Printer Friendly

Charles-Louis Hanon's life and works.


Though Charles-Louis Hanon has been known around the world for more than a century--most notably from his last name emblazoned on the front of the Schirmer edition of his exercises--his life and other works have largely been ignored in the scholarly literature. As we approach the bicentenary of his birth, the time has come not only to examine Hanon's place in piano pedagogy, but also to explore the life of this quiet, devout man.

Charles-Louis Hanon was born in northern France in the village of Renescure on July 2, 1819. Trained as an organist by a local teacher, it is not known if he received more advanced musical education. At age 27, he moved a short distance east from Renescure to Boulogne-sur-Mer where he lived with his brother Francois who was also a musician.

Music was never the exclusive focus of Hanon's life: he was also a devout Roman Catholic, a Third Order Franciscan and a member of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul. Given his spirituality, Boulogne-sur-Mer may have been an ideal choice for a home: in addition to its fine churches, the city also contained numerous religious schools and charitable organizations. It is known from an 1869 article that Hanon was involved with a monastic order called "Les Freres Ignorantins," also known as "Brothers of the Christian Schools." Founded in the 17th-century by Saint John Baptist de le Salle, the schools run by the order provide free instruction to poor children. One such school was established in Boulogne-sur-Mer in approximately 1815 by Leon de Chanlaire and Father Benoit Agathon Haffreingue; free music instruction was offered there by 1830. (1) It may have been for the school and its pupils that Hanon later wrote his Systeme nouveau.

Located in the Pas-de-Calais district of Northern France on the English Channel, Boulogne-sur-Mer is among the busiest and most beautiful seaports in France. A popular vacation spot due to its sea bathing, Roman ruins, luxury hotels and a famous casino, it was visited by many notable musicians throughout the 19th-century: Richard Wagner, Camille Saint-Saens, Nicolo Paganini and Giacomo Meyerbeer are known to have vacationed there. In addition, Adam Liszt, father of Franz Liszt, died there in 1827 while he and his 16-year-old son were traveling, and was buried at the Cimetiere de l'Est just outside the city.

Boulogne-sur-Mer was the birthplace of several famous men and women, including Auguste Mariette, one of the foremost Egyptologists of the 19th-century and founder of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo; Guillaume Duchenne, pioneering photographer and neurophysiologist of the human face; Frederic Sauvage, marinee engineer and early developer of boat propellers; Pierre Claude Francois Daunou, statesman and historian; Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, famed literary critic; and Benoit-Constant Coquelin, noted actor who appeared on Broadway with Sarah Bernhardt and his brother Ernest Coquelin.

Also born in Boulogne-sur-Mer, organist and composer Alexandre Guilmant may have played an unwitting part in Hanon's life. Charles Timbrell writes that Hanon was "forced to resign" his position as organist at the Eglise Saint-Joseph in 1853 "due to unjustified absence." (2) In addition, Andrew Thomson states that 16-year-old Guilmant was appointed organist at Eglise Saint-Joseph in 1853, the very same year in which Hanon "resigned" from the same church. (3) Is it possible that Hanon was released in order to make a position available for the local prodigy? Despite this incident, later accounts indicate that Hanon was still a respected organist in Boulogne-sur-Mer nearly 15 years after this incident.

Philippe Rougier further links Guilmant and Hanon by writing, "Except for playing the organ occasionally, [Hanon] took little part in local music life, which was dominated by Guilmant." (4) This statement, however, must be qualified. Alexandre Guilmant was nearly 20 years Hanon's junior and by 1860 had left Boulogne-sur-Mer to study and travel abroad, never again permanently living in the city. While contemporary accounts of musical events there sometimes mention Guilmant, the names of other performers appear far more often.

