Composer Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) came to France from Venezuela with his family at age 3. By age 10, he was a student at the Paris Conservatoire alongside Maurice Ravel. He published his first song, a setting of a poem by Victor Hugo, when he was 13. He was a child prodigy on the piano and a fine singer: even at that young age, he would often accompany himself in performances of his own songs. At 19, he met the not-yet-famous writer Marcel Proust. The two were briefly lovers, and remained close friends until Proust’s death in 1922. In his autobiographical novel Jean Santeuil, Proust described Hahn as an “instrument of genius” who “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.” Hahn remained best known for his songs, and he adhered to a conservative style of composition that prized elegant melodies and an aesthetic of beauty. He was a constant presence in the high-society salons of Paris, and was known for charm and good looks.
Hahn wrote the ballet Le bal de Beatrice d’Este in 1905. Music for winds was in vogue in Paris at the time thanks to the success of groups like Paul Taffanel’s Société de Musique de Chambre pour Instruments á Vent (Wind Instrument Chamber Music Society) and Georges Barrére’s Societé Moderne d’Instruments á Vent (Modern Wind Instrument Society), both of which were rediscovering the Harmoniemusik of Mozart and Beethoven while also commissioning new works like Gounod’s Petite Symphonie. Hahn may have been inspired by their success – he was definitely involved in a concert of the Societé Moderne in 1903. That group premiered Le bal on March 28, 1905 as part of their tenth anniversary concert.
Le bal presents an imagined evening in the court of Beatrice (1475-1497) of the House Este, a treasured princess of the Italian Renaissance. She became the Duchess of Milan in 1491 when she married Ludovico Sforza. Both were known as patrons of the arts and humanities: Leonardo Da Vinci completed his Last Supper under their patronage. They were also known for hosting fine balls. Hahn’s composition is in seven movements, scored for 2 flutes, oboe, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 2 horns, percussion, 2 harps, and piano. It opens with the fanfare, Entrée pour Ludovic le More, or Ludovico’s entrance music. Three of the inner movements are Renaissance dances (Lesquercade, Romanesque, Courante) interspersed with a portrait of Beatrice’s sister Isabella (Iberienne), and a musical impression of a Da Vinci painting (Léda et l’Oiseau). The Salut Final au Duc de Milan puts a regal bookend on the piece.
This playlist contains a full performance of the piece, one movement at a time, by Harmonie Ensemble/New York:
Now some context. Those dances in the interior movements are intended to be legitimate Renaissance dance styles. The Lesquercade as a dance appears to have been lost from our collective memory. The Romanesque is even harder to find specific information on. That leaves just the Courante. Alas, Hahn wrote his Courante in duple meter (cut time), but it was a triple meter dance. So, instead of getting specific, here is a video with a whole range of Renaissance dances. It starts with an introduction in Dutch, but the dances really get going around the 1:00 mark:
Bonus: Hahn’s first published song, “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” (If my verses had wings)
Le bal de Beatrice d’Este links: nice program note at the University of Maryland Wind Orchestra, information page related to this doctoral dissertation by Jared Chase, who created new critical edition of the piece.