Reynaldo Hahn was born in Caracas, Venezuela, the youngest of twelve children. Reynaldo’s father Carlos was an affluent engineer, inventor, and businessman of German-Jewish extraction; his mother, Elena María de Echenagucia, was a Venezuelan of Spanish, (Basque) origin, and as most wealthy families descended from Spanish colonists in that country. The increasingly volatile political atmosphere in South America during the 1870s caused his father to retire and leave Venezuela.
Hahn’s family moved to Paris when he was three years old. Although he showed interest in his native music of Caracas in his youth, France would “determine and define Hahn’s musical identity in later life”. The city and its cultural resources: the Paris Opéra, the Paris Opéra Ballet, the Opéra-Comique, in addition to the nexus of artists and writers, proved an ideal setting for the precocious Hahn.
A child prodigy, Reynaldo made his début at the salon of the eccentric Princess Mathilde (Napoleon’s niece),accompanying himself on the piano as he sang arias by Jacques Offenbach. At the age of eight, Hahn composed his first songs.
Despite the Paris Conservatoire’s tradition of antipathy towards child prodigies—Franz Liszt had famously been rebuffed by the school many years before—Hahn entered the school at the age of ten. His teachers included Jules Massenet, Charles Gounod, Camille Saint-Saëns and Émile Descombes. Alfred Cortot and Maurice Ravel were fellow students.
In 1888 Reynaldo composed “Si mes vers avaient des ailes” to a poem by Victor Hugo; it was an instant success when published by Le Figaro. From this exposure and publicity, Hahn came into contact with many leading artists in Paris (in addition to the relationships he cultivated at the Conservatoire). The famed soprano Sybil Sanderson and the writer Alphonse Daudet invited Hahn into their social sphere. Hahn had “a special gift” of attracting “important people to his side”.
Like many other French song composers of the time, Hahn was attracted to Hugo’s poetry. Many of the hallmarks of Hahn’s music are already evident in “Si mes vers”: the undulating piano accompaniment, the vocal line derived from the patterns and intimacy of speech, the surprising intervals and cadences, the cleverly placed mezza voce, and the sophistication and depth of feeling—all the more impressive because he was only thirteen when he composed it.
Paul Verlaine, another poet whose lyrics inspired many of Reynaldo’s most beautiful songs, had on one occasion a chance to hear the young composer’s settings of his poems (which Hahn entitled Chansons grises, begun in 1887 when Hahn was twelve years old and finished three years later). The poet “wept to hear Hahn’s songs”. “L’heure exquise”, from Chansons, was undoubtedly one of the songs that brought tears to Verlaine’s eyes. With its flowing piano accompaniment, gentle melody, and ingenious modulations, Hahn captured the limpid and languid beauty of its text. The poet Stéphane Mallarmé, also present, wrote the following stanza:
Le pleur qui chante au langage
Du poète, Reynaldo
Hahn, tendrement le dégage
Comme en l’allée un jet d’eau.
By the age of nineteen in 1894, Hahn had written many songs about love; however, his worldly sophistication masked shyness about his own personal feelings. He had close intimate friendships with women, and they were clearly fond of the gallant and charming young composer. Cléopatre-Diane de Mérode, a famous beauty of le beau monde and three years older than Hahn, inspired him to write: “I worship her as a great and perfect work of art”. Despite this tribute to her, he reportedly loved her only at a distance his whole life. The famed courtesan Liane de Pougy referred to Hahn in her diary as the “sweetness in her life.” Though close friends, their relationship ended when de Pougy married. Hahn famously told her: “Goodbye Lianon. I hate married people.” Hahn was a closeted homosexual, even though in his personal letters he was frequently critical of homosexuals and homosexuality.
1894 was to prove a fateful year for Hahn. At the home of artist Madeleine Lemaire, he met an aspiring writer three years older than himself. The writer was the then little-known, “highly strung and snobby” Marcel Proust. Proust and Hahn shared a love for painting, literature, and Fauré. They became lovers and often travelled together and collaborated on various projects. One of those projects, Portraits de peintres (1896), is a work consisting of spoken text with piano accompaniment.
Hahn honed his writing skills during this period, becoming one of the best critics on music and musicians. Seldom appreciating his contemporaries, he instead admired the artists of the past (shown in his portraits of legendary figures). His writing, like Proust’s, was characterised by a deft skill in depicting small details.
Proust’s unfinished autobiographical novel Jean Santeuil, posthumously published and, by some, considered ill-structured, nevertheless shows nascent genius and foreshadows his masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu. Proust began to write it in 1895, one year after meeting Hahn. Although by 1896 they were no longer lovers, they remained lifelong friends and supporters until Proust’s death in 1922.
In 1909, Hahn became a French citizen. In 1914, at the outbreak of World War I, he volunteered for service in the French Army. He was older than the official conscription age but was accepted and served, first as a private, finally reaching the rank of corporal. While at the front he composed a song cycle based on poems by Robert Louis Stevenson.
As a conductor Hahn specialised in Mozart, conducting the initial performances of the Salzburg Festival at the invitation of Lilli Lehmann when the festival was revived after World War I. He also served in the 1920s and 1930s as general manager of the Cannes Casino opera house. For many years he was the influential music critic of the leading Paris daily, Le Figaro.
Forced to leave Paris in 1940 during the Nazi occupation, he returned at the end of the war in 1945 to fulfill his appointment as director of the Paris Opéra. He died in 1947 of a brain tumor, without executing the reforms for which his supporters had hoped.
Hahn was given the score of George Bizet’s unperformed Symphony in C by the composer’s widow. Hahn in turn deposited the score in the library of the Paris Conservatory, where it was discovered in 1933 and given its first performance in 1935.