Of the hundreds of references in contemporary journals to the thriving musical scene in Boulogne-sur-Mer printed by the late 19th century, none includes a reference to Hanon--either as composer or performer. This, despite the fact that by 1879, he had been honored by the Pope, recognized at two World Exhibitions and was the author of a small but impressive body of publications. Why Hanon was ignored in this fashion is a mystery. Perhaps he was content to concentrate on his own musical and religious life and not become involved with events in the city. Perhaps being neither a virtuoso performer nor a composer trained at the Paris Conservatory he was shunned by local musicians. Perhaps after the negative critical reception of his organ method he no longer cared about public opinion. Only future research will shed light on this intriguing question.

Hanon's first major publication was also among the most successful during his lifetime: Systeme nouveau, a method for accompanying plainchant on the organ, was originally printed in 1859 and was in continual publication for more than 30 years. In 1867, the volume was not only recognized by Pope Pius IX who named him an honorary member of the Accademia de Santa Cecilia, but was also given an Honorable Mention at the 1867 World Exhibition in Paris.

One of the most substantial documents relating to Hanon is a curious article by critic Oscar Comettant published in his chronicle of the musical activities at the 1867 Exhibition. (5) Hanon wrote the Systeme nouveau partially using a notation system of numbers instead of musical notes that was popular at the time, especially in France, for teaching sight singing. Comettant was violently opposed to this system. Believing that it was more mathematical than musical, he wrote, "This system is of all of them [the] most intolerable, the most dangerous, the most inadmissible. It is a misleading mask for the ears by the eyes, a lie, a disorder, a chaos...." (6)

To further denigrate this system by attacking the Systeme nouveau, Comettant invents a fictional dialogue between Hanon and a church official in which Hanon roams across France searching for the weakest pupils through whom he can prove the merits of his method. Comettant exploits the pun on Hanon's last name and the French word anon, meaning--in its polite translation--"little donkey." The student presented to Hanon looks and acts the part:
      Mr. Hanon, who is himself an
   organist at Boulogne-sur-Mer,
   and an organist of talent, told
   me recently of his manner of
   proceeding on one of these journeys.

      When arriving in a city, he
   learns about the religious establishments
   found there and presents
   himself, his method under
   his arm, with the noble assurance
   of a dedicated author.

      "Sir," says Mr. Hanon to the
   Head of the congregation,
   "would you have, by chance, a
   student in your community
   endowed with limited intelligence?"

      "But yes, Sir," replies the Head
   of the house, smiling.

      "It's just," replies Mr. Hanon,
   "that I'm a little confused about
   the term 'limited intelligence.' Is
   he really stupid, or just that they
   call him stupid, your student?"

      "Entirely stupid, sir. And I,
   myself, have several witnesses to
   this case."

      "Ah! So much the better," adds
   Mr. Hanon with a satisfied air.
   "I was told that your establishment
   was one of the most substantial
   in the whole district and
   that I would not have much
   trouble finding what I wanted."

      ... The Head of the community
   ... searches among his dunces
   for the most stupid and delivers
   him body and soul to Mr.

      The dunce presents himself.
   He has long ears and scratches
   them slowly to put on a bold

      "Well! my friend," says the
   author of the Universal Organist,
   "it was said to me that you have
   a thick disposition ... that you
   lack memory ... that you have not
   been able to learn writing ... in
   short that you are no scholar ...
   In eight days or less you can
   accompany plainchant, though
   you don't know even the first
   sign, and accompany on the
   organ, although you perhaps
   don't even know what an organ
   is. Do you love music, my

      The pupil laughs jerkily and
   moves to scratch his right ear
   and then the left.

      "Very good," adds Mr. Hanon,
   "your response is enough for me.
   In eight days you will give your
   first performance as organ
   accompanist in front of the
   Head of the community and all
   of your comrades will witness
   your triumphs."

Despite the invective of this narrative, Comettant ultimately writes favorably, if reservedly, of the method:
   Though a work like this seems
   made more to encourage and
   support ignorance than to serve
   the true interests of art, I must
   agree, however, after an attentive
   examination of the author's
   process, my fears in this respect
   were in great part dissipated.
   Indeed, one finds nothing in the
   book by the organist from
   Boulogne-Sur-Mer which deviates
   from the principles that
   form the basic study of harmony.
   One can thus consider [it] as a
   clever means of disseminating
   music, a way to open the true
   science of harmony.

