MARCH 2019 | Clara Rodríguez in Conversation with Ray PicotMARCH 2019 | Clara Rodríguez in Conversation with Ray Picot
A Venezuelan in Paris: Introducing the Music of Reynaldo Hahn
Clara Rodríguez is one of the most distinguished international artists of her generation, and is often referred to as an ambassador of the piano music of Latin America. She gave her debut in Caracas when 16, and came to London the following year to study at the Royal College of Music. She has a highly successful career as a concert artist, and receives consistent critical plaudits for her recordings. In her recitals, Clara prefers to contrast music by traditional classical artists with works from South America. This is what she chose to do in her concert ‘Histoires D’Amour’ last December, which comprised readings, instrumental and chamber music, with stunning visual backdrop, commemorating those lost in the Great War.
RP: Your concert in December at the Purcell room gave us a rare opportunity to experience live, the music of the Venezuelan composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). He’s better known in France than here - could you tell me something about his background?
CR: Reynaldo Hahn was an important character of French-Parisian society in his time. He was highly regarded as a singer, conductor, composer, pianist and writer. Born in Caracas in what I imagined must have been a wonderful place, full of exotic plants and trees, in an area called El Paraíso (by the way, my maternal family and I also lived all our lives there, years later when it became an urban area). His father was passionate about botanical science, and was also an engineer who settled in Caracas, for about 30 years. Carlos Hahn built, amongst other works, the Opera Theatre of Caracas. He was a highly successful business man; he created an empire that included the telegraph and railway lines, and he amassed a fortune in Venezuela. Reynaldo's mother belonged to the elite of the Venezuelan bourgeoisie, Elena María Echenagucia (Venezuela, 1831-Paris, 1912) and was a very cultured lady. The couple had 12 children out of which only 9 survived; Reynaldo was the youngest. Venezuela has been an important place for some people to become wealthy, most possibly at the expense of the less-privileged, where politics and businesses mix constantly. Carlos Hahn's main contact in Venezuela was President Guzmán Blanco, a man who had a passion for French culture, and actually governed from there up to a coup that ousted him; at that moment Carlos Hahn decided to move to Europe with his family. They settled in the fashionable quarter of the 8th arrondissement, between the Champs-Élysées and the Boulevard Haussmann.
RP: I understand the young Reynaldo was a child prodigy and was extraordinarily admitted to the Paris Conservatoire when he was young. Can you tell me something about his musical education and how it affected his development of his compositional style?
CR: At 8 years of age he had an Italian piano teacher who taught him to write music, so immediately he started writing down on paper what he had in his mind. In this way he composed a number of waltzes, including one dedicated to his 'Dear parents' in which we can already hear the elegance of his melodies. At 6 he made his debut in the salon of Napoleon's niece, Princess Mathilde. At 10 he was accepted at the Paris Conservatoire where he studied under Émile Decombes, a pupil of Chopin and under Antoine Marmontel. He was a very good pianist and won medals in competitions. He was also a pupil of Lucien Granjany, Albert Lavignac, Theodore Dubois, Charles Gounod and in 1897, Jules Massenet. The young Hahn was very interested in operetta and benefitted from his lessons with Gounod and Massenet, as composition teachers. In fact Hahn became a staunch defender of Massenet particularly when he received criticism over apparent stylistic similarities.
RP: From what I’ve heard of Hahn's piano music and songs, for which he’s principally known, there is little trace of his Latin American origins, certainly after his teenage years. He seems to have absorbed French culture wholeheartedly and in particularly the elegance and lyricism of Massenet and Faure, and achieved considerable popularity with it too. How did he respond to Wagner’s music which seemed to have polarised French musicians in his time?
CR: You are right in saying that he embraced French culture and elevated it to the highest levels. He was an avid reader of literature, met with and was friends, from a young age, with the most famous and admired writers of his time, of which there were quite a large number. To name but a few: Emile Zola, Stephane Mallarmé, Pierre Loti, Alphonse Daudet and Paul Verlaine, by whom Hahn set verses in his Chansons grises. He also wrote essays, hundreds of letters and he lectured; he even wrote books, including one on the art of singing and another on his travels.
