SEPTET:  SEA SURFACE FULL OF CLOUDS





On a cold December morning I sit at my long wooden desk, pen in hand, inscribing my
thoughts along the measured lines of white paper, happy to exist both here and now, to be
me, and to be doing this.  At the same time, this contentment is somewhat undermined by
an opposite feeling: the yearning to escape, the desire to transcend particularity, the need
to merge with the infinite.  Like the sea I am pulled and pushed, ebbing and flowing from
delight in the world to longing for nirvana.

I look out at the quiet, snowy scene; I close my eyes and search within: I am an enigma
wrapped within a larger enigma.

This doesn’t bother me anymore: I’ve learned to live with it.  Besides, it’s not the only
irreducible mystery  I’ve come to celebrate and to explore.   For example, I recently came
to the conclusion that the world as we know it is the creation of a fictitious writer who,
being the artistic construction of a “real writer”, logically could not have pre-existed his
maker, though he’d need to in order to make the world.  (See
Legends of the Beginning in
Links to a Labyrinthine Past.)

But how, exactly, does one “celebrate and explore” such paradoxes?  One way is through
art, and in particular through music, a language at once precise and ambivalent, thus
suitable to the expression of what you may call eloquent confusion, a prime example of
which is the focus of inquiry in this article – a Septet,
Sea Surface Full of Clouds,   by
Vintueil, the imaginary composer in Proust’s
 A la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

The enigma here, of course, is that the famous and beautiful description of this piece has
existed for all these years without any real music, without any actual composer.  What I
have attempted is to construct the work, rather strictly along the lines the author describes
it, from its instrumentation to its structure, and, most crucially, to its evocative effects.  The
result may be unique in the annals of music: a work, a detailed account of which  precedes
and inspires its own existence.


Proust informs us that, while the Septet is new to the ears of his protagonist, Marcel, the
young man is familiar with another work of the composer (as faithful Proustians will be ) -  
the  violin sonata beloved of Swann, discussed in an earlier section of the novel.  Marcel’s
initial response is inevitably to compare:

Whereas the sonata opened upon a lily-white pastoral dawn, dividing its fragile purity
only to hover in the delicate yet compact entanglement of a rustic bower of honeysuckle
against white geraniums, it was upon flat, unbroken surfaces like those of the sea on
mornings that threaten storm, in the midst of an eerie silence in an infinite void, that this
new work began, and it was into a rose-red daybreak that this unknown universe was
drawn from the silence and the night to build up gradually before me.

This redness, so new, so absent from the tender, pastoral, unadorned sonata, tinged all
the sky, as dawn does, with a mysterious hope.  And a song already pierced the air, a
song on seven notes, but the strangest, the most remote from anything I had ever
imagined, at once ineffable and strident, no longer the cooing of a dove as in the sonata,
but rending the air, as vivid as the scarlet tint in which the opening bars had been
bathed, something like a mystical cock-crow, the ineffable but ear-piercing call of eternal
morning.  The atmosphere, cold, rain-washed, electric – of a quality so different, subject
to different  pressures, in a word so remote from the virginal, plant-strewn world of the
sonata – changed continually, eclipsing the crimson promise of the dawn.  At noon,
however, in a burst of scorching but transitory sunlight, it seemed to reach fulfillment in a
heavy, rustic, almost cloddish gaiety in which the lurching, riotous clangor of bells (like
those which set the Church square of Combray aglow and which Vinteuil, who must have
often heard them, had perhaps discovered at that moment in his memory like a color
which a painter has at hand on his palette) seemed the material representation of the
coarsest joy.

