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One Stone to the Building: Henriette Renié's Life Through Her Works for Harp

One Stone to the Building: Henriette Renié's Life Through Her Works for Harp

by Jaymee Haefner


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“Do you love the harp?” The French harpist Henriette Renié (1875–1956) asked this question of each student, and it remained her ideal throughout her life. This book explores the circumstances which surrounded the beginning of Henriette Renié’s career was a masterful harpist and composer. Through her celebrated performances of her Concerto en ut mineur, she gained acclaim simultaneously as a virtuosic performer and composer. In the wake of her success, several new masterpieces by respected composers appeared, including Pierné’s Concertstück and Ravel’s Introduction et Allegro. The elements of Renie’s virtuosity are traced through her famous Légende, and her less-known Deux promenades matinales. Her compositional style is explored through her Scherzo-Fantaisie for harp and violin and her Concerto en ut mineur. As a teacher, Renié’s influence echoed throughout the world. Her profound influence has been evident through the vision of her own students, including Susann McDonald, Marcel Grandjany, Mildred Dilling, Odette Le Dentu, Odette de Montesquiou, Bertile Fournier, Emmy Hürlimann, Bertile Robet Auffray, and Marie Astrid D’Auffray. The crystallization of Renié’s teaching practice is described through her Méthode complète de harpe (Complete Method for Harp) and her twelve volumes of harp transcriptions, Les classiques de la harpe. The amount of literature about Renié’s life and work is disproportionate to the deep imprint she made upon the harp’s history and repertoire. This book is a start to further recognizing her vast importance to the establishment of the harp.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781524685133
Publisher: AuthorHouse
Publication date: 06/08/2017
Pages: 222
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.51(d)

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I am far from changing all the opinions of the past, although modern music has need of a special technique which is more extensive and more "supple" in order to adapt it. I do not pretend to give the final decisive word in the instruction of the harp. Others will probably come after me to add their one stone to the building. I only hope that my long experience will be an aid to them and a new point of departure.

— Henriette Renié

Virtuoso, Composer, Teacher. Henriette Renié achieved the epitome of artistry in each of these arenas, not only in the eyes of her students and family, but to the acclaim of the musical French culture during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This humble and devout woman truly established a fundamental connection between many elements during her lifetime and today's harpists owe much to her.

As a virtuoso Mademoiselle (Mlle) Renié established the harp for the first time as a respected solo instrument, which led in part to the development of acknowledgment for female artists during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. She won the Prix du Disque for her Odéon recording of Danse des lutins, with all the copies selling out within six months of its release. As a composer, she left a myriad of masterpieces in her wake, including such virtuosic compositions as Ballade fantastique and Légende. She influenced several composers of her time, including Maurice Ravel, Claude Debussy and Camille Saint-Saëns. In turn, she influenced some of the most important compositions that came into the harp's repertoire during and after her lifetime. As a teacher, she not only developed the most thorough method for the double-action pedal harp, but contributed to the fundamental core of harp repertoire through her twelve volumes of transcriptions and original pedagogical works, which include Feuillets d'album and Six pièces brèves (op. 2).

Perhaps Mlle Renié's most striking contribution to the harp is her unparalleled devotion to furthering the study of other harpists. She passed on her profound wisdom and affection to her extremely successful students, who became some of the most influential performers and teachers. In this way, her passion continues to inspire current harpists.

With so many talents to offer and share, she remained remarkably modest, attributing all her gifts to her Creator. Never did she step before the public without breathing a prayer that her performance should glorify God. As conveyed in her meditation from 10 December 1927, she believed that her mission was "to pass lightly through this world, scarcely putting a foot down." Nonetheless, her imprint on the musical world has been deeply felt. The contributions to harp repertoire that she left were truly groundbreaking. Her love for the beauty of music and the harp were braided together, strengthening her influence and devotion to this instrument. By examining Renié's life works through her three-part mission as virtuoso, composer and teacher, we can gain a more complete understanding of this legendary harpist.

Brief Biography

Henriette Gabrielle Marie Sophie Renié was born on 18 September 1875 to Jean-Émile Renié and Gabrielle Marie Mouchet. She was the youngest of five children, the first daughter born to the couple. Artistry was in Henriette Renié's genes. Her mother, Gabrielle Marie Mouchet, was a descendant of the well-respected Parisian cabinet-maker Joseph Desmalter. Henriette's father, Jean-Émile Renié, possessed many artistic talents as an architect, painter and singer. He followed his father's trade as an architect and was even a candidate for the Prix de Rome. He longed, however, to be a painter and left his former profession after his father's death. To maintain a steadier income than that of a painter, Jean-Émile frequently toured as an actor-singer. Gioachino Rossini admired Jean-Émile's bass voice so much that he later hired him for the Opéra of Paris. Thereafter, Jean-Émile continued to perform and tour. When he proposed to marry Gabrielle Marie Mouchet, her father insisted that Jean-Émile leave his acting career to pursue a career as a painter. He studied under Théodore Rousseau; Jean-Émile's talent was such that many of his paintings were mistaken for those of his masterful teacher. During this time, he continued to sing in various venues and soirées to provide enough income for his family.

