Henriette Renié (1875-1956) was a French harpist and composer, a deeply religious woman who lived in poverty for much of her life, but who was independent and successful in a time when fame was socially unacceptable for women. She codified a method for harp which is widely used.
Before the age of five, Henriette played piano, but at five, she saw a concert featuring Alphonse Hasselmans, and declared "That man is going to be my harp teacher." She was not allowed to play harp until she was eight, and then her feet did not reach the pedals. She would hop off her bench to change them and then hop up and continue playing; her father eventually developed pedal extensions for her.
Hasselmans had begun teaching at the Paris Conservatoire, and they met half-way to have lessons at Sebastian Erard's workshop. In 1885, she became a regular student at the Conservatoire. At ten, she won a second prize in harp performance (the committee had actually voted to give her first prize, but the director had decided it was inappropriate), and at eleven, she won the Premier Prix.
Renié began teaching early on; at nine, she had declared her brother's friend Fernand Maignen would play the harp and began teaching him, and following her success at the Conservatoire, students from all over Paris, many of them more than twice her age, began seeking her out.
After her graduation at twelve, she gave performances around France and taught students all over Paris. An exception was made for her to take harmony classes at the Conservatoire, which did not normally allow students under fourteen in harmony and composition. She was used as an example, and her professors Théodore Dubois, Ambroise Thomas, and Jules Massenet all encouraged her to compose. However, she was accustomed to the idea that women stayed at home and was reluctant to attract attention; she hid Andante Religioso for six weeks before she showed it to them. (She also was traditional enough that she never went out without a chaperone.)
At fifteen, Renié gave her first solo recital in Paris, marking her growing troubles with Hasselmans, whom her parents had neglected to list as orchestra conductor on the programs. Henriette had them reprinted at her own expense to mollify her teacher. However, tension between them continued as Hasselmans was keeping all the professional students for himself, leaving Henriette to teach young ladies with high social standing, who were only increasing their marriageability; as a result, when serious students approached Renié, she often gave lessons in secret. As time progressed, Hasselmans also refused to recommend her to conductors as a soloist and circulated segments of her unpublished pieces in his classes without giving her any credit. Nonetheless, Renié remained loyal to him.
In 1901, Renié completed the Concerto in C minor that she had begun composing while at the Conservatoire. On the advice of Dubois, she showed it to Camille Chevillard, who scheduled it for several concerts. Unfortunately, Renié, had suffered a severe stomach disorder at 21 that left her weak, and though she often forced herself to perform despite her illness, she became so sick that one of the Lamoureux concerts with Chevillard had to be delayed. Nonetheless, these concerts established Renié, not only as a virtuoso, but as a composer, and helped establish the harp as a solo instrument, inspiring other composers to write for harp.
In 1903, she composed a substantial harp solo called Légende, inspired by the poem Les Elfes by Leconte de Lisle. The same year, Renié presented eleven-year-old Marcel Grandjany to the Conservatoire, but Hasselmans denied him admittance; the next year, Grandjany was accepted as a student but not allowed to compete. At thirteen, the first time he was permitted to enter the competition, Grandjany won the Premier Prix. He, along with Mildred Dilling, introduced the Renié method to the United States.
In 1912, Hasselmans and Renié were reconciled; he announced that he was physically unable to teach at the Conservatoire and wanted her to take his position, although there were no female professors teaching advanced instrumental classes. However, the Conservatoire, as a governmental institution, required approval from the Ministry of Education for its appointments, and because of Renié's religious beliefs, she was not hired and Marcel Tournier was given the position. Hasselmans died the night he was told she would not be appointed. She then turned down a position at the Ecole Normale de Musique, but started an international competition in 1914, the "Concours Renié," which included a significant sum of money along with they prize, and had notable musicians on the jury over the years, including Salzedo, Ravel, Grandjany, and Gabriel Pierné.
During World War I, Renié survived by giving lessons, and gave charity concerts almost nightly, going to a fund that gave immediately and anonymously to artists in need, even when battle was being fought 90 kilometers from Paris and Big Bertha was bombarding the city. After the war, Toscanini offered Renié a contract, which she declined because her mother's health was failing.
In 1922, a politician recommended Renié for the Legion of Honor, but she was rejected again for her religious beliefs.
Renié began participating in radio broadcasts and making recording in 1926 for Columbia and Odéon. Her recordings all sold out within three months, and Danses des Lutins won a Prix du Disque, but the recording sessions exhausted Renié, so she refused to sign any new contracts despite her success. In 1937, Renié began complaining in her diary about fatigue and overexertion; illness forced her to postpone and cancel concerts, which had become painful and draining.
