Do you have to be a music lover to love Proust?

Music has been one of the greatest passions in my life.Marcel Proust confided to historian and journalist Jacques Benoist Mechin in 1922. I say It was, For now I hardly have the opportunity to hear it except in my memory. […] It runs like a golden thread through all my work. In one thought, Marcel Proust sums up all the importance of music in his life and his titanic work: golden thread which spans across the seven volumes of Search.

On the cusp of the 20th century, music and literature rub shoulders tightly. While music is seen more as a pretext for literature than an actual object, Proust wishes to take it higher. Instead of talking about its beauty and seeing it as an abstract aesthetic art, the author talks about it the influence For this art, capable of expressing the ineffable in literature, in order to break the rational imitation of words and grammar. In his words, Proust explores the power of musical experience over memory and the soul.

Marcel Proust, music lover

Fascinated by classical music from an early age, Marcel Proust enjoyed café parties and folk music (which he called ” Bad music ” in Pleasures and days 1896) of the great figures of the time including Paulus, Mayol, and Mistinguett:

I hate bad music, don’t despise it. […] Its place, zero in the history of art, is enormous in the emotional history of societies. Respect, I do not say love, for bad music is not only a form of what one might call the charity or skepticism of good taste, but also an awareness of the importance of the social role of music. »

When Proust began writing the first sentences of his masterpiece, he was already benefiting from a rich musical culture. His mother and grandmother are talented pianists, and young Marcel is introduced to the piano from his childhood. His family owns a box office at the Paris Opera, which he frequents regularly. He also attends concerts at the Paris Conservatoire. Finally, Proust is a music critic in his spare time, in particular at Gallic.

He entered the Parisian salons first through Jacques Bizet, son of the composer Georges Bizet, and joined the salons of Ernest Stern and Madeleine Lemaire where he met the greatest figures in the French music scene of the time. It was there that Proust met the composer Rinaldo Hahn in 1894.

A deep friendship develops between the two artists, gradually turning into a relationship as brief as it is combinatorial. One might imagine that Proust’s musical tastes were influenced by his intimate relationship with Hahn, but on the contrary, their relationship is shaped by discussion and opposition of musical opinions. If Rinaldo admired the works of Massenet (his teacher at the conservatory) and Saint-Saëns, then Marcel was more fascinated by the music of Wagner, Debussy and even Stravinsky. Proust will not fail to notice the contradiction of tastes in his usual elegance: I don’t force myself to like what you don’t like […] But for no reason, I don’t know anything about it quipped in a letter to Rinaldo Hahn in August 1912.

Self-portrait with Reinaldo Hahn by Marcel Proust

© Getty
World History Archive

music in search

Proust does his job Search A true mirror of what surrounds him, from politics to society, obviously including music. Over fifty classical and romantic composers are mentioned there, notably his favorites such as Wagner, Beethoven, Schumann, Debussy and also Bach, Fauré, Franck, Saint-Saëns, Liszt, Strauss, Berlioz, Bizet, Mascagni, Mendelssohn, Handel, Puccini, and Meyerbeer.

Also copied were the Parisian music salons of the time, the great social laboratories, which allowed musical discovery and socialization among the privileged. A keen observer, Proust never fails to notice Search the arrogant and easily malleable tastes of these salon audiences, determined more by money and appearances than by true musical knowledge:

I asked instead holidays Debussy, which made people exclaim: “Ah! That’s great!” From the first note. But Morel realized that he only knew the first bars, and as a child he began Meyerbeer’s career without any intention of obscurity. Unfortunately, since he had few transfers left and no issues No advertisement, everyone thought it was still Debussy, and people kept shouting: “Sublime! »can we read in the fourth volume, Sodom and Gomorrah.




1 hour 58

Great music to listen

Marcel Proust not only talks about the musical life of his time, but also the music of the life that surrounds him. Thus we find it in the third volume A side of Guermantes Evidence for the musical ear of Proust, who compares the gusts of wind hitting the trapdoor of his fireplace to ” The famous bow strokes with which the symphony begins are in C minor » [de Beethoven, ndlr]. we also hear ” hatching erotic and haunting phrases superimposed on the pilgrim chorus at the end of Tannhauser’s Overture. When the landing door slowly closes.

Even the abstract idea of ​​the human figure is open to musical comparison. The obstinate character of Françoise (Aunt Léonie’s cook in Cambrai) who resumes her sentence as soon as she is interrupted, evokes for the narrator ” The unwavering solidity of Bach’s fugues »(Sodom and Gomorrah).