At one such performance in Nice, Henriette was the delicate age of five when she heard her father sing in a concert at which the Belgian harpist Alphonse Hasselmans played. Hasselmans, at six feet and two inches tall, was a towering giant both physically and as a figure in the harp world. There is no doubt that he was shocked when on the train ride home from the concert, JeanÉmile's petite five-year-old daughter announced to them: "That man is going to be my harp teacher." With a combination of surprise and amusement, Hasselmans simply replied, "When you are bigger, we shall see, Mademoiselle!"

After that serendipitous evening, the young Renié studied piano for three years, after which she began her harp lessons with Hasselmans. At the age of eight, her legs were not yet long enough to operate the harp's pedals, so her first year of playing was spent primarily on exercises which did not require pedal changes. Renié's goddaughter, Françoise des Varennes, later recounted how Henriette became accustomed to "the gymnastic feat of hopping off of her chair to move a pedal on the right or one on the left without any break in the music, much to the amusement of her fellow school-mates, whose laughter Henriette considered foolish."

Renié's progress on the harp was incomparable and she continued to take harp lessons with Hasselmans at the Érard harp workshop on Rue du Mail because this location was nearer the Renié residence than the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique de Paris. Her father soon developed pedal extensions for her, created from metal shafts of varying lengths attached to each pedal. This allowed her to play a more varied repertoire on the harp after spending her first year restricted to diatonic exercises with no chromaticism or pedal changes. From the beginning, Hasselmans held the highest expectations for the young girl. After a particularly difficult master class, he explained his reasoning to her: "You must be an example for the class, because I expect more from you than the others. That is why I seem so hard to please. ..."

With this encouragement, she became a student at the Conservatoire at the age of ten (during Hasselmans's first year as Professor of Harp), and she audited such subjects as counterpoint and sight-singing in addition to her harp practice. She entered the 1885 concours (competition), hoping at least for an honorable mention. The jury was unanimously pleased with her performance and wished to offer her the formidable premier prix (first prize), but Ambroise Thomas, the director of the Conservatoire, felt that she was too young for such a title. Winning the premier prix would have deemed the youthful Renié as a professional in her field and ineligible for further harp lessons at the Conservatoire. She was consequently awarded the second prix (second prize) at the same time as harpist Samuel Merloo. She needed to wait only a short while for her well-deserved premier prix, which she received at the concours in July of 1887, unanimously winning this title for her performance of the Concertino for Harp and Orchestra by Oberthür. This was later described as one of the three greatest events in the history of the Conservatoire. The details of this performance, recounted by Françoise des Varennes in a series of French radio programs, show Mlle Renié's charming innocence and humility at the tender age of twelve.

Once on stage, Henriette experienced that phenomenon which marks a true virtuoso: a strangely increased sense of self-possession. She brought out her stool, which was nearly as high as she was tall, and made herself comfortable. As the string quartet began its opening measures, she suddenly noticed that her sky-blue knee-high stocking had fallen down around her ankle! She was fascinated by it. Normally her clothing was very plain, sometimes it was even borrowed from her brothers. At the first tutti, she put the harp down and swiftly pulled up her stocking, much to the delight of the public and the press.

... Pandemonium broke loose ... Henriette gathered that she had won the premier prix, but slightly bewildered by such an unusual explosion of enthusiasm, she backed off the stage, accompanied by the laughter of the crowd. The audience called for her reappearance as if they were cheering a great artist.

... Abashed at having behaved inappropriately, and feeling ridiculous, Henriette blushed and stood stock still. The crowd finally calmed down enough to hear Thomas announce emphatically: "Mademoiselle, the jury has unanimously awarded you the premier prix."

One of [the critics] concluded thus: "Ah! Petite Renié! In the future, don't pull your stockings up in public, Mademoiselle."

Shortly after receiving this highest honor, Renié was presented with many opportunities. One of these was an invitation to perform for Queen Henriette of Belgium, who was so moved by her music that she presented Renié with a jeweled pin, decorated in red, white and blue (France's colors). Later, she had the honor of performing for Princess Mathilde and the Emperor of Brazil.

Almost immediately after receiving her premier prix, the twelve-year-old Renié was approached by students wishing to absorb some of her profound knowledge. Already by this time she had teaching experience, for when she was just nine years old Renié began teaching a friend of one of her older brothers, Ferdinand Maignien. At that young age, she sometimes mimicked Hasselmans's sternness by slamming an etude book shut when she was not pleased with Maignien's progress, after which she would run outside and call back to him, asking if he wanted to play.

As she grew, her musical skills were further honed when she was admitted to the Conservatoire de Paris to study harmony at age thirteen. This was a year before the normal age of admittance, but an exception was made for her. Classes in fugue and composition followed, in which Mlle Renié was the first young girl to be included. Soon, she won Conservatoire prizes for her compositional skills. In 1891, she was awarded the Prix de Harmonie, and in 1896 she received the Prix de Contrepoint Fugue et Composition. She studied fugue and composition with Charles Lenepveu and Théodore Dubois and during one of these classes in 1895, she revealed her first composition for harp and violin: Andante religioso. Despite the encouragement she received from Ambroise Thomas and Jules Massenet, she was especially nervous about showing her composition to her eighteen classmates, all of whom were men. She carried her composition in her briefcase for six weeks and finally decided to share it on a day when many of her classmates were absent. When she did, Théodore Dubois enthusiastically declared, "It's very good. You should do many more like that!"

