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Proust and Music

Marcel Proust Portrait - Visual design by François St-Aubin

“The little phrase,” did you say?
Article by Jean-Jacques Nattiez

Jean-Jacques Nattiez, Professor Emeritus of Musicology at the Université de Montréal, specializes in the relationship between music and literature, Wagner, and Inuit music. He is the author of Proust Musicien, published in 1984 and reissued in 1999 (Christian Bourgois éditeur, Paris), and translated into six languages.

The “little phrase” from Vinteuil’s sonata for violin and piano is somewhat of a “national ode” to Swann and Odette’s love story; a part of our French literary heritage, tucked away in schoolbooks between the madeleine and the pink hawthorns. To quote the relevant passage: “And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the narrow ribbon of the violin-part, delicate, unyielding, substantial and governing the whole, [Swann] had suddenly perceived, where it was trying to surge upwards in a flowing tide of sound, the mass of the piano-part, multiform, coherent, level, and breaking everywhere in melody like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. (…) he had distinguished, quite clearly, a phrase which emerged for a few moments from the waves of sound. It had at once held out to him an invitation to partake of intimate pleasures, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never dreamed, into which he felt that nothing but this phrase could initiate him; and he had been filled with love for it, as with a new and strange desire”.1

During a soirée, Swann hears a piano reduction of a work that had caught his attention the year before. Little by little, he comes to recognize the famous “little phrase” that runs through Vinteuil’s sonata, and this phrase takes on successive, variegated meanings for him throughout the story. The power of this passage from Proust’s work is such that Vinteuil’s name today adorns a room at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique et de Danse in Paris, alongside those of Lully, Rameau, Debussy, Ravel..., which, for an imaginary composer is a rare degree of existential presence indeed.

Initially, Swann feels for the phrase a desire one might feel for a stranger, his curiosity for it never waning, seeking to give it a name, a title, to identify its author – this is how Vinteuil’s name arises. The musical theme soon finds an association with his love for Odette, the demi-mondaine he meets in the salon of the Verdurins. He will endeavour to penetrate its mysterious essence.


But Swann goes about it badly, believing he can achieve his goal by asking, “for some information about this Vinteuil; what else he had done, and at what period in his life he had composed the sonata;—what meaning the little phrase could have had for him, that was what Swann wanted most to know.”2 Thus does he embark on a false trail: following the example of Sainte-Beuve, who claimed to explain literary works by the meticulous reconstitution of their authors’ biographies – the criticism of which constitutes the starting point of Proust’s great novelistic project – Swann questions the sources of the little phrase.

By the time he hears the little phrase again, later at the Marquise de Saint-Euverte’s, Odette has deceived him, his love for it has gradually withered away, and it can no longer conjure happiness. Rather, the little phrase becomes connected with the pain of remembering happy moments forever gone. As if still trying to pierce its secret, Proust then describes it in frankly mystical and religious terms. But Swann will never understand the promise this little phrase contained. What the music shows him, “is not ‘Free Will’ or ‘The Synthesis of the Infinite,’" says Swann himself, " but, for example, old Verdurin in his frock coat in the palmarium at the Jardin d’acclimatation.”3

But the story of Vinteuil’s imaginary works does not end there: Swann and Odette’s love also foreshadows the love for Albertine of the central character of In Search of Lost Time: the narrator;4 the meeting of Swann and Vinteuil is only a first step in the artistic quest undertaken by the narrator throughout the novel.

To understand the role of music in Proust’s work, it is important to keep in mind that In Search tells the story of a vocation, a calling: that of a young man who wishes to write. It is only when he has understood how Time and Memory function, how the literary work can recover “lost time,” that he will be able to engage with his novel – the one we are reading.

Now, in this quest, Vinteuil’s music plays a decisive role. At first, when Odette plays for him the little phrase on the piano,5 he does not comprehend it. Only two thousand pages later does he find it in an unpublished work by Vinteuil: a septet, where the composer “had only amused himself by making the little phrase appear for a moment.”6 This is the revelation, a mystical revelation. The Septet, for seven instruments like the seven novels of In Search, sums up all Vinteuil’s previous work. Above all, the narrator hears it at a crucial moment in his life: he has recovered from love’s illusions and understands that the secret of a work of art’s individuality does not lie in the circumstances of its creation, but in the “unknown part” that only great artists are able to bring into existence.


