In Venice with Reynaldo Hahn

Reynaldo Hahn and Marcel Proust

An edited excerpt from a lecture I gave on Reynaldo Hahn, the French-Venezuelan composer. It opens with Marcel Proust and Reynaldo in Venice in 1900, guests of Winnaretta Singer, Princesse de Polignac.

In an endearing fit of motherly zeal, Mme Proust spent a large part of the train journey through Lombardy to Venice reading to her son: she read him the preface to Ruskin’s The Stones of Venice, which he was later to translate. The whole heady experience of this Venetian baptism was further intensified by the arrival of his lifelong friend and sometime lover, Reynaldo Hahn, who put Winnaretta’s yacht piano to good use, giving a moonlit song recital in a gondola on the Grand Canal. Since he was not to compose his Venetian song cycle, Venezia, 6 Chansons en dialecte vénitien, until 1901, it seems likely Hahn would have sung his famous setting of Verlaine’s poem, L’Heure exquise. We do not know for certain, but it is pleasing to recall Verlaine’s words, given the moonlit setting and the presence of Proust: Rêvons, c’est l’heure. / Un vaste et tendre Apaisement / Semble descendre / Du firmament / Que l’astre irise… / C’est l’heure exquise. Here is Venezia, the six Venetian songs Reynaldo composed in 1901, performed by Joyce Di Donato and Julius Drake. At the end of this post I have included a performance of La barcheta, my favourite, by Giovanni Furlanetto.

Proust and Hahn were to visit Winnaretta in Venice on several occasions in the coming years, after Edmond’s death. Winnaretta thought highly of Hahn and it is clear from her remarks that they were good friends, despite occasional disagreements about music. She notes that he had developed a certain aversion from the most advanced young composers and for many years hardly ever came to my concerts. Some years ago I met him and reproached him laughingly for this. He frowned, and in a half-laughing way replied, ‘Until my dying day I shall always hate everything you like in music’, to which I said that one cannot hate Mozart, Bach or Schubert, and that their music was always played at my concerts. ‘Yes, possibly,’ he answered, ‘but you are too fond of the va de l’avant, and I absolutely cannot stand their ideas.’ Upon which we decided to lunch together and talk over our differences of opinion. I remain very grateful to Reynaldo. I treasure his friendship, and I admire his wit.

Despite her fondness for the va de l’avant, Winnaretta certainly had a high regard for Hahn both as a composer and as a musician. She had first met him in the early 1890s at the studio of Madelaine Lemerre, a fashionable flower painter of the time who illustrated Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les jours. In those days Hahn and the pianist Edouard Risler were doing military service at Versailles. They would turn up at Lemerre’s studio parties in military uniform and perform a medley of new and old work. Winnaretta particularly admired his early compositions, works such as Etudes Latines and Le Bal chez Beatrice d’Este. She praised his singing highly – they often played and sang together in Paris and Venice – and luckily there are some excellent recordings to support her remarks, notably one in which he sings two of his own songs, including the jazzy Venetian Che Peca!, and three by Emanuel Chabrier. Winnaretta Singer:

Reynaldo not only had an exquisite voice, but sang in the perfect way composers have, which seems quite natural or untaught. No one ever thought, ‘How did he take that note – was it from the throat or from the diaphragm?’ or ‘Was that trick taught by Jean de Reszke or by Madame Marchesi or some other great teacher?’ It did not matter how the note was taken, for it was always exactly as one imagined the song should be sung, and I do not think I have ever heard anyone except Reynaldo and Dame Ethel Smyth sing in this way: a way that no one can ever forget who has heard them perform.

Reynaldo, while he never kept a formal journal, is an effective and humorous writer. His various notebook jottings are very engaging, providing a lively and impressionistic account of gatherings at the palazzo Polignac in Venice. For example, one day at a luncheon he meets Helen Vincent, Viscountess D’Abernon, who rented a floor of the Palazzo Giustinian dei Vescovi for the first two decades of the century. She was one of the great beauties of her day, “an oleander blossom”, according to Reynaldo, a “Reynolds recast by Whistler”.

