Proust’s melody

Learning from Proust - and his fictional composer - about Beethoven's Late Quartets and the power of listening.

The Boston Globe, April 15, 2012


It may seem like music critics are always championing the works of composers heard by too few, but this week we have a special case: a composer whose music never existed in the first place.

I’m speaking, naturally, of Vinteuil, the fictional composer whose creations haunt the pages of Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time.” Why take the trouble for an imaginary composer? Proust was not a highly trained musician but he was surely one of the most sensitive listeners to ever wield a pen, a writer who waxes rhapsodic, as only he could, about the elemental powers of music. He had a gift for describing music as sensory experience, for emulating its flow in his own prose, and for giving voice to the interior monologue of a listener in the act of confronting something new.

All of these qualities make him good musical company, and recently, as I looked ahead to a real-life performance today by the Borromeo String Quartet of three late-Beethoven quartets (Opp. 130, 131, and 132) at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, I found myself returning to the remarkable scene from the novel in which Proust’s narrator attends a performance of Vinteuil’s Septet. It’s true that the character of Vinteuil, and the famous “little phrase” from his Sonata, is often thought to be have been inspired by music of Saint-Saens (others have made the case for Fauré or Franck). And yet in his descriptions of the Septet itself, I am convinced that Proust was also drawing on his own intimate knowledge of Beethoven’s late quartets. He revered these works, and heard performances of them as often as he could.

Proust’s narrator gives us few technical details of the imagined Septet, but his comments broadly summarize the tone of the late Beethoven quartets, and even match the occasional section of music perfectly. The narrator describes a strange music “at once ineffable and strident,” music of “permanent novelty,” music that showed in moments “a moral quality and intellectual superiority” and in others “a heavy, rustic, almost cloddish gaiety in which the lurching, riotous clangor of bells . . . seemed the material representation of the coarsest joy.”

The incomprehension of early listeners in responding to these works is of course part of their mythology, as is Beethoven’s succinct description of the audience at the premiere of his Op. 130. (After hearing of their lukewarm response to the “Grosse Fuge,” he reportedly pronounced them “Cattle! Asses!”) Scholars have pointed to Wagner’s centenary essay on Beethoven as a decisive turning point in the view of these works, recasting Beethoven’s later music not as a kind of sonic anarchy born of deafness, but as forward-looking art of great inner insight. For his part, elsewhere in the novel, Proust’s narrator raises the subject of the late-Beethoven quartets directly, taking a more straightforward view. Advanced works of art, he tells us, create their own posterity. The future audience for Beethoven’s late quartets was created over time by the quartets themselves. Can we say for certain that he is wrong?

Yet even today these quartets are of course not easily digested at first meeting; this is music that holds tightly to its secrets. Likewise, the narrator attending his first performance of Vinteuil Septet responds first with incomprehension and distraction. In a masterful sequence, Proust evokes a sense of real-time attention drift, as the narrator’s focus wanders in and out of the music. He is consumed by the dramas of his own life, he scrutinizes his fellow audience members, he listens to the snores of the hostess’s dog. Eventually, he even peers at the musicians with detached amusement, allowing the delicious observation that the evening’s double-bass player, while producing sublime music, was nonetheless fingering his instrument “with the same domestic patience with which he might have peeled a cabbage.”

Proust’s narrator eventually realizes that the Septet he is encountering for the first time, despite obvious outward differences, bears an unmistakable likeness to the earlier Sonata by Vinteuil. This realization in turn spurs a reflection on the unique accent with which all great composers consistently speak, even as they employ a language used in common with others, even as their own style evolves. “Each artist,” writes Proust, “seems thus to be the native of an unknown country, which he himself has forgotten, and which is different from that whence another great artist, setting sail for the earth, will eventually emerge. Certain it was that Vinteuil, in his latest works, seemed to have drawn nearer to that unknown country.”

Intelligent listeners, we learn, could feel the music’s resonance with its forgotten roots, and Vinteuil’s last music came to be regarded as his deepest. “And yet,” Proust narrator adds, “no programme, no subject matter, supplied any intellectual basis for this judgment. One simply sensed that it was a question of the transposition of profundity into terms of sound.”

That last phrase has always stuck with me in the context of the late Beethoven quartets, precisely because profundity in music is such a slippery concept. These works are commonly described as among the most profound chamber music ever written, though what exactly makes them so has been less easily settled. One line of thought ascribes their depth to a triumph of artistic subjectivity over the formal rhetoric and inherited grammar of music. The idea is that Beethoven’s genius, shorn of aural contact with the world, had in essence broken free of music’s past.

Curiously enough, a contrary view on the topic comes from another fictional musician, the organist and teacher Wendell Kretzschmar in Thomas Mann’s “Doctor Faustus,” who gives an extraordinary lecture in the pages of Mann’s novel on Beethoven’s late Piano Sonata Op. 111. It is Beethoven’s middle period, Kretzschmar insists – channeling the views of Theodor Adorno – in which one finds the composer’s heroic voice triumphing over all (think of the “Eroica” Symphony and the “Razumovsky” Quartets) while the late style in fact often permits use of more conventional devices, trills, and simple accompaniments, as if the ego had nothing left to prove, as if humble musical materials had been elevated to a higher stage and were therefore all the more “terrifyingly majestic.”

We can imagine our fictional Beethovians duking it out after the Borromeo concert, and any listener might take a side. For me, the late quartets have always seemed to communicate their depth not only through their notes but in the silences between them, in the transcendent bareness of some of their music, its unupholstered extremes, its ways of disclosing the world as if viewed from a great distance, as in the quiet opening hymnal measures of the “Heiliger Dankgesang” from Op. 132. And then of course, as the critic Edward Said mused near the end of his own life, the very idea of lateness is double-edged. Earlier periods of mastery and stylistic evolution lay behind the composer, but in front of him stretched the abyss.

For his part, Proust’s narrator is eventually overcome by the power of Vinteuil’s Septet, and spins off on a flowery lyrical flight underpinned by the notion that we can never step fully beyond our selves, beyond our own subjectivity or the experiences shaped by the gateway of our own senses. “A pair of wings, a different respiratory system, which enabled us to travel through space, would in no way help us,” he explains, “for if we visited Mars or Venus while keeping the same senses, they would clothe everything we could see in the same aspect as the things of Earth.” But Proust here grants one exception, one escape from the prison of the self: through art. Or in his conclusion to this famous passage, “the only true voyage, the only bath in the fountain of Youth, would not be to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes… to see the universe through the eyes of another… and this we can do with an Elstir [Proust’s fictional painter], with a Vinteuil; with men like these we do really fly from star to star.”

In Proust’s world, this interstellar travel is the domain of late-Beethoven, of late-Vinteuil. And if these artists can grant his narrator “other eyes,” Proust’s writing on music offers us the perennial enticement of hearing through another’s ears. And more richly for it.


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This article was published in the Boston Globe on April 15, 2012 under the headline “Listen to Proust’s imaginary composer.”