Print Edition - 2017-10-03  |  Life & Style

Proust’s musical puzzle solved?

  • Melody that plays role in author’s masterpiece may be work of little-known French composer
- The guardian, PARIS

Oct 3, 2017-

A few musical notes drifting through the air at a party were all it took to enchant the socialite Charles Swann, a central character in Marcel Proust’s French literary masterpiece À la recherche du temps perdu.

It was just a “little phrase” from a sonata for piano and violin in F sharp, but it triggered a tumult of emotion for Swann, and prompted a musical puzzle that has intrigued Proust’s fans since the publication of his epic work in 1913.

It is often argued the French composer Camille Saint-Saëns must be the real musician behind the mystery piece that haunts the pages of the revered seven-volume novel, but since Proust invented a composer called Vinteuil in the first book, a succession of favourite candidates have been put forward down the years, including César Franck, Claude Debussy, Gabriel Fauré, Richard Wagner and even the comparatively obscure Belgian Guillaume Lekeu.

Now two leading concert musicians and sisters, the violinist Maria and the pianist Nathalia Milstein, have a compelling new theory. They claim the musical theme that plays such a crucial role in one of the great literary works of the 20th century is more likely to come from Gabriel Pierné’s Sonata for violin and piano in D minor, Opus 36, a much less famous work.

“It is gorgeous and is very much composed along the lines described in the book,” said Maria, ahead of the release of two short films and a CD in which the sisters, who grew up in Paris, make their case by playing a selection of music related to the book. The unusual structure and mood of the piece are a neat match, she says. “It is not well known, but was written at the right time. When I heard it, it was a coup de coeur.”

The award-winning Russian-born violinist believes the Pierné sonata could finally solve the enigma of the “little phrase” that “swept over and enveloped” Swann “like a perfume or a caress”. In Proust’s story, Vinteuil is a provincial musician, unacknowledged in his own time, whose sonata wins many admirers. Other characters in the novel are based on real people, including the writer Bergotte, thought to be based in part on novelist Paul Bourget, and the painter Elstir, thought to be based on Claude Monet. But the Milsteins admit Vinteuil could well be a composite character. “Proust was a massive music fan and had many influences,” said Maria. “We can also hear Wagner’s Lohengrin in the way the music is described, or late Beethoven, while other people have proposed Franck and Fauré. So the potential prototypes are diverse and it’s likely he drew on several.”

 “There remains a mood of mystery around this sonata, and that is a good thing,” said Maria. “Proust was a genius, so in the book it is so thrilling, you have the feeling you are actually hearing it.”

Published: 03-10-2017 08:27

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