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. 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 de Metternich (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.
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.
Everything I have ever done has always been thanks to Reynaldo.
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 wrote Hahn pleading love letters, although she knew he could never reciprocate her feelings. Perhaps most telling are personal letters Hahn wrote in which he was frequently critical of homosexuals and homosexuality. This is understandable considering the epoch in which he lived: the disgrace of Oscar Wilde was to occur shortly.
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 traveled 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 characterized 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 (on whom the hero is reportedly based). Although by 1896 they were no longer lovers, they remained lifelong friends and supporters until Proust's death in 1922.
World wars and interwar activities
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.
• Marcel Proust, Lettres à Reynaldo Hahn, Paris 1956
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• W. Schuh, "Zum Liedwerk Reynaldo Hahns", in Schweizer Beiträge zur Musikwissenschaft, Bern, Stuttgart 1974, 103-126 (= Publications de la Société suisse de musicologie, 3/2)
• Bernard Gavoty, Reynaldo Hahn : le musicien de la Belle Époque, Paris 1976, 21997
• J.-Chr. Étienne, L’Œuvre pour piano de Reynaldo Hahn, maîtrise, université de Toulouse II, 1981
• L. Gorrell, "Reynaldo Hahn : composer of song, mirror of an era", in The Music Review 46/4, 1985, 284-301
• A. Di Marco, Reynaldo Hahn musicista della Belle Époque, tesi di laurea, Università di Roma La Sapienza, 1986-1987
• G. P. Minardi, "Les bijoux poétiques du petit Bunibuls", in All’ombra delle fanciulle in fiore : la musica in Francia nell’età di Proust, Monfalcone 1987, 59-75
• D. L. Spurgeon, A study of the solo vocal works of Reynaldo Hahn with analysis of selected mélodies, DMA, University of Oklahoma, 1988
• M. Milanca Guzmán, Reynaldo Hahn caraqueño : contribución à la biografía caraqueña de Reynaldo Hahn Echenagucia, Caracas 1989 (= Biblioteca de la Academia nacional de la historia, Estudios, monografías y ensayos, 121)
• S. L. Moulton, "A musical anachronism : Reynaldo Hahn and his music", in Ars musica Denver 1/2, 1989, 1-13
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• Philippe Blay, Hervé Lacombe. « À l'ombre de Massenet, Proust et Loti : le manuscrit autographe de L'Île du rêve de Reynaldo Hahn ». Revue de musicologie, 1993, t. 79, no 1, p. 83-108. Rééd. in Bulletin de l'Association Massenet, décembre 1996, no 4, p. 17-22.
• A. Menicacci, "Reynaldo Hahn direttore mozartiano : tre lettere inedite", in Ottocento e oltre : scritti in onore di Raoul Meloncelli, Roma 1993, 521-533 (= Itinerari musicali a cura dell’Associazione Culturale Costellazione Musica, Roma, 2)
• A. Menicacci, Reynaldo Hahn e la danza : elementi biografici e analisi dei balletti, tesi di laurea, Università di Roma La Sapienza, 1993-1994.
• S. G. Hopkins, Verlaine in song : how six composers of mélodie responded to the innovations of his verses, DMA, University of Maryland, 1996
• K. Kim, A detailed study of Reynaldo Hahn’s settings of the poetry of Paul Verlaine, DMA, University of Oklahoma, 1996
• T. Hirsbrunner, "Genie und Talent : Marcel Proust und Reynaldo Hahn", in Von Richard Wagner bis Pierre Boulez : Essays, Anif, Salzburg 1997, 75-80 (= Wort und Musik, Salzburger Akademische Beiträge, 38)
• P. F. Prestwich, The Translation of memories : recollections of the young Proust, London 1999
• Philippe Blay. « Reynaldo Hahn (1874-1947) ». Chroniques de Santa-Candie, 1999, no 54, p. 41-47.
• Philippe Blay. L'Île du rêve de Reynaldo Hahn : contribution à l'étude de l'opéra français de l'époque fin-de-siècle. Villeneuve d’Ascq : Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2000. 3 vol. (Thèse à la carte ; 29285). 2e éd. Lille : Atelier national de reproduction des thèses, 2003. 3 vol. (Thèse à la carte ; 29285). Thèse nouveau régime, musicologie, Tours, 1999.
• Philippe Blay. « L’opéra de Loti : L’Île du rêve de Reynaldo Hahn ». « Supplément au Mariage de Loti », Bulletin de la Société des études océaniennes, avril-septembre 2000, nos 285-287, p. 40-72. Rééd. in Bulletin de l'Association Massenet, 2002, no 8, p. 25-44.
• Philippe Blay. « Hahn, Reynaldo ». In Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenwart : allgemeine Enzyklopädie der Musik. Personenteil 8, Gri-Hil. Herausgegeben von Ludwig Finscher. Kassel ; Basel ; London ; New York ; Prag : Bärenreiter ; Stuttgart ; Weimar : Metzler, cop. 2002, col. 401-405.
• Philippe Blay. « Le théâtre lyrique de Pierre Loti : André Messager, Lucien Lambert, Reynaldo Hahn ». In Le livret d’opéra au temps de Massenet : actes du colloque des 9-10 novembre 2001, Festival Massenet. Sous la dir. d’Alban Ramaut et Jean-Christophe Branger. Saint-Étienne : Publications de l’université de Saint-Étienne, 2002, p. 89-113. (Centre interdisciplinaire d’études et de recherches sur l’expression contemporaine ; travaux 108, musicologie. Cahiers de l’Esplanade ; no 1). Rééd. in Lettre d’information de l’Association pour la maison de Pierre Loti, mars 2003, no 7, p. 3-20.
• Philippe Blay. « Chansons grises », « Hahn, Reynaldo », « Mélodies de Reynaldo Hahn ». In Dictionnaire de la musique en France au XIXe siècle. Sous la dir. de Joël-Marie Fauquet. Paris : Fayard, 2003. XVIII-1406 p.
• Philippe Blay. « Musique de Proust, musique de Hahn : l’au-delà et l’en deçà ». Bulletin Marcel Proust, 2004, no 54, p. 87-100.
• Philippe Blay. « Grand Siècle et Belle Époque : La Carmélite de Reynaldo Hahn ». In Aspects de l’opéra français de Meyerbeer à Honegger. Ouvrage coordonné par Jean-Christophe Branger et Vincent Giroud. Lyon : Symétrie, Palazzeto Bru Zane, cop. 2009, p. 153-170. (coll. « Perpetuum mobile »).