In the 1860s, Hanon published approximately 30 piano pieces. Original copies of two pieces from the mid-1860s are in the authors' private collection: both Les Montagnes de la Savoie and L'Exilee, meditation pour piano comfortably fall under the category of "salon music." All of his known solo pieces have programmatic titles and despite technical elements that include grandiose chordal, octave and scale passages, the musical content is for the most part weak.

The Virtuoso Pianist was first published in 1874. Despite its iconic place in piano study, one fact becomes clear upon examining it in relation to other pedagogical works of the early- to middle-19th-century: Hanon's work contains nothing that is in any way new or innovative. The method is, in fact, remarkably similar to a number of French and German piano methods of the period that display an identical progression from simple exercises to a variety of basic technical elements. Notable among these, Aloys Schmitt's Etudes pour le piano, published in the decade before Hanon's birth, contains five-finger exercises that clearly influenced Hanon. For example, Schmitt's exercise 170, the first exercise in his collection, is identical to Hanoffs own first exercise published approximately 60 years later.

As five-finger studies are formulas rather than compositions per se, it is impossible to verify that Hanon copied some of his exercises from previously existing collections--a practice not unheard of in the decades before modern copyright laws--or if he unconsciously mimicked other composers. However, the similarities of his method to those published before his own suggest, at the very least, familiarity with the pedagogical literature available at the time.

The Virtuoso Pianist was only one volume in Hanon's four-part piano method. Elementary Method for the Piano, written after the first printing of The Virtuoso Pianist, was designed to teach basic elements of notation, rhythm and technique. The second part of the method was a collection of 50 pieces first published in 1872, entitled Extracts of the Masterpieces of the Grand Masters for Piano, Organ or Harmonium. An assortment of works (mostly transcriptions) by Mozart, Beethoven, Dussek and other composers, the literature is for the most part unfamiliar to modern audiences.

The third volume of the method was The Virtuoso Pianist itself. And for the final part, Hanon collected his original piano pieces and titled the anthology simply Thirty-one Pieces in 4 Volumes. Each book was designed to be studied with specific parts of The Virtuoso Pianist. volumes one and two of the solo pieces corresponded to the five-finger exercises (numbers 1 through 31), and volumes three and four of the solo pieces with the rest of the technical studies (scales, arpeggios, octaves and so on).

The 12 short studies entitled The Delights of Young Pianists (originally published in 1866) comprised the first volume of the Thirty-one Pieces. Rougier wrote of them that "the insignificance of their content is matched only by the vacuity of their titles." (7) Despite this harsh assessment, Hanon's The Dawn--the first of The Delights, the full score of which was published with Timbrell's article--is virtually indistinguishable from the hundreds of other teaching pieces by his contemporaries. Simple, descriptive titles and naive musical content are typical of similar pieces in collections by Burgmuller, Gurlitt, Hdler and Streabbog.

The second and fourth volumes of the Thirty-one Pieces consist of his remaining previously published solo piano works dating from the 1860s and early 1870s. The third volume is devoted to his six transcriptions of arias by Bellini and Rossini originally published in 1871.

In 1878 Hanon's complete works were awarded the silver medal at the Universal Exposition in Paris. By the same year, The Virtuoso Pianist had been formally adopted for use at the Paris Conservatoire and Royal Conservatoire of Brussels. In letters reprinted in the front matter of the 1878 edition, three of the most famous professors at the Paris Conservatoire in the late 19th century endorsed Hanon's exercises: Antonin Marmontel, Fdlix Le Couppey and Georges Mathias, a student of Chopin.

