Reynaldo Hahn: A Composer During the Belle Epoque

Reynaldo Hahn: A Composer During the Belle Epoque
A popular destination during the Belle Epoque was the Folies Bergère cabaret; the grand foyer is shown here. (HRNet Folies Bergère/CC BY-SA 3.0)
Ariane Triebswetter

As the concept of nation-states emerged in 19th and 20th century Europe, many composers affirmed their national identity through music and started to define themselves in terms of nationality, style, or genre, forming national schools of music. The French school became one of the most productive, with notable composers such as Reynaldo Hahn.

While not as famous as Claude Debussy or Gabriel Fauré, Hahn led a rich artistic life and greatly contributed to French classical music. Although most remembered today for his art songs (short pieces for piano and voice in classical music, and known as “mélodies” in French), he composed many other works, each representing the essence of the Belle Epoque.

The Belle Époque (meaning “beautiful age” in French) was a time period in France from 1871 to 1914. It was characterized by a sentiment of nostalgia, peace, joy, and hope in Europe after the wars in the 19th century. It was also a period of significant artistic development in music, literature, architecture, and painting.

Reynaldo Hahn’s music perfectly represents this period, as it is both light-hearted—after the wars, people needed lightness—and elegant, and was often played in Parisian cultural salons.

An Emigrant to France

Born in Venezuela in 1874, Hahn came to Paris as a young child, where he would remain for most of his life. He displayed musical talent from a young age and had his debut at age 6 at a musical soirée hosted by Princess Mathilde, the niece of Napoleon I.

At age 11, he began taking composition lessons at the renowned Paris Conservatoire, where he was a student of the famous Romantic composer Jules Massenet, whom he would remain close friends with. Over the years, he had other renowned composition teachers such as Charles Gounod, Maurice Ravel, Alfred Cortot, and Camille Saint-Saëns, who would influence his work.

Reynaldo Hahn, 1906. Manuel Cohen, Agence France-Presse. (PD-US)
Reynaldo Hahn, 1906. Manuel Cohen, Agence France-Presse. (PD-US)
After leaving the Conservatoire, the Venezuelan-born French composer wrote his first opera in 1898, “The Dream Island” (L’île du rêve”), and dedicated it to Massenet. Hahn didn’t limit himself to this genre and composed stage music, ballets, operettas, and instrumental music. In 1923, he became famous with his operetta, “Ciboulette,” as well as his 1925 musical comedy “Mozart.”
The Belle Époque composer also worked as a music critic, singer, conductor, and teacher. In 1945, Hahn became the director of the Paris Opera; he passed away shortly after in 1947.

Operetta ’Ciboulette’

French society clamored for lighter fare after World War I. “Ciboulette” is one of Reynaldo Hahn’s most famous operettas, a lighter form of comic opera with spoken dialogue.
The operetta starts in a cabaret in 1867, where officers celebrate the promotion of Captain Roger de Lansquenet. They note the absence of his mistress, Zénobie de Guernesey. The captain explains that on odd days she visits her other lover, Viscount Antonin de Mourmelon, a young millionaire. Zénobie and Antonin arrive, along with Duparquet, the controller of the Halles market. Zénobie sends Antonin away to fetch a coat for her dog, and she and Roger reunite. Seeing them together, Antonin leaves to drown his sorrows in liquor.
A scene from the operetta "Ciboulette, composed by Reynaldo Hahn. (PD-US)
A scene from the operetta "Ciboulette, composed by Reynaldo Hahn. (PD-US)

In the Halles market, Ciboulette, a young farm girl, meets a fortuneteller who promises her love, glory, and riches. She also tells Ciboulette that she will marry a man who she finds under a cabbage, whom she will take away from a woman who turns white. A few moments later, Ciboulette meets Antonin. They like each other, but since they come from different worlds, they decide to leave each other. Drunk, Antonin falls asleep in Ciboulette’s cabbage cart.

Ciboulette returns home with Duparquet (and with the passenger in her cart) to her farm in Aubervilliers, where she is forced to choose a husband this very day. At this moment, Antonin emerges from the cabbages in her cart, fulfilling the first prophecy. Antonin agrees to pretend to be Ciboulette’s fiancé, but is still in love with Zénobie, who also appears. Jealous of Zénobie, Ciboulette throws flour at her, covering her in white, thus fulfilling the second prophecy. Zénobie leaves and Antonin goes after her.

Ciboulette decides to become famous so she can win Antonin’s love back. She transforms into Conchita Ciboulero, a Spanish singer and is introduced to Parisian society, where she becomes a star. Antonin, oblivious of her true identity, is dazzled by her, but when she asks him to sign a letter renouncing his feelings for Ciboulette, he refuses. Ciboulette reveals her true identity, and nothing stands in the way of the two lovers anymore.

Jules Massenet in his later years, by Henri Manuel. Published in "Musical Memories" by Camille Saint-Saëns, in 1919. (Public Domain)
Jules Massenet in his later years, by Henri Manuel. Published in "Musical Memories" by Camille Saint-Saëns, in 1919. (Public Domain)
This comical operetta is a masterpiece of the Parisian operetta, referencing famous operatic works such as “Manon” by Massenet and “Carmen” by Gounod. It is also a delightful  work, combining the Parisian spirit of the time with the refinement of Mozart’s music and the spirit of Offenbach’s operettas.

Elegant Art Songs

While “Ciboulette” and Hahn’s other operatic works represent the carefree nature of the Belle Époque, his French art songs represent the elegance of this period and showcase the composer’s artistry.

Reynaldo Hahn composed over 100 mélodies in his lifetime, setting some of the most beautiful French poetry of his time to music. His most notable song cycle is “Chansons Grises” (1890), a set of seven songs, composed to poetry by Paul Verlaine, when he was only 16. Hahn regularly visited Parisian salons, where he sang his compositions, and met prominent artistic figures of the time, such as his lifelong friend Marcel Proust.

Each of Hahn’s songs is incredibly beautiful and moving, but “The Exquisite Hour” (“L’Heure Exquise”) is one of his most famous. This song speaks of the “exquisite hour” where night falls and all becomes peaceful. It is a serene song, where the simplicity of the music complements the sublime vocal line that perfectly captures the essence of words by Verlaine.

Cover of 1895 collection of Hahn's songs. (PD-US)
Cover of 1895 collection of Hahn's songs. (PD-US)

Not only are Hahn’s art songs able to capture a specific mood, but they are also distinctly French in their composition. Rather than being dramatic or effusive, they are elegant and restrained, filled with nuance and subtlety. In Hahn’s songs, words matter more than sound, and emotion matters more than technique. Hahn himself believed that artistic sensibility topped virtuosity.

In their deep intimacy, Reynaldo Hahn’s songs were also perfect to be performed in French salons, where the brightest minds met to present and discuss their latest artistic creations.

Hahn deeply contributed to French music and culture, depicting an incredible range of emotions through his simple and elegant music. To this day, his art songs remain a staple in the classical repertoire.

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Ariane Triebswetter is an international freelance journalist, with a background in modern literature and classical music.
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