1875-01-28

On this date the Venezuelan-born French composer, conductor, music critic and diarist REYNALDO HAHN was born (d. 1947). Best known as a composer of songs, he wrote in the French classical tradition of the mélodie. The fine craftsmanship, remarkable beauty, and originality of his works capture the insouciance of la belle époque.

A child prodigy, Reynaldo made his “professional” début at the salon of the eccentric beldam Princess de Metternich (Napoleon’s niece). Hahn played the piano accompaniment to his own singing of Jacques Offenbach’s arias on this occasion; just a few years later at the age of eight, Hahn would compose 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 and Camille Saint-Saëns; Alfred Cortot and Maurice Ravel were fellow students.

The poet Paul Verlaine, 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 Stephane 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.

In 1894, at the home of artist Madeleine Lemaire, Hahn 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.