In 1917 Sergei Rachmaninoff wrote of the fundamental place that Hanon's studies occupied in Russia by at least 1891, the year in which he graduated from the Moscow Conservatory:
      It may be interesting to hear
   something of the general plan followed
   in the Imperial music
   schools of Russia. The course is
   nine years in duration. During
   the first five years the student gets
   most of his technical instruction
   from a book of studies by Hanon,
   which is used very extensively in
   the conservatories. In fact this is
   practically the only book of strictly
   technical studies employed ...

      At the end of the fifth year an
   examination takes place ... if the
   pupil fails to pass the technical
   examination he is not permitted
   to go ahead. He knows the exercises
   in the book of studies by
   Hanon so well that he knows
   each study by number, and the
   examiner may ask him, for
   instance, to play study 17, or 28,
   or 32, etc. The student at once
   sits at the keyboard and plays. (8)

Thus, only a few years after its first printing, The Virtuoso Pianist was in use at major conservatoires in Paris and Moscow, as well as in music schools in many other European cities. And in 1900, the famous Schirmer edition was published in New York, making the work available to pianists in the United States. Since then, literally thousands of reprints and transcriptions of the exercises have been published in dozens of languages.

After the third edition of The Virtuoso Pianist in 1878, it is not known if Hanon composed or published any new works. After a long and productive life, he died in Boulogne-sur-Mer on March 19, 1900 at age 81. Timbrell quotes from the obituary printed in a church publication entitled La Voix de Saint-Nicholas:
      M. Charles Hanon was one of
   those Christians of old stock
   such as we rarely encounter
   today. He always gave generously
   to the poor, and he sustained a
   multitude of Catholic charities
   [as well as] expelled monks and
   impoverished artists. His piety
   was exemplary. He was seen at
   mass daily, and he took Holy
   Communion each morning. It
   was at church that he caught
   [the pneumonia] that caused his
   death a few days later. (9)

Though Hanon's works and their place in the history of piano pedagogy are rich fields for scholarship, he has been unjustly neglected in the scholarly literature to date. More than the composer of exercises and methods, upon closer study Hanon emerges as a pious man whose life and works have touched generations of pianists.

Hopefully, this biographical sketch will inspire future scholars to discover more about the intriguing man behind The Virtuoso Pianist.


For a list of works published by Hanon through his own publishing house beginning in 1856 go to and click on "Publications," and then "American Music Teacher" and then "Bonus Bytes."


(1.) Le Pas-de-Calais au Dix-Neuvieme Siecle (Repesse-Crepel, 1900), 68.

(2.) Charles Timbrell, "Who Was Hanon?" Piano and Keyboard (May/June 1995): 31.

(3.) Andrew Thomson, "Alexandre Guilmant," The New Grove Dictionary, vol. 10, 539.

(4.) Philippe Rougier, "Hanon," The New Grove Dictionary, vol. 10, 822.

(5.) Oscar Comettant, "L'Organiste universel, par Hanon," La Musique, les Musiciens et les Instruments de Musique chez les Differents Peuples du Monde (Paris: Michel Levy Freres, 1869), 399-402. (All translations in this article are by the authors.)

(6.) Oscar Comettant, Les musiciens, les philosophes et les gaietes de la musique en chiffres; reponse a M. Francisque Sarcey (Paris, E. Dentu, 1870), section VI.

(7.) Rougier, "Hanon," 823.

(8.) James Francis Cooke, Great Pianists on Piano Playing (Theodore Presser: Philadelphia, 1917), 210-211.

(9.) Timbrell, "Who Was Hanon?"

Andrew Adams is assistant professor of piano at Western Carolina University. He completed a doctorate degree in piano performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder He has published numerous articles in The Journal of Singing.

Bradley Martin, pianist and conductor, is the director of the musical theater program at Western Carolina University He earned a doctorate degree in piano performance at the University of Colorado at Boulder.
COPYRIGHT 2009 Music Teachers National Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:The Man Behind The Virtuoso Pianist
Author:Adams, Andrew; Martin, Bradley
Publication:American Music Teacher
Article Type:Biography
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2009
Previous Article:Notes from a musician's journal.
Next Article:The science of sight reading.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2018 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters