Translated and edited by Carl Swanson
(This Article originally appeared in the Journal of the American Harp Society,
Summer 1984, Vol. 9, No. 3, and is a translation of an article that first appeared in the autumn 1979 issue of the French-language bulletin of the Association Internationale des Harpistes et Amis de la Harpe.)

Introduction by Carl Swanson

     Alphonse Jean Hasselmans was born on 5 March 1845 in Liège, Belgium, and attended the Strasbourg Conservatory, of which his father was the director; he also studied in Germany with Gottlieb Krüger(a pupil of Elias Parish Alvars). Hasselmans became professor of harp at the Paris Conservatory on 1 May 1884 succeeding Ange-Conrad Prumier. He held the post until his death on 19 May 1912. He wrote numerous compositions for the harp, charming miniatures that graced the salons of la belle époque, but whose alloure has faded somewhat with time. He wrote no compositions with orchestra, no chamber works, and no sonatas.

    He was perhaps the greatest teacher of the modern pedal harp, and the roll of his pupils includes the names of many of the most important harpists of this century: Henriette Renie, Marcel Grandjany, Pierre Jamet, Lily Laskine, Marcel Tournier, Carlos Salzedo, Micheline Kahn , and Ada Sassoli. The list is astonishing! What kind of teacher was he? What were his methods? How did he achieve such extraodinary results?

     As a student of Pierre Jamet in 1970, I had heard numerous stories concerning Hasselmans’ teaching methods. What struck me as I first read this article was the similarity of the accounts of the four harpists interviewed.

    Here then are the reflections of S. de Chamberet, Lily Laskine, Micheline Kahn, and Pierre Jamet. One should read with amazement and awe what it was like to study with the greatest harp teacher of that day.

Mme. S. de Chamberet, née Cardon (1st prize, 1911)

     Mr. Hasselmans was a large and handsome man, of very cold demeanor, speaking little. He had rather big hands, but played the harp admirably well. The tone he created was velvet. All of his students were afraid of him because he was very demanding about practice. Here is a personal little anecdote which shows to what extent he was severe and intransigent.

     There were three classes a week at the Conservatory and we were required to attend all three. In principle, he would work with each of us every other class, but often he would call us with a little signal of his finger, even though we had just played at the last class. Every two days we had to learn an étude by heart plus a page from a piece. So, on one particular day, even though I had played at the previous class, he gave me the little signal. I went to the harp and put my music on the stand as usual. Having had a solfège exam the previous day, I hadn’t had time to learn my etudes by heart, but I knew them very well. After a moment or two, Hasselmans said to me,”Why are you looking at the music?” Very sure of myself, I responded that having had a solfège exam the previous day, I hadn’t had time to learn my études by heart. At that, he grabbed my music, threw it on the floor in the middle of the class, and said, ”That’s no business of mine. You have to do the work that I demand of you.” I was 13 years old, and was atrociously humiliated, all the more because at this time all the mothers of the students sat in on the classes, the result being a ferocious rivalry. It took me a long time to recover from this affront. However, thanks no doubt to this firmness, he obtained exceptional results and formed some excellent harpists. I think that all his students miss him, and are enormously thankful to him, myself first among them.

Lily Laskine(1st prize, 1906)

     I had the great privilege to begin harp with Alphonse Hasselmans. I don’t know for what reason my mother was set on this matter. She insisted that it be he who put my fingers on the harp. I was 8 years old and I remember that it was in the course of a musical soirée at my grandmother’s that a very good harpist played. That pleased me, and my mother judged that this instrument would suit me.

     Hasselmans at first refused to work with me. “Madame, I never take beginners. It’s a rule.” “Well then! If you don’t take my little girl, she won’t play the harp.” Well…I’ll give it a try. We’ll see…”

     Thus I began, and it went rather well, rather quickly, because I had my first prize after four-and-a-half years of study. It’s often said that children don’t get stage freight. This isn’t always true. I was not at all timid, and I was(and still am!) very sociable. But Hasselmans inspired in me an absolute terror. He was very large, very robust, excessively cold and possessed a love of teasing that bordered on meanness. I required my mother to place herself, neither behind nor to the side, but rather in front of me so that I could see her during my lessons! At the Conservatory, at nearly every class, a sick feeling compelled me to go out into the hallway-that is to say how much I was affected.

    But he was an extraordinary teacher, and I recognize that for the harp, by his teaching and his compositions of which I’ll speak later, he accomplished an essential task. He had an astonishing sonority that he bequeathed to his students, a sonority at the same time full and mellow. He liked to play in lessons and class very much. He would grab the harp with a single finger, turn it towards himself and play-more for his own pleasure, I think, than for the student. Years later, I still see his hands in my mind’s eye: large hands, with a truly unique touch.
     He wrote a quantity of pieces whose style is out of fashion today but which should absolutely not be scorned for teaching. Each one of these pieces, of medium difficulty, very melodic, teaches the student, without discouraging him, the very essence of the instrument and natural fingering. On this point, permit me a small digression, the subject of which I hold dear to my heart. I am convinced, to take an example, that the art of singing is acquired not in the sublime melodies of Schumann, Schubert, Fauré, or Duparc, who represent a pinnacle, but in the methods, the vocalizes, and the lyric works that our present taste rejects with disdain. Musical cultivation is one thing, technique is another.

     Hasselmans was very demanding concerning technical work. We worked on 28 or 30 pages of the Fantasies of Parish Alvars(on Oberon, on Moses of Rossini,etc.) the three Concertos, and naturally on the exercises of Larivière(work controlled in class),plus two etudes a week, one ‘in progress,” the other by heart!

