Photographie de Reynaldo Hahn prise en 1906.
Photographie de Reynaldo Hahn prise en 1906. © AFP  /  Manuel COHEN

10 (little) you (perhaps) do not know about Reynaldo Hahn

Composer, orchestra conductor, singer and music critic: both Reynaldo Hahn’s life and work are worth knowing.

Reynaldo Hahn, unmissable character of the Parisians salons during the Belle Époque, prolific composer and talented singer, never gained the posthumous fame some of his contemporaries, such as Maurice Ravel, Erik Satie or Camille Saint-Saëns, got.

And yet he composed more than a hundred melodies – including some considered as main parts of the lyrical repertoire – six operas, about ten operettas, nine compositions for ballets and many pieces for piano and orchestra.

Some of his partitions have been lost, most of them forgotten and the composer’s life is very little known nowadays. To make justice to that important music figure, here are ten little things you might not know about Reynaldo Hahn.

He was born in Venezuela

Reynaldo Hahn is often presented as the “most Parisian of the composers” but he was born a long way from the French capitol, in Caracas, Venezuela on the 9th of August 1874. 

His mother is from the Basque Spanish region and his father is German. The family lives really comfortably as M. Hahn manages a true industrial empire, even owing a local journal. Since his arrival on Venezuelan soil, he has been taking part in the big work of modernisation initiated by the president Antonio Guzmán Blanco, such as the construction or roads and railroads.

 During the 1870’s, the political protest of the Venezuelan people grows stronger and stronger and General Guzmán Blanco as the Hahn family are forced to leave the country. That is why the young Reynaldo sets foot on French soil for the first time in 1878.

 In service of the country

Whereas he arrived in France when he was four years old, Reynaldo Hahn gets naturalized as a French citizen only thirty years later, in 1908. He masters perfectly the French language and graduated from the Conservatoire. Why didn’t he ask for it sooner? He hadn’t probably felt the need before 1908. At the time, the nationalist tensions took a step forward. 

When the First World War starts, Reynaldo Hahn wants more than anything to serve his country et volunteers to join the front. Because he was a composer, he is kept away from the combat zones. He walks along the trenches and feels the horrors of the war nonetheless. 

 In spite of the importance he gives to his military functions (he will be decorated with the Legion of Honour in 1917), Reynaldo Hahn doesn’t forget his first given mission: music. From the front, in miserable conditions, he keeps on composing.

Reynaldo Hahn (de profil, au centre) dirigeant la répétition d'un orchestre militaire, en 1916.
Reynaldo Hahn (de profil, au centre) dirigeant la répétition d'un orchestre militaire, en 1916.  /  Bibliothèque nationale de France

Young prodigy 

Carlos Hahn, Reynaldo’s father, was the first one to notice his son’s music abilities. After a night at the Opéra-Comique theatre, the boy enjoys himself reproducing on the piano the tunes he heard the previous night. When he is eight years old, Reynaldo starts his piano lessons and gets admitted in the Paris Conservatoire at eleven.

He meets there one of the most important person of his social at musical life: Jules Massenet, the composition teacher. Master and student deeply connect, almost like a father and son would do. Reynaldo will turn to his old master during all of his life. He asks him for his opinion on his compositions and Massenet sometimes needs his old student to proofread his trials, such as the ones for his great opera Werther.

Photographie du compositeur Jules Massenet datant de 1900. Professeur de composition au conservatoire de Paris, il est particulièrement impliqué dans la formation et le développement personnel de ses élèves.
Photographie du compositeur Jules Massenet datant de 1900. Professeur de composition au conservatoire de Paris, il est particulièrement impliqué dans la formation et le développement personnel de ses élèves.  © AFP  /  Pierre PETIT / Manuel COHEN

Reynaldo Hahn soon becomes an acclaimed and popular composer. When he turns sixteen, he has already received orders from the most admired names in literature or from the Parisian scene: the writers Pierre Loti and Alphonse Daudet or the actress Sarah Bernhardt. These prestigious sponsors reflect the desirable social status of the young Reynaldo, often invited in the most prestigious salons.

Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) est considérée comme la plus grande actrice française du XIXe siècle. Elle et Reynaldo Hahn deviennent des amis proches, malgré leur 30 ans d'écart. Photographie datant de 1887.
Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923) est considérée comme la plus grande actrice française du XIXe siècle. Elle et Reynaldo Hahn deviennent des amis proches, malgré leur 30 ans d'écart. Photographie datant de 1887. © AFP  /  Leemage

A life in the salons

What is a salon during la Belle Époque? The recipe is simple: a great lady often born in the aristocracy, organises on a regular basis (every Mondays for example) a gathering of intellectuals and artists. The goal: turn one’s salon into the place-to-be.

The young Reynaldo is among the guests that increase the value of a reunion. Not only is he attractive and educated but he also plays his delicious compositions in front of a captivated audience.

Une soirée dans le salon de l'artiste peintre Madeleine Lemaire, avec Reynaldo Hahn au piano. Dessin de l'illustrateur et chroniqueur mondain Georges Goursat (dit Sem).
Une soirée dans le salon de l'artiste peintre Madeleine Lemaire, avec Reynaldo Hahn au piano. Dessin de l'illustrateur et chroniqueur mondain Georges Goursat (dit Sem).  /  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

Yet, Reynaldo is not very fond of that sort of social events. Not that he feels out of place but he is more of a quiet and reasonable nature. He wrote to his friend, the pianist Edouard Risler, in 1892 “I am definitely pot-au-feu!”. He likes casual dinners better like the ones his master Jules Massenet or the writer Alphonse Daudet have.

