melody; the second is a slow waltz, and the third, in 9/8, evokes the spirit of a carol. [The parts in the score are misleadingly marked Primo and Secondo, as if for a piano duet, but it is perfectly clear that the work can only be played with two instruments.]
The delightful Caprice mélancolique of 1897 was Hahn’s tardy response to the request from the pianist Lucien Wurmser for a two-piano work that he could play with his duo-partner Raoul Pugno. At a loss, Hahn suddenly remembered a four-bar fragment of an improvisation he had made one evening about a year earlier, at around sunset, when he was in a particularly benign frame of mind. He resolved to recreate that state of soul with a piece based upon this recollection. The piece is written in the form of a waltz-fantasy, with a contrasting central section in 4/4. [Curiously, the publication of this work printed two separate piano parts with no cues, making it an unnecessarily awkward job to rehearse. This recording was made from a new score, computer-set by the present writer for a forthcoming new edition, along with new scores of the two unpublished works on these discs: the Scherzo lent and the Levadé variations for duet.]
The Scherzo lent was written in 1891, by the teenage composer – but by then he had already written his most famous song: Si mes vers avaient des ailes [If my songs had wings], so it does not surprise us that Hahn’s harmonic and melodic style is instantly recognisable, nor that the piece is actually more of a waltz than a scherzo.
The Pièce en forme d’aria et bergerie of 1896 are a deliberate attempt to conjure up times past without resorting to pastiche. The aria is cast in an expressive line, imitated, and gently accompanied, in G minor. The note values are eventually diminished by half, in the old classical manner, and a final cadence is reached where the tempo is increased four-fold, and we are headlong into the bergerie – a very sprightly bit of shepherd’s piping, full of old-fashioned contrapuntal devices, but utterly fresh.
As Jean-Christophe Etienne has rightly remarked in his excellent notes (on the website http://reynaldo-hahn.net, and from which the present writer has benefited, and gratefully acknowledges), Reynaldo Hahn’s exquisite Berceuses form part of the grand tradition of French sets of children’s pieces for piano duet that include Bizet’s Jeux d’enfants, Fauré’s Dolly and Ravel’s Ma mère l’oye. And like them, this is more of a set of pieces about children than a work for children to play – although that, too, is possible. The pieces are all dedicated to offspring of the composer’s friends, although their names are not included in the published edition. The titles are as much a clue to the listener as is necessary in these beguiling pieces: cloudless days and Christmas Eve are effortlessly evoked; seamen’s children are represented by a charming canon where the first entry is in C minor and the imitation in E flat major; autumn evenings take us closer to the music-hall; the gentle rhythms of ‘Selfiana’ (to whose identity no clue is vouchsafed) present a canon over a constant pedal fifth; the pensive berceuse is cast for 3 hands only; and the tender one is exactly that!
As my late and great French teacher Joy Planten would have advised me back at school, ‘puerile’ and ‘puérile’ might well be described as false friends! In the title of the Variations puériles there is none of the English pejorative connotation, and the word might be better rendered as ‘child-like’, or ‘innocent’. After two bars of an attempted beginning, the 8-bar theme could scarcely be more naïve, and the variations – 12 of them – follow on, generally without pauses, gently addressing technical problems from time to time, but always in the guise of pure entertainment. And by the time the coda arrives with a return to the theme, with a touching little side-step out of the well-worn E flat major into C major, we are sorry that the piece is over so soon.
In 1882, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford published a collection of Fifty Irish Melodies, in which traditional tunes were given words by Alfred Perceval Graves, and the music was newly set for voice and piano by Stanford. The whole enterprise was reverently dedicated to Johannes Brahms. Reynaldo Hahn used three of these pieces as the basis for his winsome Trois Préludes. Stanford’s name is not mentioned in the Hahn publication, but a great deal of his musical setting is present, especially in the first and second numbers. Hahn doubles the note values in the third, where he rather branches out on his own in the transcription. The second song, at least, was far too well-known in Stanford’s version not to have rung the odd bell, but the original Boosey & Hawkes edition bears no copyright markings, so one presumes that Hahn intended no wrongdoing. No harm done, and these arrangements are very attractive.
It is a pity that we know so little of the provenance of the Levadé Variations of 1892; until now, the piece has remained in manuscript. Charles-Gaston Levadé (1869-1948) was a composer, principally of operas, and a friend of Reynaldo Hahn, for whom he wrote this very unusual theme – not really a melody at all, but a series of broken 7th chords, enunciated in octaves. The variations – very easy to follow – are rather like a set of characteristic pieces, and do not always slavishly follow the structure or outline of the theme. The first variation is marked ‘Introduction’ and is marked at the end ‘Tuesday evening, 15 Nov. on returning from the dress rehearsal of Samson’ [Saint-Saëns]. For some unexplained reason, the end of the fifth variation bears the text ‘I have never felt so ill’! At the outset of the eight variation (Mouvement de valse) we read ‘the first four or five bars of this variation are by M Ch[arles] L[evadé]’. Variation IX is a miniature set of variations in itself, recapitulating elements of the theme and the first six variations. This leads into Variation X, a boisterous quadrille reminiscent of Offenbach, asking at a certain point to be played ‘avec une sonorité vulgaire du cornet à piston’ [with a vulgar cornet-like sound]. The piece ends in a mad scramble for the finish-line and, in all probability, to the nearest hostelry.
Leslie Howard, London 2015
Click here for the Italian translation