Added to the musical ear is the look. Some commentators credit Proust’s synesthesia abilities: stimulating one of his senses is likely to involuntarily awaken another (eg, the appearance of colors and the sense of textures when listening to sound). Several examples support this hypothesis. The most striking thing comes to us when the narrator invokes and compares Vinteuil’s works prisoner :” No doubt the glowing septum differed uniquely from the white sonata », but also the long list of city names in On Swann’s side:

Parma name […] It seems to me compact, soft, violet and soft, […] Bayeux is very high in reddish noble lace […] ; the sweet Lamballe whose white ranges from eggshell yellow to pearly grey; Coutances, the Norman cathedral, which is crowned with an oil finial and frosted with a tower of buttercream »

Vinteuil, the most realistic of all fantasy composers

Together with the composers quoted during SearchOne author in particular stands out: the obscure Vinteuil. But this composer is not like the others, because he is fictional. It is actually located in Search Three fictional artists: Elstir the painter, Bergotte the writer and Vinteuil the composer.

Little is known about Vinteuil’s life and work, except that he is the author of two musical works: A Sonata for piano and violin and one roadblock. If only the latter appeared for the first time in prisonerThe Sonata Hear from the first volume of Searchfrom which A short sentence Of great importance in the work of Proust. But who is Vinteuil? Is it a representation of one or more real composers?

This question does not find a clear answer, although the author left several references in his writings and correspondence: Vinteuil stands for Franck’s great musician ‘, he wrote to Madame de Madrazo in 1916. In addition to inspiration of character, Vinteuil is one of the most stark expositions of the thesis developed by Proust in a text written before Search It was even published after his death with the title against Sainte-Beuve. In particular, the book criticizes the interpretation, and even the belittling of the nature of artistic creativity in relation to the biography of its author:

Vinteuil is the essential illustration of this question. He is soon presented as a petty-bourgeois, conservative, boring, grumpy person, extremely strict in good manners. At the same time, he is the creator of an unexpected masterpiece. People who know him and his work refuse to make the connection. But Proust makes clear To us that you can be a person who looks a bit monotonous but with unimaginable audacity Vinteuil is one of the best performances of this thesis that was so close to the heart to Proust explains Jerome Bastianelli, French music critic, essayist and author of the novel The real life of Vinteuil.




28 minutes

Musical Madeleine from Vinteuil

Through the seven volumes of Search, A kind of musical ritornello that returns with regularity, rare and subtle but of surprising strength and of great importance at the core of the work. aka ” short sentence By Vinteuil, these few notes from Sonata for piano and violin The fictional composer awakens the involuntary memory of first protagonist Swann, and later narrator Marcel. But what is the musical inspiration for this little phrase?

The question remains without a definitive answer, but the author reveals some real inspiration in a letter to Jacques de Lacretel, with the following disclaimer: To the small extent that reality has served me, very little measure of telling the truth Mentioned in particular is the first Sonata for piano and violin saint san f Good Friday Magic From Parsifal Wagner Sonata for violin and piano Frank, tremolos from the intro Lohengrin Again, but also something by Schubert W “delightful piano piece” by Gabriel Fore.





While it is tempting to try to pinpoint the origins of ” small wholesale There is no benefit or strength to this motive. Instead of describing the beauty of the sentence, it is the influence It is her beauty that Proust describes to us, trying to reconcile the objective existence of a musical work with the subjective experience of the listener.

The sudden arrival of the little ferry never ceases to surprise Swan and instantly brings him back to memories of his love affair with Odette. ” This little phrase is the idea that our greatest emotions can blend into many scales. We can, in two or three minutes of music, sum up an entire life Jerome Bastianelli explains.




59 minutes

More than an art or a passion for music lovers, Proust made music a phenomenon of the mind, capable of absorbing the most complex feelings and deepest memories: “ Language endowed with the mysterious power of resurrection Proust was conceived by Jacques Benoist Mechin in 1922.

Through these few notes, all the power of music is revealed in Proust, capable of bringing out the involuntary memory through which the past can be relived through emotion rather than reconstructed through memory. A process by which the untold depths of the soul are evoked, as elegant as taking a bite of the famous Madeleine. In lost time, music exists and evolves, which is made immortal by memory and rediscovered by listening to some notes.






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