Hahn's parents were of German and Venezuelan extraction; when he was three years old the family relocated to Paris, where Hahn entered the Paris Conservatoire in 1886. He studied harmony with Théodore Dubois
, piano with Decombes and composition with Jules Massenet
's influence is clear in one of Hahn's earliest, and most famous, songs, Si mes vers avaient des ailes (If my verses had wings); written when the composer was only 13, it is a charming setting of verses by Victor Hugo. The combined forces of Massenet
's advocacy on his behalf (enough to have his cycle of songs on the poetry of Paul Verlaine
, Chansons grises, published in 1893) and Hahn's own fine singing voice (enabling him to accompany himself in salons and concert halls) helped to establish his reputation in the city.
Early in his career, Hahn made the acquaintance of Sarah Bernhardt and Marcel Proust; Proust, especially, would instill in Hahn a deep appreciation and understanding of poetry, which had a profound effect on Hahn's approach to vocal composition. Hahn once wrote, "The genuine beauty of singing consists in a perfect unison, an amalgam, a mysterious alloy of the singing and the speaking voice, or to put it better, the melody and the spoken word." Hahn found himself seduced by the poetry of Victor Hugo, Théophile Gautier, and Paul Verlaine
; he put his efforts toward creating musical phrasing and rhythmic gestures that would allow the words to speak for themselves. Hahn believed that "[o]nly form can give a piece a chance of lasting...." This perhaps explains his predilection for the older, repetitive formal structures evident in some of his songs, such as "L'automne" (Autumn), "Le printemps" (Spring), and "Quand je fus pris au pavillion" (When I was Lured to her Pavilion).
Hahn's first stage composition was incidental music for Daudet's L'obstacle in 1890; his first opera to reach the stage was the three-act L'île du rêve, performed in Paris at the Opéra-Comique in 1898; a more successful serious opera appeared in 1935 (Le marchand de Venise, in three acts, with a libretto by Zamacoïs, after Shakespeare
). Notably, with Le marchand de Venise, Hahn deliberately returned to the "old-fashioned" division between musical numbers and recitatives and returned the orchestra to a purely accompanimental role. Hahn's most important ballet, Le dieu bleu, was composed in 1912 for Diaghilev's company (to a scenario by Cocteau
and Madrazo). By far, Hahn's most successful theater piece is his operetta Ciboulette; it premiered to instant acclaim in Paris in 1923, and has received innumerable performances since.
As a conductor and impresario at the Paris Opéra, Hahn favored the operas of Mozart
; he found the earlier composer so fascinating, in fact, that he composed a musical comedy on his life (Mozart, 1925), in which he included pastiches of Mozart
's own music.