Portraits de Peintres: An eclectic collaboration

January 27, 2020
Ray Heigemeir
Reynaldo Hahn

Reynaldo Hahn. Portraits de Peintres

Memorial Library of Music, MLM 454

Guest blogger: Munir Gur

The gateway to most coveted elite circles during the so-called Belle Époque was gatherings called salons, where painters, writers and musicians exchanged ideas on the arts and enjoyed readings of literature and performances of music.Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was undoubtedly the most meticulous narrator of intricate inner workings of the Parisian elite in his magnum opus, À la recherche du temps perdu. He frequented elite salons hosted by the most influential figures of his era and drew an exhaustive portrait of the French upper bourgeoisie and aristocracy. Portraits de peintres was born out of the initial spark that led to a life-long relationship between Marcel Proust and Reynaldo Hahn, the seeds of which were planted in a salon hosted by the painter Madeleine Lemaire (1845-1928). 

Venezuelan-born French musician Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) was first and foremost a composer of sweet melodies. He was only 14 years old when he composed “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” to a poem by Victor Hugo, which is still a popular tune. His exceptional talent for songwriting secured him a central place in the salons of the Belle Époque, along with the admiration of literary giants such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Alphonse Daudet.

Title page of Hahn's Portraits de Peintres

It must not have been long after the young artists met on 22 May 1894[i] in Lemaire’s salon that Proust asked Hahn to compose music to be published along with his poems Portraits de peintres in his first book Les plaisirs et les jours (Paris: Calmann-Lévy, 1896), since Hahn signed his autograph as “Spring of 1894.” Proust wrote the poems that depict four painters, namely Antoine Watteau, Albert Cuyp, Paulus Potter and Anthony Van Dyck, between 1889 and 1895. The latest poem of the four is most probably Antoine Watteau, which he wrote in May-June of 1894,[ii] showing that Reynaldo Hahn’s music written to accompany the poem might actually predate Proust’s poem on Watteau. Philip Kolb writes in the commentary to Proust's mother's letter to her son dated 25 August 1895 that “Hahn had just composed the music for Proust’s poem about Watteau, in the ‘Portraits de Peintres’ series, while he and Proust were staying with Mme Lemaire at Dieppe.”[iii] According to an article dated 25 August 1895 in the French daily newspaper Le Gaulois, Hahn and Proust were indeed Lemaire’s guests. But the first reading of Proust’s poems alongside Hahn’s music took place on 28 May 1895 at Lemaire’s house, and Hahn’s friend from the conservatory, Eduard Risler, played the piano, while the actor Charles Le Bargy recited the poems[iv] at a salon which predates Hahn’s and Proust’s sojourn at Lemaire’s. Another possibility is that Hahn’s signature “Spring of 1894” might refer to the date the artists had met for the first time in Lemaire’s house on 22 May 1894, or the commencement of Hahn’s compositional process. 

The issue of dedication in Portraits is equally complicated. The frontpage of Hahn’s published score (Heugel et Cie, 1896) shows two dedicatees, the first is Madeleine Lemaire and the second is José-Maria de Heredia who is a writer and a member of the Académie Française whom Proust admired. In a letter to Heredia’s daughter, Proust mentions his intention to dedicate his poems to his father, but in Les plaisirs et les jours, he is not mentioned as a dedicatee. It is possible that Proust might have had asked Hahn to include Heredia’s name in the publication of the score. Hahn, on the other hand, implied in a letter to his friend Eduardo Risler that even though he had to dedicate his music to Lemaire, he wanted to dedicate it to Risler, who traveled almost a hundred kilometers from Chartres to Paris and took time off from his military service in order to perform Portraits de peintres’ premiere in Lemaire’s house.[v]. In the autograph, the only dedicatee mentioned is Lemaire.

Published title page of Hahn's Portraits de Peintres

Proust wanted his first book to be a total aesthetic experience. It included Lemaire’s illustrations and sketches and Proust’s collection of short stories and poems along with Hahn’s handwritten score. The fact that the score was reproduced in manuscript form shows that Proust wanted it to be an aesthetic object in itself. In the autograph that we have in the Stanford Green Library Special Collections, we can see Hahn’s effort to perfect his calligraphy in the title of the piece on Paulus Potter. We can speculate that Proust crafted his book to be a synthesis of arts in a Wagnerian sense, as scholars interpreted Recherche as such.[vi] The book definitely intends to appeal to the eye and the ear along with the mind, but Proust’s decision to include Lemaire’s illustrations and Hahn’s score is not only an aesthetically driven one; it has a lot to do with the young writer’s insecurity. In a letter to his friend Robert de Billy, Proust states that he decided to publish his short pieces in spite of their mediocrity because Madeleine Lemaire has agreed to illustrate the book.[vii] According to Proust, “the elite” would want to have the book just for the illustrations. Anatole France’s laudatory preface for the book was equally important for Proust as proof of support from an already established and powerful writer. Reynaldo Hahn’s score is yet another contribution that empowers the book. Even though Hahn was three years younger than Proust, he was already a respected composer, and his fame at the time exceeded Proust’s.

Hahn's manuscripts

Time has separated the composition Portraits de peintres and the poemsthe majority of the recordings of Hahn’s Portraits do not include the recitation of Proust’s poems, and later editions of Les plaisirs et les jours omitted Hahn’s score. The first editions of Hahn’s published score, his autograph and Proust’s Les plaisirs et les jours can all be found in Green Library Special Collections at Stanford, waiting to be experienced together as the young artists imagined them to be heard. 

Munir Gur is in the doctoral program in musicology. His main academic interest lies in the examination of sonic representations revolving around ideological symbolisms.


[i] Marcel Proust, Correspondence, ed. Philip Kolb, (Paris: Plon, 1970), 76. 

[ii] Ibid., 75. 

[iii] Marcel Proust, Selected Letters 1880-1903, ed. Philip Kolb, (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1983), 99.

[iv] Philip Blay, Jean-Christophe Branger and Luc Fraisse. Marcel Proust et Reynaldo Hahn: une création à quatre mains (Paris: Classique Garnier, 2018), 47.

[v] Ibid., 48.

[vi] See Emile Bedriomo, Proust, Wagner et la coïncidence des arts (Paris: Editions Jean-Michel Place, 1984), 57-64.

[vii] Marcel Proust, Selected Letters 1880-1903, ed.Philip Kolb (New York: Doubleday & Company, 1983), 61-62.