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.