September 18, birthday of Henriette Renié

Since July, I have been concentrating solely on female composers.  You can read about that in my post from July 19.  If I can’t find one born on the calendar day, I won’t post.  On with today’s composer.

I’m very excited to learn that Henriette Renié (18 September 1875 – 1 March 1956) has, unbeknownst to me, touched me through two what seem to be totally disparate interests of mine–a piece, “Danse sacrée et danse profane” by Claude Debussy and the comedian, Harpo Marx.

Renié was something of a prodigy:  at five she decided to give up the piano when she saw a performance by the harpist Alphonse Hasselmans, after which she declared that she was going to study with him.  However, it wasn’t until the age of 10 when she was tall enough that her feet could reach the pedals that she was allowed to study the harp.  She quickly became a virtuoso and was encouraged also to compose by other professors including Jules Massenet.  She started teaching but had a falling out with Hasselmans.  Though she tried to make it right, he would only recommend her to students he didn’t want–rich girls whose parent thought harp playing would make them more desirable as a wife!

I’ve written about Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane elsewhere on this blog, and it remains one of my favorite pieces of music.  As a harpist in Paris at the turn of last century,Renié hung out with the great composers of the time–Debussy, Ravel, Massenet, Widor, etc.  What I found out was that Renie actually arrangedDanse sacrée et danse profane for harp for the composer!

After Hasselmans refused to let one of her private students to enroll in the Paris Conservatoire, the next year Renié succeeded and this student, Marcel Grandjany, brought her technique of playing to the United States.

Harpo Marx taught himself to play the harp when one came into his possession.  He didn’t know how to tune it, so he tuned it in a way that made sense to him (which was not standard tuning) and he learned how to hold it from a picture of an angel holding a harp!  After he became rich, he hired professional teachers so he could learn to play the right way, but they were more fascinated, it seems, with his technique.

According to Wikipedia, one of those teachers was Henriette Renié!  I can’t find any other reference to this fact.  Who cares?  It’s an interesting nexus of talents, no?  So below I’m featuring one of her first compositions, followed by Debussy’s piece, and finally Harpo destroying a piano playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp Minor, and from the ruins creating a harp.  All of these pieces are sublime in their own way.

Concerto en ut mineur (C minor)

Anneleen Lenaerts plays Debussy’s Danse sacrée et danse profane

Harpo Marx (preceded by Chico playing the piano)

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