Thursday, 5 January 2012

L'Hahn exquise

A far less familiar figure than Saint-Saëns is the French composer Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947). Though Venezuelan-born, no one's music sounds quite so French as Hahn's. It's light, elegant and gives the impression of being unforced. He was a master of song, specifically the lyrical French variety known as mélodie - and it's his songs for which he's best known. There are some unforgettable ones, among which my own favourites are:

1. Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings). A setting of Victor Hugo by the 13 year old Reynaldo, this was an instant hit - understandably, as it has a beautiful, naturally-flowing melody for the singer and limpid writing part for the piano. A detail I particularly love - and it shows what a fine craftsman Hahn was - is the way the arpeggios in the piano part between the singer's two verses first rise by a fifth to their top note (A up to E) then unexpectedly rise by the expressive interval of a seventh (A up to G) when repeated. Such tiny things make a difference.

Mes vers fuiraient, doux et frêles,
Vers votre jardin si beau,
Si mes vers avaient des ailes,
Des ailes comme l'oiseau.

Ils voleraient, étincelles,
Vers votre foyer qui rit,
Si mes vers avaient des ailes,
Des ailes comme l'esprit.

Près de vous, purs et fidèles,
Ils accourraient, nuit et jour,
Si mes vers avaient des ailes,
Des ailes comme l'amour!

My verses would float, soft and frail, To your beautiful garden, If my verses had wings like a bird! They would fly, sparkling, To your laughing hearth, If my songs had wings like the spirit. Near to you, pure and faithful, They would rush, night and day, If my verses had wings like love!

2. A Chloris (To Chloris). This adorable song, setting the early 17th Century French poet Théophile de Viau, has a piano part which (evoking the spirit of Baroque pastoral) is pure pastiche Bach, with a walking bass (a bit like the Air on a G String) and a decorated upper line, between which slips the lovely, lyrical melody of the singer. The craftsmanship is impeccable but it's the emotional warmth of the music that makes it so special.

S'il est vrai, Chloris, que tu m'aimes,
Mais j'entends, que tu m'aimes bien,
Je ne crois point que les rois mêmes
Aient un bonheur pareil au mien.

Que la mort serait importune
De venir changer ma fortune
A la félicité des cieux!

Tout ce qu'on dit de l'ambroisie
Ne touche point ma fantaisie
Au prix des grâces de tes yeux.

If it is true, Chloris, that you love me (And I hear that you do love me), I do not believe that kings themselves Could be so happy as I. Death would be unwelcome If it came to change my fortune With the bliss of heaven! Everything they say about ambrosia Does not touch my fantasy Like the graces of your eyes.

Susan Graham (a superlative Hahn singer)
3. L'Énamourée (The enamored). Setting the Romantic poet, Théodore de Banville, this ravishing song made such an impression on me a few years ago that I keep finding myself humming the piano refrain that crowns each verse - a simple but powerfully expressive sequence packed with resolving suspended harmonies. That falling sequence must have entered my head getting on for a hundred times by now! I must have a thing about such sequences because one of its main competitors (in my head) is Mahler's rising sequence from Liebst du um schönheit (Rückert-Lieder).

Ils se disent, ma colombe,
Que tu rêves, morte encore,
Sous la pierre d'une tombe:
Mais pour l'âme qui t'adore
Tu t'éveilles ranimée,
Ô pensive bien-aimée!

Par les blanches nuits d'étoiles,
Dans la brise qui murmure,
Je caresse tes longs voiles,
Ta mouvante chevelure,
Et tes ailes demi-closes
Qui voltigent sur les roses.

Ô délices! je respire
Tes divines tresses blondes;
Ta voix pure, cette lyre,
Suit la vague sur les ondes,
Et, suave, les effleure,
Comme un cygne qui se pleure!

They say, my dove, You are dreaming, dead still, Under a tombstone: But for the soul who adores, You awaken revived, O pensive beloved! By the white nights of stars, In the breeze that whispers, I caress your long veils, Moving your hair, And your wings half-closed Which fly on roses. O delight! I breathe Your divine blond tresses; Your pure voice, that lyre, Follows the waves on the waters, And brushes them, suavely, Like a lamenting swan!

4. L'Heure exquise (The exquisite hour). Based on a poem by the great Verlaine, this is another song that shows the elegance and warmth of feeling of Hahn's art, with the piano part laying out a memorable pattern of arpeggios through which the singer's shapely line floats in rapt tranquillity, creating enchanting pools of harmony along the way. There's another wonderfully expressive rise of a seventh (from E to D sharp) on the word 'exquise'. It's a truly exquisite song.

La lune blanche 
luit dans les bois.
De chaque branche 
part une voix 
sous la ramée.
O bien aimée....

L'étang reflète,
profond miroir,
la silhouette
du saule noir
où le vent pleure.
Rêvons, c'est l'heure.

Un vaste et tendre
semble descendre
du firmament
que l'astre irise.
C'est l'heure exquise!

The white moon glows in the woods. From each branch comes a voice beneath the tree. O my beloved .... The pond reflects, like a deep mirror, the silhouette of the black willow where the wind is crying. It's time to dream. A vast and tender peace seems to descend from the sky made radiant by the star. It is the exquisite hour!

5. D'une prison (From a prison)  Such a lovely, wistful song, this one, another setting of Paul Verlaine. The bell-like chords  from the piano at the very start of the song create an atmosphere of magical serenity for the opening lines, set to another of Hahn's shapely, lyrical melodies.

Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
 Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
 Berce sa palme.

La cloche, dans le ciel qu'on voit,
 Doucement tinte.
Un oiseau sur l'arbre qu'on voit
 Chante sa plainte.

Mon Dieu, mon Dieu! la vie est là,
 Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
 Vient de la ville.

Qu'as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
 Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu'as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
 De ta jeunesse?

The sky is, above the roof,  So blue, so calm! A tree, above the roof Cradles his palm. The bell, in the sky we see, Gently tinkles. A bird, on the tree we see, Sings a plaintive song. My God, my God! life is there, Simple and easy. This peaceful rumour then Comes from the town. What have you done, O you who are Crying constantly, Say, what have you done, tell me, with your youth?

I admit I am cherry picking some of the composer's very finest songs here, but what cherries!

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