     Unfortunately, because of his personality, his lack of human warmth, many of his first prize students did not continue to work with him. Most went to Renie, who had a great reputation as a teacher. Her collection of Bach preludes, dedicated to her students, all first prize-winners, testifies to that.

    As for me, it was very simple. My mother said to me, “You have your first prize, you should know how to take care of yourself.” And that’s what I did.      

Micheline Kahn(1st prize, 1904)

     One can really say with assurance that it was Hasselmans after all who remade the harp. When he took over the class, I think Prumier preceded him, there were two or three students. It was he who built up the class and created the French school of harp playing.

     Hasselmans cut an imposing figure, and at this time Grandjany, who was still a child, was never able to answer “Oui, Maître.” [This may have been the reason why Grandjany, in his later years, absolutely would not allow himself to be so addressed, even by French-educated persons who were accustomed to this courtesy].

     One heard only a muffled grunt, and Hasselmans was exasperated by this unintelligible sound and timidity. Hasselmans was always very severe, and in spite of the fact that he was a friend of my parents(my mother had been a student of his), he never used the familiar “tu” with me. He didn’t want to make an exception vis-à-vis the other students in the class.

     In his classes there was strict discipline. There were three classes a week and we never knew when we would be asked to play our two etudes and one piece, all by heart. We had to constantly be ready. Because he had it in his head that we never practiced on Sunday, we were almost always caught on Monday. That was the worst day!

    We worked on all the concertos and pieces of Parish Alvars, Oberthur, etc. From the point of view of technique it was excellent. But I never liked this style of music very much, although I had to work on everything imaginable in this genre.

     On one point he was obstinate, and that was the hand position. He wanted above all the thumb straight(not bent) and both hands placed in a manner so as to play the string with the fleshy part of the finger and not the side. With the fleshy part of the finger and a good articulation into the hollow of the hand, you have a beautiful sound; playing on the side creates a vigorous sound, but not a mellow sound. He held strongly to this principle, and in this way he found a beautiful sonority for the harp.

     The year of my graduation (I was not yet 15 years old, I was lucky to have the magnificent Impromptu of Fauré as the competition piece. I remember that Fauré had not yet completed it, and that he brought us his manuscript so that we could copy the end! It was at this moment that I met him. After that, I performed this piece frequently, and he dedicated the adorable Châtelaine en sa tour… to me after I left the class. Ravel one day asked Hasselmans to recommend someone to play a piece that he had just composed. Hasselmans responded, “I have a youngster who just got her 1st prize. I’m sure she can do justice to your piece.” That’s how I played the premiere of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro.

     I heard Hasselmans in his last concerts. It was admirable! He was really the greatest of harpists, and I hold an unforgettable memory. I heard him also in the Choral and Variations of Widor and also the premiere of the Pierné Concertstück. After that, he restricted himself to teaching. Hasselmans was a master. He created a great method. I hold his teaching in great admiration, and have profound admiration for the man.      

Pierre Jamet(1st prize, 1912)

     I was 13 years old, and had just been admitted to the Conservatory in the chromatic harp class, when my mother was put in contact with Hasselmans through the help of musician friends. He said that he had heard me at the first examination, and advised my mother that I should abandon the chromatic harp. He offered to give me lessons.

    This advice was followed. I left the chromatic harp class and Hasselmans took charge of me and gave me lessons absolutely free from 1907 to 1912. I thus received all of my education on the harp from him. He imposed a severe discipline on me, but I had an enormous admiration for him. I remember my lessons with him in his magnificent apartment on the Avenue du Bois-de-Boulogne where I heard him play, with his splendid sonority, his many compositions which were very fashionable at this time.

      During the winter, he gave lessons at the residence of his daughter, the great pianist Marguerite Hasselmans, on the Avenue Wagram, and during the summer, at his apartment on the Avenue-du-Bois. Because he wanted me to enter his class at the Conservatory, he forbade me to go away during summer recess. Thus I went every week to lessons at his home. I was awed by this man of magnificent stature and by his advice that I’ll never forget.

     I was admitted to his class in October 1909. The class started at 9 A.M. It would have been unthinkable to arrive without having warmed up before the class, and it was out of the question to bring etudes that could not be played by heart; without that the music would have been immediately closed on the stand! I remember having played all of the concertos of Bochsa and Parish Alvars with him. On one occasion, certain passages were less than perfect. I was immediately sent back to my place followed by the words that froze me, “Let’s go to the next student. Work, my friend!” And that was all! But I have to thank him for his severity, because I owe him everything.

     This was an incredible method of work and discipline where technique took a predominant place. Much later, I realized the necessity of studying those old concertos which are the basis of our technique, and which then permit us to overcome all difficulties as a result.

    Though Hasselmans’ demeanor as teacher was upright and intransigent, he was also, in the last years of his life, realized and smiling. He had accepted an offer from my father(a painter) to have his portrait painted for the Exhibition of French Artists, and it was in his office at Avenue Wagram, after having taught my lesson, that he posed. There he spoke freely, abandoning his rough façade and joking with much humor. I felt great affection for him, and had the impression that, through these lighter moments, he was showing his confidence in my future career. This gave me enormous courage.

     I will never forget the class of May 1912 when, after the jury examination, my classmates and I waited for him. Instead, Gabriel Faure, President of the Conservatory, came in and announced that Hasselmans had died suddenly.

      Hasselmans established our French method of harp playing. He was the first who corrected the hand position, thus abandoning the old methods of Naderman and Bochsa of the 18th and 19th centuries. Hasselmans’ method permitted all the harpists of our generation to obtain sonorous strength on the harp. His disciples were many, some of whom became great harpists and virtuosi. They owe it all to Hasselmans. He left a large repertory of pieces of charming character which were successful in the salons at the end of the last century.