Reynaldo Hahn sat down at the piano", wrote Edmond de
Goncourt in the last volume of his celebrated Journal,
"and played music that he had composed himself for three or
four of Verlaine's pieces. They are real poetic gems, a literary
music in the mould of Rollinat, but more delicate, more
distinguished, more masterful than that of the poet from
Goncourt wrote these words after leaving a dinner party at the home of Alphonse Daudet, Alphonse Daudet who called Reynaldo Hahn "his dear musician of preference" and who asked this young man, then still almost a child, to write the stage music for L'Obstacle. This was Reynaldo Hahn's theatrical debut, and also the start of the great admiration that all the most refined artists of our era have always felt for his music. We are all familiar with the beautiful study that Stephane Mallarmé dedicated to him, the lines that Pierre Loti dedicated to him, as well as the couplet by Mallarmé in which "Reynaldo" is rhymed with "jet d'eau", and Anatole France's predilection for his works. But is not Reynaldo Hahn also a writer of real merit? Édouard Risler considered his musical criticism the equal of Berlioz and Reyer, and when Catulle Mendèz, Wagner's commentator and friend, died, were not all voices raised in unison to declare Reynaldo Hahn his successor as critic in Journal, which he presently exercises with infinite taste, authority and brilliance.
If Reynaldo Hahn excites great admiration among artists, perhaps he has met with greater resistance from that class which is so useful, so powerful, but rather more fervent than forward-looking, and which has taken on considerable importance and proportion these days, which styles itself "amateurs", but which we may not be too severe by describing as "snobs".
The truth is that, in any given period, so-called "advanced" amateurs have never been able to conceive of avant-garde Art other than in the context of accomplishments brought to the fore by the most recent revolution in technique. To take an example from outside the sphere of music, all the "advanced" amateurs of Ingres' day sincerely believed that Ingres was a "conventionalist" and "old fashioned" and much preferred the mediocre students of Delacroix, who they imagined to be more "advanced" because they followed the mannerisms then in fashion. If one speaks to M. Degas today, who is probably just as "advanced" as the said amateurs, about the poor students of Delacroix, he will shrug his shoulders, whereas he proclaims Ingres one of the greatest painters of all time. I do not mean to say that a great artist, just because he appears to stand in reaction to current convention, is thereby greater because of that. But it is wrong to think that he is necessarily less great. Stendhal, at the height of Romanticism, said that he took his style from the civil statute book, and scoffed at romantic lyricism. Today we place him just as high as the great romantics. Thus we can demonstrate to them that an apparent affectation of reaction against certain modern formulae, as in the case of Reynaldo Hahn, can prevail. In reality, no true musician is deceived by it.
Reynaldo Hahn began to compose at a very early age. After the music for L'Obstacle which we mentioned earlier, his real theatrical debut was L'Ile de rêve at the Opéra-Comique. This was in a period of lyrical effusion, poetry and charm, marked by the great success of his Chansons grises. Without doubt his style was becoming tougher, deeper and more objectivized. But even when a work has become more powerful, who can prevent themselves from occasionally looking back with regret at the simpler productions from early youth which still retain the perfume of flowers so quickly wilted and that we will never find again? Certainly Le Lys rouge is a superior book to Livre de mon ami, La Légende des siècles to Feuilles d'automne, Les Éblouissements to Coeur innombrable; but do we not come back to them sometimes to seek from them a more naive spontaneity, an inimitable tone, the irretrievable sweetness of a first promise or a first confession?
But everything links together in the life of an artist, following the implacable logic of his interior evolution. Already in Reynaldo Hahn is the tendency to renounce all the graces and "fluencies" that he sacrifices, like charming and chosen victims, on the altar of a more severe Divinity: Truth. Not Realism, that parody of truth in which "neo-Italianism" manages to suppress any true, profound reality, but an inner, psychological truth. His music is not the song described by Victor Hugo "in which no humanity remains". It is nothing less than the very life of the soul, the internal substance of language, liberated, risen up, taken wing and become music. It is by dint of his respect for words than he surpasses them, it is through his submission to them that he bends them to a higher truth than any they contain in germ, but out of which music alone can unfold "virtualities". It is through contact with the very text that he takes the strength to raise himself above them, like aviators who run along the ground before taking to their wings, so as to take to the air both higher and more effectively. While the Muses of Sweetness and Truth guide Reynaldo Hahn through his melodic work by the most difficult and the most beautiful paths, while he succeeds in producing, in the words of Verlaine,
All that which comprises
The human word of grace and love,
his dramatic work follows the same evolution.
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