Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Curious Case of the Counter Tenor


Long before Gertrude Stein set up her famed salon in Paris, the parties chez Marcel Proust were the in spot to be on the Continent. In fact, many say they were the inspiration for both Boys in the Band AND Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Marcel playing a hybrid of Michael and Martha.

They usually evolved from Marcel being a tipsy but witty host, to getting a bit aggressive with a game of get-the-guest, to a screaming, hysterical break down and finally a sober, deeply depressed realization just as the sun crept over the Eiffel Tower.

We're not sure if Louis Sullivan was invited to any of the Proust parties during his studies in Paris or trips there in the 1890s when he was at the peak of his game, but we do know that composer Reynaldo Hahn was often the center of the parties as he introduced his latest tunes.

Both Hahn and Sullivan were sort of proto-bears but with far better grooming and hygiene than those of today. Though they sported virile full beards, they always wore bespoke suits, crisply starched shirts and glorious cravats.

Hahn and Proust always had a conflicted friendship, and it's easy to see why Hahn was always the pursued and the Proust with his bland western European pasty complexion was the fawning pursuer. Hahn was not only a Jewish-Venezuelan-naturalized French citizen but also a child prodigy.

Despite his manly Andean demeanor, he produced fussy, frilly chamber music. The line in The Boys in the Band -- "Michael doesn't have charm, he has counter charm" -- derived from Hahn's fondness for counter tenors. We've heard that Hahn had a deep, booming bass voice, and all were surprised when his tunes were introduced with male voices that many mistook for castratos or boy sopranos.


In 1963 -- a mere four years before The Boys in the Band was unleashed on the world, Paul Cadmus imagined the two muses entertaining and enlightening Reynaldo Hahn. It's hard to surmise which might have evoked Proust if either evoked him at all. Likely Proust was sitting in the corner, slowly switching from club soda to straight vodka, oblivious to someone saying, "Turning, turning" as Hahn became enraptured by Mr. Sullivan on a visit from Chicago.

Let's not dismiss poor Marcel, however. We continue to read him and re-read him, even attempting to digest a dozen or so pages a day untranslated. Hahn may have been the beau of the ball, however, as Msr. Proust once said (not quoted in Boys in the Band) "That's all good and well, but do you have a questionnaire named after you in Vanity Fair?" In the meantime, we are still enraptured by the gloriously surreal imaginings of Proust and Hahn from the Parisian Gerard Bertrand which you can find here.

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8 Comments:

At 4:32 AM, Blogger willow said...

Gosh, I am nutty for Reynaldo Hahn. How did you know? I like Susan Graham's album. "A Chloris" is my fave. Super-duper post.

 
At 5:40 AM, Blogger Erin Wallace said...

Thank you for writing about my beloved Proust. Wrote a bit about him (just a bit) a few posts ago when talking about old books. I knew if I stuck with you long enough he was bound to come up!

 
At 8:54 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

Willow - I think posts with pictures of puppies and stories about Proust are always a win-win. I will need to check out that Susan Graham album. Sadly, not that many people know Hahn's work. It's not as experimental as Satie or Poulenc, but always lovely.

Erin - Another Proust lover! Well, we're not a small group. I need to read your recent post.

 
At 10:41 AM, Blogger WAT said...

Phillipe is adorable. My goodness, I'm such a superficial bastard.

;)

 
At 11:23 AM, Blogger Ladrón de Basura (a.k.a. Junk Thief) said...

WAT - I think it's allowed.

 
At 6:24 PM, Blogger Salty Miss Jill said...

Always educational. What a terrific post.

 
At 8:10 PM, Blogger Gregg Biggs said...

Salty - We're working on a proposal to UCB extension where you can get .0001 credit hours for each blog entry you read here.

 
At 1:45 PM, Blogger gbertrand said...

The real photo is this one:
http://www.gerard-bertrand.net/PRO_pre-catelan.html
Gérard Bertrand

 

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