This moment marked the dawning of the second phase in Mlle Renié's career — as a composer. Shortly after, she began writing her Concerto en ut mineur. Théodore Dubois was so excited about her work that after she completed it in 1901, he encouraged her to share it with Camille Chevillard, the director of the famed Lamoureux Orchestra (or Concerts Lamoureux). Renié's triumphant premier of her Concerto with the Lamoureux Orchestra was a landmark success for both the harp as a solo instrument and female musicians; she was one of the first women to receive applause simultaneously as soloist and composer. This performance opened numerous paths to her success as a virtuosic soloist in France and surrounding countries. Soon, Renié was invited to play her famed Concerto twenty-five more times in Europe. She lived in an era when few women were recognized in the musical arena, but her musicianship immediately put her beyond any preconceptions of gender or instrument limitation. In fact, her success spurred new harp compositions by many respected composers: Théodore Dubois, Gabriel Pierné, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel, for example.

In Paris, Renié was surrounded by some of the most famous musicians and composers of the era, and her influence upon them was notable. In 1912, Hasselmans came to her and asked if she would take over his class at the Conservatoire because he wished to retire. Gabriel Fauré was the director, and Hasselmans conveyed to Renié that he had spoken with Fauré about the wish for Mlle Renié to become his successor. Fauré announced that despite Renié's highest credentials, Marcel Tournier had been chosen as Hasselmans's successor at the Conservatoire. Hasselmans passed away that very evening, shortly after receiving this news at dinner.

Disciples of Henriette Renié may find it difficult to understand how a harpist of her caliber would be denied the professorship. Even though she was clearly a very strong candidate for the position, the Conservatoire was not allowed to select her. During that time, the French Third Republic was struggling to separate religion and state; Renié was keenly involved in supporting the Catholic Church. With other supporters, she would visibly wear her cross and was registered as "Catholic and reactionary" on the dossier of the state because of her courageous views. To be appointed as a professor at the Conservatoire de Paris (a government institution), one had to be recommended by the Ministry of National Education. Because of her dossier, Renié was not approved.

Despite this disappointment, she remained steadfastly devoted to her work and her deeply spiritual Catholic beliefs, which were her stronghold. She arose early each morning to spend time with her Lord, attending church at Soeurs du Saint-Sacrement (Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament) on Cortambert Street when she lived at her parents' home, and later at Notre-Dame de Passy. After chapel she would record her meditations in small notebooks, after which she would turn wholeheartedly to her work at the harp, preparing for upcoming concerts by working for two or three hours in a stretch and taking only short breaks. She wished not to be interrupted for any reason and warned, "You may disturb me if the house catches on fire — not otherwise!" The afternoons were spent teaching until about five o'clock, after which the evenings were filled with music composition and transcription.

Mlle Renié always found time to write despite her extremely full schedule. Her notebooks of meditations and frequent letters to her students reveal her warm love of life. She conveyed her belief that with her performances, she was only returning her gifts to the One who bestowed them. In a letter written to one of her pupils, Odette de Montesquiou, Mlle Renié explained the purpose of performance:

The better I felt, the more I felt myself to be in full 'bloom,' the more I would suffer and choke up while thinking about the audition of April 2 ... Naturally I wanted to have intelligence, memory, musical comprehension, technique, an uplifted soul and beauty of expression; I would have instinctively wished that all my work and all of my achievements were mine, with the divine gifts to do what I desired with them on April 2. Yet the presence of God is behind all of them: the gifts are talents that were made to bear fruit; both of them belong to God, I have known this for a long time ... and yet it should be believed that I had forgotten these. And (finally) I have given everything, this entire burden of intellectual, spiritual, and other wealth. ... In truth, I did not even so much give them as return them to Him who alone possesses.

Renié's spirit of devotion, as conveyed by this letter, was witnessed not only by her students, but by other artists in the French musical community. Her benevolence was shown through her creation of the Petite caisse des artistes (Little Fund for the Artists) during World War I (1914–1918). Mlle Renié recognized that many of her comrades were in financial need. She created this fund to help them anonymously. Each month during World War I, a minimum of forty checks and encouraging notes were sent out to those in need. Dressed in a long black velvet gown, she frequently played at benefit concerts to raise these funds. She also founded L'association des anciens élèves du Conservatoire (The Association for Former Pupils of the Conservatory) with Alfred Cortot.


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Copyright © 2017 Jaymee Haefner.
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Table of Contents

Foreword, IX,
Preface, XI,
Acknowledgements, XV,
Appendix A: Series of Three Interviews with Henriette Renié, 125,
Appendix B: Works by Henriette Renié, 157,
Works Consulted, 173,
Endnotes, 183,
Index, 193,
About The Author, 205,

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