For the narrator, music is the model of literature: “I asked myself if music were not the unique example of what might have been—if there had not been the invention of language, the formation of words, the analysis of ideas—the means of communication between one spirit and another. It is like a possibility which has ended in nothing; humanity has developed along other lines, those of spoken and written language.”7 Proust, as well, wants to appropriate music’s good, envying its capacity to say the essential, beyond words. By divining, in the septet, a beckoning motif still mysterious to him, the narrator understands that it is creation that calls him. Swann had wasted his life in dilettantism: he ended up marrying Odette to preserve the illusory memory of a former love and began a critical study of Vermeer which he did not complete. On the other hand, thanks to music’s intercession, the narrator understands that literature is “our true life at last revealed and illumined, the only life which is really lived.”8

It is always possible to look for the sources of the “little phrase”, the sonatas and the septet in real existing works such as the violin sonatas by Saint-Saëns, Franck or Fauré, and in Franck’s quintet: scholars have written abundantly on the subject. But guided by Proust himself, other names arise; for example, in the dedication of a copy of Swann’s Way to Jacques de Lacretelle, he wrote: “Insofar as reality has served me, a very weak measure indeed, the little phrase of this Sonata, and I have never told this to anyone, is (to begin with the end), in the Saint-Euverte evening, the charming but mediocre phrase of a sonata for piano and violin by Saint-Saëns, a musician whom I do not like.

At this same evening, when the piano and the violin moan like two birds answering each other, I thought of Franck’s Sonata *(mostly played by Enesco), a composer whose quartet appears in one of the following volumes.9 The tremolos that cover the little phrase heard in the Verdurins’ house were suggested to me by a prelude from *Lohengrin, but itself at that moment, also by something by Schubert. It appears in the same Verdurin evening: a delightful piece by Fauré.”10 Contrary to what one might have thought, Proust does not mock his interlocutor here. Whether it is a question of imaginary works of art or of the characters in his novel, he is not inspired by a single model but by several of which he synthesizes, as Painter’s biography of him clearly shows.11

In the case of music, Vinteuil’s sonata and septet exist to symbolize the progression towards the absolute work of art, the model for all possible artistic creations. They cannot, therefore, correspond to actually existing works. To illustrate Vinteuil by Saint-Saëns, or Franck, would be to trivialize the music, whose meaning is almost metaphysical. We cannot hear Vinteuil’s music; we can only imagine it through Proustian writing.

Proust understood this very quickly while working on In Search. Since the publication of the work’s drafts in 1982, we know that in the first version, it was not the Septet that gave the narrator the revelation of the path to follow, but Wagner’s Good Friday Spell.12 It is significant that Proust has erased the reference to a specific work, but that at the same time, the work that lies behind the Septet is the passage where Parsifal experiences the revelation of mystical truth.


We must, therefore, read and understand the successive passages on music in Proust’s Bildungsroman as stages of a true quest for the Grail. Although it is beyond the scope of this study to provide all the details, we then discover that the writer has practised a subtle syntax of allusion that leads us from Debussy to Wagner and then to Beethoven: in other words, from a descriptive, relatively vague musical discourse (La Mer) to a quasi-language (the Wagnerian leitmotif), to musical essence in its pure state: the last Beethoven’s string quartets.

If there is a “Vinteuil mystery,” it is the mystery by virtue of which Proust is able to conquer pure music: by going back, or rather, by destroying time.

1Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way, volume 1 of In Search of Lost Time, transl. Scott Moncrieff (Digireads, 2015), pp. 304-305.
2Ibid., p. 309.
3Marcel Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, volume 2 of* In Search of Lost Time*, transl. William C. Carter (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2015), p. 118.
4In Proustian literature, “narrator” is he who calls himself “I” throughout In Search of Lost Time.
5Proust, In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, p. 114 and ff.
6Marcel Proust, The Prisonner, volume 5 of In Search of Lost Time, transl. Scott Moncrieff (Digireads, 2015), p. 3205 ff.
7Ibid., p. 3211.
8Ibid., p. 4035.
9In the final version of In Search of Lost Time, this quartet becomes a septet.
10The dedication to Jacques de Lacretelle is published in the volume entitled Contre Sainte-Beuve in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris, Gallimard, 1971), p. 565.
11G.D. Painter, Marcel Proust (Paris : Mercure de France), 2 vols.,1966.
12The original passage is in Marcel Proust, Matinée chez les Princesse de Guermantes, cahiers du Temps retrouvé, critical edition by Henri Bonnet (Paris : Gallimard, 1982).

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