Lady Helen Vincent by Sargent

There are many drawings, and a fabulous full length portrait of her, by Sargent, for whom she sat in Venice in 1904. Helen was a great diarist, and not merely a recorder of the comings and goings of visiting aristocracy. Her accounts of Venice during the First World War are vivid and disturbing. She records the air raids, and the carnage resulting from the direct hit on the Ospedale Civile, the relentless and hopeless clatter of the meagre anti-aircraft machine-gun emplacement on the roof of the Palazzo Foscari. Helen served with great distinction in the Red Cross during the war, both on the Western Front and in the Alps. Describing the artless bravery of the Italian soldiers she nursed, and their inextinguishable good spirits, she likened them to “wildflowers on Golgotha”.


At the same luncheon he encounters “the beautiful and arrogant Countess Morosini, still flushed from her imperial flirtation” with the Kaiser. Reynaldo is careful to note Anna’s somewhat flashy pretensions and the unfavourable impression they made on at least one visitor: “She is presented to the Grand Duke Paul: she holds out two fingers. Once, at the Vapore, where I dined with him, the Grand Duke said to me: ‘How familiar she is!'”

Anna Morosini – “familiar”.

On another occasion Reynaldo dines at the palace with the marquis de Ségur and his daughter, the Comtesse de Guerne, along with Olga and Adolf de Meyer and Prince Livio Borghese. Claude Phillips, the English art historian, arrives “teetering in on his too-narrow shoes”, “varnished and perfumed like an old tart”, and the marquis de Ségur mistakes him for the comic actor, Claude Cooper. After dinner the guests spent two hours around the piano, running through “one hundred Italian operas, singing and playing all the roles. I was stunned by our memory.” This must have been a memorable evening, since Comtesse Marie- Thérèse de Guerne was one of the finest amateur lyric sopranos of her day. She was greatly loved by Fauré, whose Clair de Lune was to become a set piece in her repertoire. Edmond de Polignac wrote Chant à la lune for her, an intense vocal and orchestral setting of an excerpt from Flaubert’s novel Salammbô, an erotic and colourful account of the mythical Carthaginian princess. As to her looks, Marie-Thérèse was a striking woman. Though no classic beauty like Helen Vincent or Anna Morosini, she had a beckoning sultriness fully in harmony with the spirit of Salammbô. While her rather nervy formal portrait by Ernest Hebert does her little justice, there is an intriguing painting by him in which we see her in a woodland setting, playing a Celtic harp. She wears silky décolleté frock, à la Emma Hamilton; the wooden harp is stained a rich shade of lapis lazuli and decorated with golden daisies; the painter makes much of Marie-Thérèse’s deep, dark eyes, her cascading hair and her full, voluptuous lips.

Marie-Thérèse – Celtic décolleté.

As to her voice, Proust celebrated it in a long paean published in Le Figaro. “Hers is probably the unique example of a voice without physical essence – a voice not merely pure, but so spiritualized that it seems to be some kind of natural harmony, begging comparison not to the sighs of a flute, but to a reed in the wind…”.

On the third and final occasion he recorded, Reynaldo spends “six hours and a half” at the palace, where he encounters the Catalan-French pianist, Blanche Selva, “enormous and dressed as a shepherdess”, playing “Bach’s Chromatic Fantasia, whose strange (and despite its author, ‘oriental’) beginning, has a sombre beauty. The fugue that follows leaves me cold, as cold as the fugue itself, despite the efforts she makes dramatize it.” After Selva’s account of the fugue, Reynaldo and Winnaretta find time for a little camp, gossip-columnish small-talk: “Having found a scorpion in her bathtub this morning, Princess Winnie is thinking of selling her palace and retiring to Scotland.

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