THE VINTEUIL SONATA
The year before, at an evening party, he had heard a piece of music played...that had
opened and expanded his soul, as the fragrance of certain roses, wafted upon the moist
air of evening, has the power of dilating one's nostrils...It had at once suggested to him a
world of inexpressible delights, of whose existence, before hearing it, he had never
dreamed...With a slow and rhythmical movement it led him first this way, then that,
toward of state of happiness that was noble, unintelligible yet precise...And then
suddenly...it changed direction, and, in a fresh movement, more rapid, fragile,
melancholy, incessant, sweet, it bore him off with it towards new vistas...He was like a
man into whose life a woman he has seen for a moment passing by has brought the
image of a new beauty which deepens his own sensibility, although he does not even
know her name, or whether he will ever see her again...
The above excerpt, as everyone knows (or ought to) comes from Swann's Way, the first
section of Marcel Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Peru, rendered by the original
English translator, C. K. Scott Moncrieff (with a grace and felicity proportionate to its
inaccuracy) as Remembrance of Things Past (from Shakespeare). The "little phrase,"
we are told, comes from a sonata by one Vintueil, a fictional composer believed by
various scholars to be modelled, respectively, on Franck, or Faure, or Saint-Seans, or
Lodyzhensky, or some amalgamation of the above.
In any case the debate is now over: In Ofterdingen's world there is no Proust, but Vinteuil
is real, and I can prove it - I have found the sonata!
This one - movement work, a Trio for flute, viola and piano, contains, as its principal
theme, a phrase in whose recurrences we find just that mixture of plasticity and mutability
so enchanting to Swann, and which becomes entangled with his love for Odette. Without
attempting to dissect the score (for a flightless butterfly is but a husk of beauty) we may
note, among the elements of Vinteuil's musical language, a suppleness of rhythm as well
as a preference for a pair of scales whose mutual relation is akin to that which exists
between the major and relative minor in our tonal system. The principal scale, known to
us as the acoustic, features both Lydian fourth and Mixolydian seventh degrees (A, B, C
#, D#, E, F#, G), while its complement comprises the same pitch collection but centers on
F#, yielding lower Phrygian and upper Dorian tetrachords. (Of course such descriptions
by comparison with the norms of our world offer a distorted perspective. The same holds
true for the structure of the work which, instead of attempting to squeeze into sonata -
allegro principles, we can see as exhibiting just that proportion of unity and variety which
allows each part to contribute to its organic wholeness.)
Now, according to Proust, the encounter with this music effects a change in his
Swann found in himself, in the memory of this phrase...the presence of one of those
invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe, but to which, as though the music
had had upon the moral bareness from which he was suffering a sort of recreative
influence, he was conscious once again of a desire, almost, indeed of the power to
consecrate his life.
Yet this does not happen, and ultimately Swann's infatuation with the woman is revealed
as illusory and impermanent; neither does his life undergo any lasting transformation,
leading us to ask: Is beauty a delusion, art a sham, a drug, a decadent indulgence? Or,
despite Swann's failures, can art be redemptive, or prophetic, can it endow the ephemera
of experience with permanence and form, and through this transmutation make possible
the search for meaning? Can art, can love, improve us?
Well, speaking from experience (to answer only the last question) I would say that the
madness of love that takes us by surprise and turns our lives upside down, transforming
the ordinary world, rendering us strangers to ourselves and virtual newborns in the world
- such a love is unnatural, a product of the exacerbated imagination, and will end badly,
leaving us as it did Swann, wondering how it ever began. On the other hand, the ways
of a philanderer are cynical and vicious; gradually they erode the soul. So a middle
course, befitting us humans (hybrid beings, adrift between the lower realms of matter and
the empyrean of spirit) seems best, where love is cultivated over time - perhaps a lifetime
- through a relationship rooted in attraction, but gaining depth through shared experience,
and allowing, with sympathy and humor, for inevitable limitations. (My darling would be
miffed were she to read this: the fact is she isn't interested enough to bother - and that's
what I mean about accepting limitations.)
As for me, I like to imagine Vinteuil, years after conceiving the sonata, remembering its
genesis on a fine summer morning at, say, Montauk (where the sky bends down to meet
the shore and the sea), recalling how he awoke after a night of thunderstorms and
strolled along the glistening boulevard, and realizing, as he recollects, that "everything
lovely in this memory comes not from the place itself but from its association with the birth
of that melody."
Which brings us to Proust and the definition of art as translation - in this case the
translation of impressions of a beach resort into tones, rhythms and textures, according to
which the notion of artistic "invention" collapses into that of the discovery of
...Except that the best translation is the least accurate, and vice versa, or so it seems.
For instance, when I travel (be it abroad or, recently, to neighboring heavenly bodies in
our solar system - see What We Found on Europa) I customarily keep a detailed diary
which I refine from hastily sketched impressions to the transparent prose expected of me.
Yet with regret do I observe each time how the effort to express clearly what I have seen
has robbed me of what I most urgently sought: a sense of the reality I lived. Art is not a
mirror of life but a stylized representation.
...Unless we insist upon the nebulous, the confused, the inexplicable, as in that passage
where Proust's Narrator, driving along a country road, finds his carriage approaching a
cluster of trees, whose appearance grants him the tantalizing pleasure of a recognition
that cannot be placed, though he remains convinced that a full apprehension of the reality
abiding behind their appearance, alone in the world, would enable him to "begin to live a
true life." He wonders whether the apparition comes "from years already remote," or
whether it should be numbered among "those dream landscapes beneath the outer
appearance of which" he was "dimly aware of there being something more," or whether,
in fact, he had never seen the trees before, in which case they might "conceal beneath
their surface...a meaning as obscure...as is the distant past."
Remarkably, the scene does not resolve to clarity. The carriage passes, the trees
recede, and the narrator seems to discern "the helpless anguish of a beloved person who
has lost the gift of speech."
Is music like that? People assume composers "express themselves" through the craft, but
fail to appreciate that the materials of music are potent, and exist outside our creative
endeavors. The composer stands in relation to his materials rather as a magician to his
potions: he has learned, to some degree, to harness the dangerous stuff, but he can't be
credited with making magic - it's in the materials. I think that, in Vinteuil's world, if there
were a Proust to read and he read him, coming upon the description of his sonata with
which this article began, he'd exclaim: "Upon my word! I never imagined any such thing.
I was just trying to make a nice melody."
Meanwhile, in this, our world, a final irony remains: In this, our fallen world (world of
mutual suspicion and lies) so long as I insist on the existence of Vinteuil I stand accused
of making up stories and of suffering from acute cultural nostalgia, of being a
bone-headed dreamer with his head in the past, whereas were I to come right out and
admit to the authorship of our lovely Trio, my use, in the early 21st century, of unabashed
lyricism and sweet triads would be lauded for its Post-Modernist daring. If I had Proust's
powers I'd silence my critics with a satire, thinly guised, featuring a certain ponderous,
double-chinned colleague who would be well advised to spend less time in the faculty
snack bar and more in the library!
Ah, better to turn from such trivia to the Trio of Vinteuil, in the belief that, even if music's
meaning will never become for us wholly clear, even if the pursuit of beauty leads us not
toward the light but into mystery and deepening darkness, even if on this earth there's no
transcendence, and beyond it, no immortal life for the soul, even if we sing and love in the
shadow of oblivion, it is better to sing and to love than to be silent and alone - to sing like
Verlaine's nightingale, who seems to raise his voice in the last, tragic bars of Vinteuil's
Trio, in the song of our despair.