During World War II, Renié, at the request of her publisher, wrote the Harp Method, which became her main focus during the war. In two volumes, it is a thorough treatment of harp technique and music. It was adopted by such important harpists as Grandjany, Dilling, and Susann McDonald. After the Armistice, students flocked to Renié and spread her teaching to conservatories over the world.
Severe sciatica and neuritis, as well as bouts of bronchitis, pneumonia, and digestive infections in winter, nearly disabled Renié, but she continued giving lessons and concerts despite the intense level of sedatives she was taking.
When Tournier retired from the Conservatoire after 35 years, Renié was offered the job, but declined, (amusedly) saying she was four years older than Tournier. She was also finally given the Legion of Honor, at the urging of her goddaughter. The next year, she gave a concert, featuring Légende, saying it was the last time she would play it, and died a few months later in March, 1956.
Salvi, Erard's successor, created a "Renié" model harp, and the French Institute created a "Henriette Renié Prize for Music Composition for the Harp."
Renié was critical in promoting the double-action harp of Sebastian Erard, and inspired the creation of the chromatic harp through an offhand complaint about pedals to Gustave Lyon, who worked for a manufacturer of musical instruments, including harps. Ironically, Renié demonstrated the rival Erard harp at the Brussels World's Fair, and was the major cause of its demise.
Henriette's father, Jean-Emile Renié, was the son of an architect. His family had cut him off completely when he decided to be a painter instead of an architect. He studied with Théodore Rousseau, but to survive, he became an actor and then joined the Paris Opera.
Henriette's mother, Gabrielle Mouchet, was a distant cousin of Jean-Emile. Her father was adamantly opposed to their marriage, but her mother supported it, so M. Mouchet eventually gave in on the condition that Jean-Emile give up acting.
The couple had four sons before Henriette was born. The oldest three were harsh with her, but she was deeply attached to the fourth, François, and would become listless and unhappy apart from him. At one point, Henriette's nose was broken while she played with her brothers, so she had two profiles for the rest of her life.
Renié kept a close relationship with her parents and was fond of her nephews and nieces, but distanced herself from them because her sisters-in-law were jealous. When Renié's father died, she lost twenty pounds in a short period of time and began supporting her mother financially. She also remained close to her brother François, who was isolated because of his deafness and poor vision.
While Henriette was in her teens, the family spent summers in Etretat in Normandy, and Henriette had a rare chance to interact with people her own age. She was mutually attracted to one of her brother's friends, but decided she could not sacrifice her art and career to live with him. She also rejected marrying Henri Rabaud three years later. Henriette also paid for her brothers' riding (they were in the army more for honor than money, and Henriette had to give them financial help).
In addition to supporting her brothers as officers, she paid for a new harp for herself. Still, though she was struggling financially, she refused to take commission on the many harps she picked for her students at Erard, and sometimes gave lessons for free. As a teenager, Renié worked constantly, and had only one friend, Hasselmans's daughter, who was also her student. Later on, she became close to the Chevillards, especially his nearly blind wife, a singer and a spiritual inspiration for Renié.
Shortly before World War I, Renié became friends with the family of one of her students, Marie-Amélie Regnier. After winning the Premier Prix and being introduced to Théodore Dubois, Marie-Amélie swore that Renié would be the godmother of her first child. During the war, Renié undertook the family's financial support (the son was killed, the father's health was failing, and the sisters could not support them). When the war was over, Marie-Amélie got married and presented Renié her goddaughter, and because Marie-Amélie's husband, Georges Pignal, was an engineer who was frequently absent because of contracts in Morocco, the child spent more time with her grandmother and godmother than her parents. In 1923, Renié helped Louise Regnier (Marie-Amélie's mother) buy a portion of a house. She moved in with the Regniers, along with her brother François, shortly after her own mother died. In 1934, Louise Regnier died and left the goddaughter, Françoise, in Renié's devoted care. Sometimes, Renié would ride in back of Françoise's motorcycle. Despite Marie-Amélie's former gratitude and Renié's generosity to the family, the former pupil was a hostile housemate, and tried to evict the Reniés, but Françoise fought her family to save Renié from financial ruin.
Renié was deeply religious when the Third Republic was trying to separate the church and state, and ostentatiously wore a gold cross to show her support. Because of this, the government kept a file on her, as they did for all citizens they considered enemies of the regime. She was generally assertive with her beliefs; she also tore down German propaganda posters despite the fears of her friends and students.
She published many works with major French publishers which have been mainstays of the harp repertoire for harpists of her lineage. Additional works remain in manuscript, but many were destroyed in a fire in the collector's home.
- des Varennes, Françoise (1990). Henriette Renié Living Harp, Bloomington, Indiana: Music Works - Harp Editions.