In relation to Wagner: at 23 Hahn started working as a music critic, an activity that he maintained practically until his death, for the following newspapers: La Flèche, Excelsior, La Presse, Le Journal, L'Echo de Paris and Le Figaro. He covered the most important events in Paris including the première of Wagner's Parsifal in 1914. In this respect, it is amazing to see the generous qualities of Hahn when he analyses the works of his peers. He is extremely logical and has a deep appreciation of the art of composing and singing when reviewing opera, for instance. His approach to Wagner is perhaps different from the usual one as he sees human qualities in the German master's subjects, he glances at the libretti with a more earthly look. Hahn was a great admirer of Wagner. His favourite opera seems to have been Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Wagner's most 'rational' opera according to the critics. Wagner is an immense pillar of the operatic world and Hahn himself was so involved with this genre of music that he could not have obviated or hated it. I don't think that Hahn could have been superficial about any of the great music or musicians of his time. At least all that I have read about him tells a story of someone who is highly cultured. I even hear tiny bits of Wagner's harmonies and atmosphere in much of his music!
If we are going to mention his lineage, his father was a German-born music and opera lover and Reynaldo, a Venezuelan by birth, had in his blood all the ancestry typical from both cultures. He adopted France as his country because the family could afford to live very comfortably there, plus the advantage of being in the centre of the rich cultural hub Paris was at that time; but we cannot take away from him his home-culture, he spoke Venezuelan Spanish, and ate Venezuelan food at home. He was raised in tropical Caracas for the first 5 years of his life listening to his brothers and sisters talk and sing, and surely to its music: every nanny, auntie or grandma in Venezuela sings many songs to babies. His humour was piquant and his smile was broad like that of the people that are born near the Caribbean Sea. He was heard saying that he preferred Pot au feu (a peasant type of soup) to the sophisticated French diet. Venezuelan music has all the ingredients of the European, even in popular music. Take, for instance, the melodious waltzes, or the joropos (with their Spanish Golden-Age influence). So the idiom is European, essentially. Hahn's music is very lyrical, and nevertheless I find parallels with the typical Venezuelan waltzes and even a sort of danza aragüeña in the rhythm of the last of his Valses. Of course as an intellectual, he was more interested in other types of music and their construction and not necessarily in folk music.
RP: I gather Hahn was well known as a pianist and conductor, with a particular penchant for the music of Mozart. Do you think the music of the classical past was somehow bound up in the development of his style? Do you think, like Debussy and Ravel, he was inspired by specific past styles and forms? Do you think the classical spirit and temperament of Mozart found its way into Hahn’s operas? I gather he wrote an operetta called Mozart in 1925, if one was ever to doubt his devotion to the master (perhaps equalled to his devotion to his teacher Massenet).
CR: He was an all-round musician, who knew all the styles. He was a student at the Paris Conservatoire from the age of 10 and had the best teachers there. I find that his music has to be performed with the cleanness and the clarity needed to perform Mozart, although Hahn's mood does not easily reach Mozart's effervescence. He was invited to conduct Don Giovanni in the Salzburg Festival in 1906, then in Paris he conducted The Magic Flute in 1922 at the Garnier Palace as well as The Marriage of Figaro and The Abduction from the Seraglio.
RP: If Hahn’s musical style was rooted in the past, he was no neo-classicist, and he was writing some of his best-known work at the time that Debussy and Ravel were active; though he knew them, he seems not to have been affected directly by their strong musical characters.
