Moncrieff: 335-348; Clark: 231-240
by Dennis Abrams
Vinteuil’s Septet. Mme Verdurin’s face is buried in her hands. The music brings to mind thoughts of Marcel’s love for Albertine. “Of every person we know we possess a double…” Memories of the wound suffered at Balbec, “it was deep in my heart, and very difficult to extricate, that Albertine’s double was lodged. What I saw of her hurt me…” Had his daughter’s sleep inspired the music? “Asleep or awake, I should find her again this evening. Albertine, my little child, when I chose to return home.” Marcel’s thoughts turn to the musician: “It was as though, reincarnate, the composer lived for all time in his music; one could feel the joy with which he chose the colour of some timbre, harmonising it with the others.” The mystery of the music; its sonorities. “If life was indeed but a prolongation of life,was it worth while to sacrifice anything to it? Was it not as unreal as life itself? The more I listened to this septet, the less I could believe this to be so.” “The impression conveyed by these Vinteuil phrases was different from any other, as though, in spite of the conclusions which seem to emerge from science, the individual did exist.” “…Vinteuil, striving to do something new, interrogated himself, with all the power of his creative energy, reached down to his essential self at those depths where, whatever the question asked, it is in the same accent, that is to say its own, that it replies.” The individual voice of the artist “is a prove of the irreducibly individual existence of the soul.” “Each artist 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.” The pleasing harshness of the music. “One simply sensed that it was a question of the transposition of profundity into terms of sound.” Unconscious memories of “this lost fatherland.” Everything that we are forced to keep to ourselves, “which cannot be transmitted in talk…are brought out by art, the art of a Vinteuil like that of an Elstir, which exteriorises in the colours of the spectrum the intimate composition of those worlds which we call individuals and which, but for art, we should never know?” The only voyage is “to see the universe through the eyes of another…” The andante. The interval. “I wondered whether music might not be the unique example of what might have been– if the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas had not intervened — the means of communications between souls.” “…I had associated with the music scarcely more than the memory of one person only, which was Albertine.” The audience disapproves of Charlus’s familiarities with the footmen. The septet begins again. The wrestling of the two motifs, but “…in the end the joyous motif was left triumphant…it was en ineffable joy which seemed to come from paradise…I knew that this joy, this summons to a supraterrestrial joy, was a thing I would never forget. But would it ever be attainable to me?” “…how strange it was that that the presentiment most different from what life assigns to us on earth, the boldest approximation to the bliss of the Beyond, should have materialised precisely in the melancholy, respectable little bourgeois whom we used to meet in the Month of Mary at Combray!” The revelation that Mlle Vinteuil’s friend is responsible for the music.
What an amazing section. Art, music, Marcel’s revelation (or re-revelation) regarding the transcendent power of art, and this, one of my favorite passages in all of Proust:
“The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth, would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another, of a hundred others, to see the hundred universes that each of them sees, that each of them is; and this we can do with an Elstir, with a Vinteuil, with men like these we really do fly from star to star.”
From The Proust Project by Jonathan Burnham:
“When Marcel hears Vinteuil’s septet for the first time he is attending a Verdurin soiree, and is taken by surprise when the musicians start to play. He is expecting a work by Vinteuil, but the first notes mean nothing to him — he describes himself as being in a ‘strange land’ — but he then recognizes the little phrase, the musical motif from Vinteuil’s sonata, an earlier work, that represented the ‘national anthem’ of Swann and Odette’s love. But the atmosphere of the music has changed; what was once gentle and evocative is now fierce and charged with eroticism “so persuasive…shimmering.”
There are several currents of tortured erotic love running alongside each other in this scene: Marcel, in the full throes of his jealous passion for Albertine, is wondering whether Albertine has been deceiving him with Vinteuil’s daughter; the unfaithful Morel is playing the violin in the ensemble, watched over by Charlus; the distant memory of Swann’s love for Odette is conjured up by the little phrase. And in a long digression Marcel reflects that the septet has emerged from the indecipherable scraps of manuscript painstakingly pieced together by the lesbian lover of Mademoiselle Vinteuil after Vinteuil’s death, in an act of atonement for the perverse games of sexual desecration the lovers used to play out in front of the composer’s photograph. He recalls that their sexual relationship developed from a carnal one– a ‘smouldering conflagration’ — into a ‘pure and lofty friendship,’ and out of this shift was born a succession of restored masterpieces. From sexual love to the deeper joy of art: The story has a shape which prefigures the transformation that is about to take place in Marcel.
Gathering up the strands of the erotic tension, the music seems to move forward in a new direction, toward a higher sphere of creative revelation. Again, Marcel refers us back to the earlier work, almost in astonishment. Where the sonata was marked by pastoral limpidity, the septet is pregnant with meaning: it is alive with a ‘mysterious hope’ which might be love, or something more. The composer could only be Vinteuil, but the septet seems the work of a new order of artist. In a key passage, Vinteuil is described as composing the septet in a state of creative frenzy that fuses the artist’s energy with sexual ecstasy: ‘panting, intoxicated, unbridled, vertiginous, while he painted his great musical fresco’ — like Michelangelo ‘hurling tumultuous brush-strokes’ at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel while strapped in his scaffold. The timid, sad music teacher has been transformed into a turbulent, fecund genius, channeling an erotic life force into the creation of a masterpiece.
