Friday, January 13, 2012

Reynaldo Hahn

When God created Venezuela, he made such magnificent flowers, birds, fruits, trees, gold, diamonds and so on that the angel Gabriel asked the Lord if He wasn’t giving the country too much. “Have patience,” replied the Creator. “I haven’t created the Venezuelans yet.”

Composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), born in Caracas but resident of Paris from the age of three, was prone to offer this joke whenever he was asked about the country of his birth. Hahn’s family fled Venezuela in the late 1870s to avoid political turmoil, settled in Paris, and never returned to South America.

A modest revival of Hahn’s music began three decades ago, sparked by the worldwide publication in 1983 of EMI’s recording of Hahn’s 1923 operetta, “Ciboulette”. The Hahn revival has not yet abated.

In many ways, Hahn’s life was very sad.

Hahn lost his looks by his mid-30s—the photograph above was taken in 1898, when Hahn was only 24—and, as a result, he became a less attractive artifact for Paris’s salons, where he had first gained notice as a young man.

Further, the loss of his looks impacted Hahn’s search for romantic companionship. After his two-year relationship with Marcel Proust ended (a relationship already over by the time of the 1898 photograph), Hahn entered a protracted series of short-term relationships with persons who provided little or no intellectual stimulation. Such unsatisfying relationships clearly took a toll: by his early 40s, Hahn looked like an old man.

Hahn disliked most music composed after the 19th Century—yet he was acutely aware that the future belonged to Debussy and Stravinsky. Even when his own stage works achieved a moderate level of popular success in 1920s Paris, Hahn was depressed. He knew that his own music was not the best music of his time, and was only of ephemeral interest and appeal.

Hahn’s popular—and commercial—success was over by the early 1930s. Both composer and music were largely ignored by the French music establishment for the rest of Hahn’s life.

In 1940, Hahn was forced to flee Paris with the onset of the German occupation (Hahn was one-half Jewish). Already 66 years old, Hahn never expected to be able to return to The City Of Light.

The year after Paris’s liberation, Hahn—unexpectedly—was named head of the Paris Opera, the most important music post in France. Hahn’s appointment came about in large part because he was in no way tainted by whispers of collaboration, something that could not be said of most who had remained in Paris during the occupation and continued to participate in the city’s musical life. The Paris Opera appointment, the capstone of Hahn’s career, was short-lived: already in failing health, Hahn died less than two years later.

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