Our listener becomes distracted partly by others in the audience, partly through his
tendency to associate what he hears with incidents in his life and the feelings they create,
and so it’s many pages later we are told:

Me
anwhile the Septet, which had begun again, was moving toward its close; again and
again one phrase or another from the sonata recurred, but altered each time, its rhythm
or harmony different, the same and yet something else, as things recur in life; and they
were phrases of the sort which, without our being able to understand what affinity assigns
to them as their sole and necessary abode the past of a certain composer, are to be
found only in his works, and appear constantly in his works, of which they are the spirits,
the dryads, the familiar deities; I had at first distinguished in the Septet two or three.  
Presently, bathed in the violet mist which was wont to rise particularly in Vintueil’s later
works, so much so that, even when he introduced as dance measure, it remained captive
in the heart of an opal – I caught a hint of another phrase from the sonata, still so distant
that I scarcely recognized it; hesitatingly it approached, vanished as if in alarm, then
returned, intertwined with others that had come, as I later learned, from other works,
summoning yet others which became  in their turn seductive and persuasive as soon as
they tamed, and took their places in the round, the divine round that yet remained
invisible to the bulk of the audience…

Next, remarkably:

…the phrases withdrew, one at a time, save one which I saw reappear five or six times,
without being able to distinguish its features, but so caressing, so different – as no doubt
the little phrase from the sonata had been for Swann – from anything that any woman had
ever made me desire, that this phrase – this invisible creature whose language I did not
know but whom I understood so well – which offered me in so sweet a voice a happiness
that it really would have been worth the struggle to obtain, is perhaps the only Unknown
Woman that it has ever been my good fortune to meet.  

In the end:

…the joyous motif was left triumphant; it was no longer an almost anxious appeal
addressed to an empty sky, it was an ineffable joy which seemed to come from paradise,
a joy as different from that of the sonata as some scarlet–clad Mantegna archangel
sounding a trumpet from a grave and a Bellini seraph strumming a therobo.  

The author is struck, above all,  by the originality of this music, leading him to observe that:


Each artist seems thus to be the native of an unknown country which he himself has
forgotten but to which he remains all his life unconsciously attuned.

The reason for the forgetfulness, of course, is that this “unknown country” does not exist
until the music is there to conjure it, and so we come again to the paradox of circularity.  I
repeat: the world is the product of a fictitious author, himself the product of the world.  And
neither he nor we have any solid idea what we’re doing, though we seem to learn as we
proceed.  

The situation  is complicated further by the fact that our attempts to express ourselves  -
indeed to understand ourselves – are necessarily mediated through language (be it the
language of speech or of music), which compels us to utilize transpersonal modes (be it
the vocabulary of English or the syntax of tonality).  This cultural inheritance facilitates
comprehension even as is it inhibits (or stylizes) communication.  But perhaps it is this
tension between our desire to be known and the boundaries that selfhood imposes that
creates art, that creates, even, the world.  What we produce, in the end, is not quite what
we intended, and it’s probably better that way.

And yet, while there is no “Fatherland”, nothing tangible to refer back to, perhaps there is
something – virtual, timeless, ideal, to which our fictitious author, and Proust, and even
we, have access: the world of all that never was and always is, that nourishes the forms
(that call it into being ) – the world of myth:

Preparing to leave the beach resort of Balbec and resume his life in Paris, Marcel’s
thoughts turn to the troupe of girls whose acquaintance he made over the summer.  
Gradually they have coalesced in his consciousness to recognizable  individuals; he likens
this to  the emergence from the sea of so many water-nymphs, and concludes that the
cost of real knowledge is the loss of magic (though some splendor clings to these mortals
through memory’s tenacity).   It is precisely this process – of the mysterious, the half-
formed, gradually crystallizing to form, that I have attempted to portray toward the end of
the Septet, and it is my hope that here,  as in Marcel’s experience, the forfeiture of mythic
immortality is justified in the name of life and in the interest of art.

For death, as the poet says, is the mother of beauty – that same poet who, in another
place writes most musically of a “Sea Surface Full of Clouds.”  (But what if the innocent
reader were to discover, after all this description and explanation, that our Septet were
inspired, not by  Proust and his Vinteuil, but by this poem instead?  Would that change
anything?  Would the music mean something else?  And if, recovering from his surprise,
our reader were to answer (quite reasonably): “No, this changes nothing.  The meaning is
the same!”, then what manner of meaning is this?  

We are led back to the mystery of the human soul (proof of whose individuality Proust
finds in Vinteuil’s inimitable genius)  which, like that indefinable, elusive meaning, must
needs inhabit one or another body, but whose transmigratory forms contain (as this, my
present body, with its aching thumb and forefinger contains), while never revealing, its
ineffable essence (thanks to which I move, restless but ever hopeful, from one doomed
effort to the next).