Aware that he is about to make a significant discovery, Marcel is led away from the web of love and sexual enthrallment toward a brave new world where creative vision transfigures everything it touches. It is now that the septet triggers a rush of revelation — about art, about vocation, about truth. Marcel is struck by the new authenticity of Vinteuil’s art: this is because he is being faithful to his ‘inner homeland,’ and as a result his work has attained new depths, ‘a transposition of profundity into terms of sound.’ Only music, being nonverbal and non representative, can transmit ideas, visions, directly from the artist’s inner world to another human being; music is the true communication des ames.
The definitive epiphany comes when Marcel hears in the music a call toward a joy that is ‘supraterrestrial,’ a transcendent happiness above and beyond the elusive rewards of love. He is now ready to move away from social life, from the torment of living with Albertine, from the toils of erotic enslavement, toward the ‘real life’ of literature, ‘life at least laid bard and illuminated.’
Close to the end of the novel Marcel will think back to this moment and connect it to the ‘extratemporal joy’ caused by the taste of the madeleine or the sound of a spoon on a plate. The performance of the septet thus joins the line of sacred, time-confusing revelations which propel Marcel toward his true destiny as a writer.’
And from the same book, by Jeremy Eicher:
“When I go to concerts, I often bring along a colleague or a friend, but my most frequent companion, the one who always arrives just as the lights have dimmed and the silence fallen, is Marcel Proust. Indeed, ever since I first read Proust, his musical sensibilities have joined me in the concert hall, for in addition to being the poet of love, of longing, of memory, and of loss, Proust is the poet of listening.
And nowhere more so than when Marcel attends a performance of a septet by Vinteuil, a master composer of Proust’s own invention. As he does with so many other experiences, Proust here brilliantly discloses the interior monologue of listening. His long spiraling sentences unspool in the mind the way a warm sinuous melody by Brahms might unspool in the air. Of course, the concert scene itself is also ripe for Proustian mischief. The contrast between the intensely private act of listening and the experience of doing so while surrounded by members of Parisian society, each brimming with envy and spite, allows Marcel to toggle magisterially between his two favorite roles: the social critic, who illuminates the outer world of masks; and the writer-philosopher, who spins around the searchlights, pointing them at once inward and beyond.
But the rewards of Proust’s writing on music originate from someplace deeper than simply the public-private nature of a concert experience. They stem from the very essence of musical art. Whereas painters work on canvas, musicians work on Proust’s favorite medium of all — time. They transform time by painting it with sound, and in Proust’s world, if the composer is attuned to his own inner depths, then the colors he chooses will reflect those depths; his melodies and harmonies will speak in an accent that is uniquely his own, like a fingerprint of his soul. The composer’s music thus becomes a summary of his memories, a distillation of a past that even he may have forgotten. It is preserved through notation and immortalized in the pages of a score. When the piece is then brought to life in a concert setting, the performance represents nothing less than the very act of time regained. In this passage, the concert enables the deceased Vinteuil to return to this earth ‘in the sound of those instruments which he had loved.’
But as Proust shows us, the septet is more than the embodiment of a composer’s lost time. For the listener, it is also a bridge in Vinteuil’s interior world, a way for Marcel to glimpse the mysteries of another self that lie hopelessly beyond the reach of language. This is an essential function of great art for Proust: it permits us to bend the prison bars of our own subjectivity — ‘to possess other eyes’ — and thereby to transcend our own limitations. A piece of music can thus become like a narrow isthmus connecting two distant islands otherwise engulfed by oceans of solitude.
Proust was indeed the ultimate cartographer of loneliness, but one need not share his radical sense of isolation to appreciate its antidote in music; powerful works can draw us blissfully away from ourselves and into another state of mind. Each music lover no doubt has his favorite routes of departure. My own include the solo violin and cello works by Bach, with their sense of somber nobility, and the late quartets of Beethoven, to which we could easily apply Proust’s phrase ‘the transposition of profundity into terms of sound.’ And yet, the magic of this music is not only the journey out that it affords but also the journey in, the journey back. As Proust of all writers would appreciate, each of our most cherished pieces of music can over time become a diary into which we unconsciously inscribe a history of private moments, associations, and memories. Hearing the piece performed again can be an invitation to leaf back through its pages, and discover in its wash of sound the tokens of a past life that seem all the more precious because we never knew they had been saved.
Of course, as Marcel discovers time and again, drawing heavily on memories can leave one disappointed when faced with the thing itself; the performance in the here and now can seem pallid in comparison to those that resonate with the special depth conferred on them by memory alone. Even so, a piece as magisterial as Beethoven’s Quarter Opus 132 will reveal new previously invisible details in every life performance, and one can simply sit back and relish the ways that past and present intermingle in finely woven counterpoint. Once this otherworldly music has concluded, it can be difficult, as Marcel alludes to in the original passage, to make idle conversation with a concert date. But then again, that depends on who has joined you for the program.”
The Weekend’s Reading:
Moncrieff: “Even in the lifetime of the great composer…” through “…a dozen times at La Raspeliere.” Pages 348-378; Kindle locations: 4510-17/4912-19
Clark: “During the lifetime of the great composer…” through “…you’ve seen them time and again at La Raspliere.” Pages 240-261; Kindle locations: 4578-85/4951-58
Enjoy. And enjoy your weekend.
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