CR: Exactly. He understood their compositional styles and was complimentary of their achievements, including writing a lovely critique of L'heure espagnole by Ravel, but Hahn was not them; he was different. He chose to stay in the late Romantic period, he was conservative and did not care much if the actual trend of composition was not his own. Nonetheless, he had a lot of success with the public during his lifetime. He was not a pioneer composer searching for a new idiom. I think his interest tended to be more intellectual, his interests stretched towards history, painting, literature and the art of singing. Let's remember that Hahn was very much appreciated as a composer from the age of 14 in Paris when he composed his 'hit' song Si mes vers avaient des ailes that is to this day sung in recitals worldwide, and his operettas were constantly performed in Paris. He belonged to the elite of the salons of Paris during the Belle Epoque era, since he was 6 years of age, as he used to play the piano in concerts; he was a star of the salons, he was a friend of Sarah Bernhardt, people loved him, they found him attractive and entertaining. His operetta Ciboulette (1923) enjoyed immense success all over France too.
RP: You mentioned his critique of L'heure espagnole, and there’s another connection with Ravel, isn’t there, since they were both called up after war was declared. How did the horrors of war affect his compositional style and choice of poems to set?
CR: In 1909, Reynaldo Hahn took French nationality, and at the outbreak of World War I chose to enlist in the French army even though he was then in his forties and an established composer. While at the front he composed a song cycle based on poems by Robert Louis Stevenson and he was in charge of conducting an orchestra. I think that the war affected everybody. Debussy, Ravel and Hahn did suffer a lot. Of course, Debussy didn't go to the front but Hahn was there in the trenches, there are photographs of him carrying a weapon; he had a piano in his tent too! Ravel and Hahn saw many horrors for sure. That experience must have changed their personalities and vision of life.
RP: I read that Hahn is now viewed as a ‘classicist’ - preferring clarity and reserve, perhaps even understatement - how do you think that translates to his music? He is described by many as a very refined and well-read man, so its not hard to see how he would have fitted into the extraordinary world of Belle-Epoque Paris.
CR: People in this country adore listening to his music; every time I have performed pieces by Hahn, they are much appreciated. His music is very lyrical and intimate, melodious, it is truly poetical and many times, pianistically challenging. They contrast a lot with Debussy's and Ravel's in style.
RP: Hahn was a close friend of Proust too, who was just 3 years his elder, and I wonder how the latter’s style of writing affected his choice of poets for his song settings. It was also fascinating to hear the reading on these two close friends, whose relationship must have raised a few eyebrows at the time.
CR: Reynaldo Hahn met Marcel Proust at a soirée of 'the Empress of roses', painter Madeleine Lemaire. Hahn and Proust coincided in their appreciation for literature, painting and music. They discussed dreams of collaborating in the writing of a biography of Chopin and of doing a series of musical and literary portraits of painters. Their friendship lasted until the death of Marcel Proust in 1922; his funeral was organised by Reynaldo Hahn.
Reynaldo was 18 years old and Proust still a student at the Sorbonne. They had defined vocations and they established a loving relationship that would end up becoming a deep friendship. The writer and the composer maintained a rich epistolary exchange that not only reveals details of their private lives, but reflects their artistic as well as their highly cultured and intellectual sense. The pair were the cultural beacons of their generation, but their relationship, known only to their intimate circle, was to remain secret from the public throughout their lives.
Proust once said: 'Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo.' When they both met, Hahn was a well-known musician but Proust hadn't published much yet. Marcel Proust went to all Hahn's premières and Reynaldo Hahn read all his writings before anyone else. In fact, Reynaldo Hahn used his influence to help with the publication of some of Proust's writings, and was 'all ears' in the salons where Proust was being discussed as the possible winner of different literary prizes, including the Prix Goncourt.
Reynaldo Hahn became a Proustian character; the writer recognised that Reynaldo was permanently in his novels, as 'a god in disguise that no mortal would recognise.' Proust sought his friend's musical knowledge for the description of music, in particular for the creation of 'the little phrase' of Venteuil in Proust's famous In Search of Lost Time.
RP: Listening to you play the solo piano music and chamber work of Hahn it is very clear that you strongly relate to his style and sentiments. What do you find particularly appealing about his music?
CR: It is a style I am very fond of, I love its pianistic sense, it takes one back to an era. I like the elegance as you say of the melodic lines. It is very cleverly written. I think that the French musicians are playing Hahn more and more and they consider him to be French - which would have pleased him.
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