D’un Prison (1892) (Reynaldo Hahn, 1874 – 1947) to poetry by  Paul Verlaine (1844 – 1896)

A disturbingly static song at first hearing, D’un Prison paints a picture of a man who has an epiphany. Neither the naked Archimedes’ “Eureka” nor Oprah’s “Aha” moment, this is the quiet inner slice of time of a man who looks up over the roofs of Paris, and realises – perhaps for the first time – how simple life actually is, and asks himself what it was all for. On what had he spent his youth?

My God, My God, life is so simple and quiet”.

Venezuelan born Reynaldo Hahn is regarded by some as a genius, by others as a “Minor Master”. Hahn‘s setting of this powerful poem is often negatively compared to the masterwork by Gabriel Fauré, published 4 years later in 1896. The Fauré song has a pent-up despair, anguish and extraordinary regret that is simply absent form Hahn’s version. Instead of a picture of a man who sees his life ruined, Hahn creates the most tender reverie, an intimate and exquisite moment, if not quite a L’heure exquise. Hahn has the ability to use time and space rather than mere melody and harmony as essential ingredients in the creation of a song.

Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme à la fenêtre (Young man at the window), c. 1875

Gustave Caillebotte, Jeune homme à la fenêtre (Young man at the window), c. 1875

The piano sets up a hypnotic rocking motion, which is the main accompaniment figure of the entire song. For two verses, he merely describes what he sees: Blue sky, a gentle bell ringing far away, a branch of a tree.

Hahn D'un Prison

The moment of epiphany is undramatic. The voice stretches lazily up the stave, but there is no drama. The piano cradles the voice in its rocking arms and the moment is anchored in solid and undramatic bass octave bells.

hahn 2

The poet then asks, in direct voice, “What have you done with your youth?” and Hahn responds with a recitative, sparse and without angst, even if the dynamic marking is a healthy Forte.

hahn 3

As if even this conversation with God, this moment of self-awareness, is too much, Hahn retreats. He repeats the first stanza, returning to the hypnotic pattern of the opening. But this, this is self-hypnosis, since Hahn deliberately felt unhappy with ending the poem at the moment of brutal self-honesty. Like a 19th Century Arvo Pärt, he seems to find comfort in the bell-like repetition of the quasi-minimalist final bars, an exercise in static peace.


One might be tempted to investigate Hahn’s personal life, and read too much into the song. However, the fact that Hahn was a closeted homosexual and his only documented relationship or physical intimacy with anyone – despite numerous offers – was a two year long secret relationship with Marcel Proust. Excessively shy? Excessively closeted? A career disrupted by the Nazis and ended too early by a brain tumor, few composers of the French mélodie displayed such fine craftsmanship, remarkable beauty, and originality in works which so perfectly capture the insouciance of la belle époque.

Rubrique Visite: Cours Albert

Rubrique Visite: Cours Albert

Download free Sheet Music of “D’un Prison” (1892) by Reynaldo Hahn & Paul Verlaine

Hahn “D’une Prison” in B flat major

D’un Prison (1892) (Reynaldo Hahn): Marie-Nicole Lemieux, contralto & Daniel Blumenthal (Piano)

D’un Prison (1892) (Reynaldo Hahn): Philippe Jaroussky (countertenor) & Jérôme Ducros (Piano)

D’un Prison (1892) (Reynaldo Hahn) Sung in 1935 by Tino Rossi

Tino Rossi (April 29, 1907 – September 26, 1983) was a singer and film actor.

Born Constantino Rossi in Ajaccio, Corsica, France, he became a tenor of French cabaret and one of the great romantic idols of his time. Gifted with an operatic voice, a “Latin Lover” persona made him a movie star as well. Over his career, Rossi made hundreds of records and appeared in more than 25 films, the most notable of which was the 1953 production, Si Versailles m’était conté directed by Sacha Guitry. His romantic ballads had women swooning and his art-songs by Jules Massenet (1842-1912), Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947), and other composers helped draw sold-out audiences wherever he performed.

D’un Prison (1896) by Gabriel Fauré / Verlaine, sung by Gérard Souzay & Dalton Baldwin

“D’un Prison” (Paul Verlaine): Original French Text published without title in “Sagesse III” No.6 (1880) 

Le ciel est, par-dessus le toit,
Si bleu, si calme!
Un arbre, par-dessus le toit,
Berce sa palme.


La cloche, dans le ciel qu’on voit,
Doucement tinte.
Un oiseau sur l’arbre qu’on voit
Chante sa plainte.


Mon Dieu, mon Dieu, la vie est là
Simple et tranquille.
Cette paisible rumeur-là
Vient de la ville.


Qu’as-tu fait, ô toi que voilà
Pleurant sans cesse,
Dis, qu’as-tu fait, toi que voilà,
De ta jeunesse ?

Hahn repeats the first verse

“D’un Prison” (Paul Verlaine) Translated into English by Albert Combrink as “In Prison” 

The sky is above the roof,
So blue, so calm!
A shaft, above the roof,
Cradles his palm.


The bell in the sky we see,
Gently rings.
A bird on the tree we see
Sings his complaint.


My God, my God, life is so
Simple and quiet.
This tranquil murmur then comes
From the city.


What have you done, O you who here
Crying without ceasing
Say, what did you do, you, there,
with your youth?

Hahn repeats the first verse