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Reynaldo Hahn - "Le Bal de Beatrice d'Este"

On our Nov. 4th Concert, UMWO will be performing Reynaldo Hahn's Le Bal de Beatrice d'Este, a chamber work scored for double flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpet, percussion, two harps and piano. The piece is a suite from his ballet of the same title. Below is an extensive program note on the composer and the piece, written by Steven Dennis Bodner for the Williams Symphonic Winds.

The music of Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) has been described as “quintessentially French,” as evoking “a Paris, indeed a way of life, forever gone and, like [Marcel] Proust’s world, retrievable only in precious moments where taste, sight, or the sound of a musical phrase provoke the memory, or even perhaps the collective unconscious.” It has by turns been both dismissed and praised for being “charming” and “nostalgic,” “sentimental” and “sensual.” Ironically, Hahn was not French by birth; although his family moved to Paris when he was only three years old; instead, he was born in Venezuela, the youngest of twelve children, to a German, Jewish father and a Venezuelan, Catholic mother. He demonstrated prodigious musical talents as a child, giving many performances in private houses, including his “professional” debut at the age of six, singing and playing the piano at the salon of the eccentric Princess Mathilde de Metternich (Napoleon’s niece). At ten he entered the Paris Conservatoire where he studied with Massenet and Gounod and was a classmate of Ravel and Charpentier, and at thirteen his first song, Si mes vers avaient des ailes, was published. Hahn’s early (and lasting) reputation was founded primarily on his mélodies, which now hold an honored place in French vocal repertoire, alongside the songs of Gabriel Fauré. At the invitation of the writer Alphonse Daudet, Hahn composed music for the play L’Obstacle in 1890, his first stage work at the age of fifteen. He wrote several operettas and ballets, specialized in conducting Mozart operas, was a leading writer on music, and was appointed in 1945 the director of the Paris Opéra.

Known as much for his charm and exotic handsomeness as for his music and intellect, Hahn was a constant presence in the salons of Paris, capturing the love and attention of high society. He counted among his friends the poets Verlaine, who was said to have wept when he heard Hahn’s settings of his verses, and Mallarmé, who praised him with the stanza:

Le pleur qui chante au langage (The tear that sings in the word)

Du poète, Reynaldo (of the poet, Reynaldo)

Hahn, tendrement le degage (Hahn gently releases)

Comme en l’allée un jet d’eau. (like a fountain on a pathway.)

In 1894, he met the aspiring writer Marcel Proust, who although three years older, was less well-known than Hahn. They were lovers for the first two years of an enduring friendship that lasted until Proust’s death in 1922. They shared a passion of painting and reading, and challenged each other regarding ideas of literature and music, of art and life; in fact, neither was ever to have another relationship with an intellectual equal. Proust praised Hahn’s music in a 1914 article for possessing “the irretrievable sweetness of a first promise or a first confession,” and included Hahn as an eponymous hero in his autobiographical novel Jean Santeuil. More touching, though, is Proust’s loving pen-portrait:

When he takes his place at the piano, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, everyone is quiet and gathers around to listen. Every note is a word or cry. His head is slightly tilted back: his mouth is melancholy and rather scornful. Thence emanates the saddest and warmest voice you can imagine. This instrument of genius, by name Reynaldo Hahn, moves our hearts, moistens our eyes, cures us one after the other in a silent and solemn undulation. Never since Schumann has music painted sorrow, tenderness, the calm induced by nature, with such brush strokes of human truth and absolute beauty.

A musical conservative who delighted in the music of the past and obsessed with musical and poetic form, Hahn achieved his biggest stage successes before the First World War with two ballets, Le Bal de Béatrice d'Este and La Fête chez Thérèse. Like his contemporary Fritz Kreisler, Hahn had a deft skill in evoking or suggesting different periods in musical history, such as eighteenth-century France, England in the Regency period, Mozart’s Vienna, and so on.

In writing the ballet Le Bal de Béatrice d'Este in Paris in 1905, but setting it in fifteenth-century Milan, Hahn blurs the line between Renaissance Italy and fin-desiècle France. Although the ballet does not seek to retell an actual historical occasion, the work is firmly based within a historical context. Béatrice (1475-1497) was of the Italian noble family Este who ruled Ferrara from 1240-1597 and was celebrated for significant patronage of the arts throughout the Renaissance. In 1490, she married Ludovico Sforza the Moor, Duke of Milan. During Ludovico’s reign, Milan was praised as the “new Athens”; he lavishly supported the humanities, many of the greatest artists of the day (including Leonardo da Vinci) resided in Milan to be near their patron. Béatrice, Duchess of Milan, was singularly noted for her tremendous beauty and charm, as well as for her love poetry and dancing; her grand balls were regarded highly throughout Italy. Within the framing processional and recessional, the interior movements of the suite consist of three Renaissance dances (although with a subtly more modern sensibility), a character sketch of Béatrice’s sister Isabella (“Ibérienne’), and an impression of da Vinci’s controversial painting Leda and the Swan.

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