Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest OXFORD iS news and events
← News & Features

On Hahn and Proust 

12 Feb 24 | People


By Jennifer Rushworth  

On Thursday 22nd February Kaleidoscope Chamber perform a one-off concert inspired by Marcel Proust and Reynaldo Hahn and the music salons of La Belle Époque. In this article, Jennifer Rushworth introduces us to the shared love of words and music that these great men shared

Proust and Hahn fell in love at the salon of Madeleine Lemaire in May 1894. Lemaire was a painter, hostess, and patron of the arts; her distinguished musical evenings included one of the first performances of Fauré’s La Bonne Chanson (1892–94). Hahn, who had been something of a child prodigy, was the more famous one when he and Proust met. He had illustrious teachers — Massenet and Gounod for composition, Saint-Saëns for piano — and was already much admired for his songs. 

We think that Proust and Hahn were lovers for more or less two years, and we know that they also collaborated artistically during this time. Hahn wrote music to accompany the spoken declamation of Proust’s ‘Portraits de peintres’, four poems on different painters which Proust self-deprecatingly described as some of his worst poetry. Hahn’s music for these poems was included in Proust’s first book, Les Plaisirs et les Jours (1896; Pleasures and Days), along with watercolours by Lemaire. 

Although Proust and Hahn shared a love of music, they did not always love the same music. Hahn did not share the fervent admiration Proust expressed for the music of Beethoven, Wagner, and Debussy. However, the pair did agree in their appreciation of composers such as Schumann and Fauré, and even at one time discussed (though never, sadly, developed) the idea of writing a biography of Chopin together. 

After the initial period of romance, Proust and Hahn continued to have a very close friendship up until Proust’s death on 18 November 1922. In a letter to Proust written one month earlier, Hahn reiterates his affection for the writer, describing Proust as ‘my dearest friend, one of the people whom I have loved most in my life’. When Proust died, Hahn watched over his body until the funeral, and also wrote to break the news to Proust’s friends. Hahn himself outlived Proust by several decades, dying at the age of 72 on 28 January 1947. 

In our readings this evening, we will hear the voices of both Hahn and Proust, drawing on extracts from Hahn’s diaries and on letters between the two from the time of their early relationship up until Proust’s death. While these sources offer tantalising glimpses into the daily intimacy of the couple, other readings engage with perennially complex questions about the self and memory, song and time, death and survival. We will return to the famous ‘madeleine’ episode from the first volume of À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time [1913–1927]) so as to savour once more Proust’s connection between memory and the senses. We will also hear a beautiful passage from Hahn’s 1913–14 lectures on song which offers an extended analogy between glass-making and singing and concludes with a highly Proustian insight about the relationship between the ephemeral and the eternal. Finally, we will explore how Proust’s novel describes the fictional music of the imaginary composer Vinteuil and meditates on art as a form of afterlife for its creator.  

English translations are by Ralph Manheim, Terence Kilmartin, and Joanna Kilmartin (for Proust’s letters); C. K. Scott Moncrieff and Terence Kilmartin, revised by D. J. Enright (for the extracts from Proust’s novel); Léopold Simoneau (for Hahn’s lectures on song); Jennifer Rushworth (for Hahn’s diaries). 

In a letter from May 1895, Proust characterized Hahn as a ‘literary musician’, one whose songs prioritized words over music. Conversely, we might describe Proust as a ‘musical writer’ and celebrate the interdisciplinarity that lies at the heart of their lifelong intimacy. 

12 Feb 24

Stay in the Loop

Sign up to our newsletter to keep up to date with the latest OXFORD iS news and events