The offertory piece this week is, “L’heure exquise,” by Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947), a Venezuelan-born composer who was raised in France due to his family’s need to escape political tensions. Hahn was a fascinating person who moved in some of the best musical and literary circles of his day, not in the least due to his romantic relationship with Marcel Proust (1871-1922), who shared his admiration for the music of Gabriel Fauré (1845-1924). Proust once wrote, “Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo.” Today, however, Hahn is remembered mostly for his art songs. Drawn to poets like Victor Hugo (1802-1885), Paul Verlaine (1844-1896), and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Hahn composed song cycles using their poetry. It is said that Verlaine wept when he heard Hahn’s musical settings of his poems, and it is one of these settings that we will hear on Sunday.
Any composer wanting to write an art song must have lyrics. An art song is a marriage of the written word, the sung word, and musical accompaniment that can, at once, become a stage, a background, a commentator, even an actor. For Hahn, Paul Verlaine’s poem, “L’heure exquise,” was the inspiration for a stunning piece of music.
“The silver moonlight
Glows in the wood;
And from each branch
Sounds a voice
Through leafy sprays...
The pool a deep,
The black willow
Where moans the wind...
It is time to dream.
A vast and tender
Sense of calm
Seems to descend
From the starry skies
O, wondrous hour! “
- tr. David Paley (b. 1942)
Paul Verlaine was a symbolist poet of the fin de siècle (end of the 19th century) period of French poetry. In his works, Verlaine uses words to create feelings or moods rather than to give specific ideas or direction to the reader. His work is considered to be secular, but I believe that it can relate to us on Sunday morning. Just as the Song of Songs uses romantic images, I think Verlaine’s poem can refer to the exquisite beauty of the Divine, Holy Communion, of our relationship with God and with each other. The exquisite hour could be the morning service, or it could be a quiet hour of prayer or meditation. Perhaps, this hour could be a time in which love is felt or in which, “a vast and tender sense of calm seems to descend.” Perhaps it is when we hear the still, small voice.
During communion, Linda Grill will sing a piece by Gabriel Fauré (you may remember how much Hahn admired him) that sets a deeply religious text by Stéphane Bordèse (1847-1919). In this text, the speaker is Christ, praying to God as a child speaks to its father. As an art song, this piece was not meant for church, but it is incredibly poignant for us.
“As the voice of a child can reach You,
O my Father,
Hear my prayer, on bended knee before You!
As You have chosen me to teach Your
laws on earth,
I will know how to serve You, noble
King of kings, O Light!
On my lips, Lord, place the salutary
In order that he who doubts should with
Humility revere You!
Do not abandon me, give me the
To ease suffering, to relieve sorrow,
Reveal Yourself to me, my Father, in whom I
trust and hope:
For You I wish to suffer and to die on
The cross, at Calvary!”