At the Lettres de mon Moulin author’s home he meets some of the greatest literature figure: Emile Zola, Stéphane Mallarmé, Pierre Loti or Paul Verlaine. Reynaldo composed some of his first melodies on Verlaine’s verses (Chansons Grises) and has therefore the opportunity to play them in front of the poet.

Marcel Proust

Reynaldo Hahn and Marcel Proust were first lovers before being friends. A lot was written about their relationship. First, it was an unusual love affair at the time. Second, the two artists’ correspondence was kept and published.

Portrait de l'écrivain Marcel Proust en 1892. Peinture de Jacques-Émile Blanche, exposée aujourd’hui au Musée d'Orsay (Paris).
Portrait de l'écrivain Marcel Proust en 1892. Peinture de Jacques-Émile Blanche, exposée aujourd’hui au Musée d'Orsay (Paris).  © AFP

They met in 1894 in a salon and became inseparable for two years. Together, they walked all around Paris and would leave for the countryside to get rest. When their romance ended, Marcel wrote to Reynaldo “If this nourishes your poet’s mind and your musical genius, I would still have the soft idea that I was not useless for you”.

The bond they have will break though and the two will remain close friends: Marcel goes to every premiere of Reynaldo’s latest work and the musician looks over the pages of a novel that will become a classic: In Search of Lost Time.

Critic and essayist

Among other reasons, the bond between Hahn and Proust can be explained by the composer’s passion for belles-lettres. Reynaldo devours novels from Flaubert, Balzac or Dumas, learns about poetry and writes. When he turns 25, he starts working with a few journals, such as L’Écho de Paris or Le Figaro, covering the big events of the musical scene like the Parisian premiere of Wagner’s Parsifal in 1914.

Critique de Reynaldo Hahn sur une production de Don Juan (adaptation française de l'opéra de Mozart), publiée dans Le Journal du jeudi 10 mai 1928.
Critique de Reynaldo Hahn sur une production de Don Juan (adaptation française de l'opéra de Mozart), publiée dans Le Journal du jeudi 10 mai 1928.  /  Bibliothèque Nationale de France

The musician is a critic but also an essayist. He wrote three books including one on the art of singing, starting cautiously with that sentence: “When I criticize what I consider to be bad and when I start singing, do not believe I’ll think I am doing it right”.

Monsieur Mélodie

The composer is cautious when he talks about the art of singing, being a singer himself. And if his baritone voice is known to be beautiful, he gives more credit to the interpretation: “The true raison d’être for singing is the combination, the blending, the unbreakable union of the sound and the mind. The sound, as beautiful as it may be, is nothing if it says nothing”.

That idea of subtle expressivity, of the union of the sound and the intellect is characteristic of what is known as the French spirit. Reynaldo becomes one of its main ambassadors. The success of his melodies rest upon their melodic and prosodic qualities, on the equal importance he gives to the words and to music. 

Chef d’orchestre

Reynaldo Hahn gives so much credit to the vocal art that he becomes particularly demanding and perfectionist when he directs singers. And for a fan of subtlety and lyricism, is there a better reference than the great Viennese master Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s opera tunes?

In 1906, the prestigious Salzburg Festival invites Reynaldo Hahn to conduct two Don Giovanni representations. Later, he will conduct a few Mozart pieces in Paris, like The Magic Flute in 1922 at the Palais Garnier or The Marriage of Figaro and The Abduction from the Seraglio in 1937.Operas and operettas, the forgotten repertoire.

Operas and operettas, the forgotten repertoire.

The Reynaldo Hahn composer is better known than the Reynaldo Hahn orchestra conductor, even if most of his work has been long forgotten: L’Ile du rêve and La Carmélite (operas), le Bal de Béatrice d’Este (music chamber), La Fête chez Thérèse (ballet)...

In his lifetime, he suffered from the label “superficial music composer”, as many operettas writers did. And if his pieces always got a real success from the public, they never entered the big repertoire. There is one and remarkable exception: Ciboulette, an operetta created in 1923 at the Théâtre des Variétés, picked up all over France and still played today in the opera houses, like in 2013 and 2015 at the Opéra-Comique conducted by Laurence Equilbey.

An epic ending

In his last years, the composer got recognition and admiration. Following the end of the Second World War, he was appointed director at the Opéra de Paris and gave a lot of conferences. But he was more than 70 years old and his health was fragile. He suffered from migraines and blanks. 

In 1946, he was diagnosed with a brain tumour and died on the 28th of January in his apartment on rue Greffulhe, nearby the Église de la Madeleine where his funeral took place.

Reynaldo Hahn rests now at the Père Lachaise cemetery, near his family, his protector Alphonse Daudet and his eternal friend Marcel Proust.

Bibliography
BLAY Philippe, Reynaldo Hahn. Un éclectique en musique, Actes Sud, 2015
GAVOTY Bernard, Reynaldo Hahn. Le musicien de la Belle Epoque, Buchet/Chastel, 1976
DEPAULIS Jacques, Reynaldo Hahn, Séguier, 2007

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