The Magic of Music Captured in Words

Nicky Gluch and Paul Cooke pay tribute to Marcel Proust

Book 1: On 10 May 1871, the Treaty of Frankfurt was signed, establishing the agreement between France and Prussia in the aftermath of the War of 1870. Exactly two months later, Jeanne Clémence Proust (née Weil), whose family was from the recently-ceded Alsace region, gave birth to a son, naming him Marcel. On 5 August, Proust was baptised in his father’s Catholic faith. In every other way, he was his mother’s son, their bond only strengthened by his weak health.

Book 2: Musical Interlude #1 — What music did Proust hear in his childhood? Did it include Wagner and Beethoven, the two composers he mentions most often in his novel? Was he aware of Fauré’s first violin sonata, premiered in 1877? Or, through his mother’s family, of Naumbourg and David, composers in the Parisian Jewish tradition…

Book 3: From the age of 11, Proust studied at the Lycée Condorcet. There, he wrote for the class magazine, and came under the influence of his philosophy teacher, Alphonse Darlu. His most lasting education, however, occurred outside the classroom. His schoolfriends were the children of society hostesses, and Proust delighted in attending their salons, including at Versailles! Upon graduating, surprisingly for someone so ill, Proust served a year in the military at Orléans, enjoying the experience for its discipline and comradeship.

Book 4: Musical Interlude #2 — Through his attendance at salons, Proust met many contemporary composers and wrote articles about them, including Saint-Saëns and Reynaldo Hahn (who set to music Proust’s Portraits de musiciens, and poems about Chopin, Gluck, Schumann and Mozart). In 1907 he himself hosted a concert, which included music from Couperin through to Chabrier, with an emphasis on Fauré, who was unfortunately unable to attend.

Book 5: By the time he was 25, Proust was a published author. While attempting to write his first novel, however, he became entangled with the Dreyfus affair. Proust sympathised with Dreyfus – the soldier from the Alsace region who shared his mother’s Jewish faith – but the affair divided French society in very ugly ways. In 1899, Proust discovered the art criticism of John Ruskin, and found a new sense of purpose, spurred further by the death of his parents in 1903 and 1905.

Book 6: Musical Interlude #3 — In 1911, increasingly bedridden, Proust took out a subscription to a théâtrophone, enabling him to listen to live opera performances via telephone. Regarding Beethoven’s late quartets and the music of Franck as his “principal spiritual nourishment”, in 1916 Proust arranged for an ensemble led by Gaston Poulet to perform string quartets in his bedroom. Such engagements with music allowed him to develop a “gift for describing music as sensory engagement, for emulating its flow in his own prose, and for giving voice to the interior monologue of a listener in the act of confronting something new”.

Book 7: At the age of 38, Proust began writing his magnum opus, In Search of Lost Time. It was his attempt to put on paper his philosophy, as elucidated by narrative drawn from his life and shaped by an allegorical search for truth. The book is a timepiece, capturing the politics of the Third Republic and its social mores, but ultimately, time beat Proust. He died before the final volumes could be revised, which made the book’s message ring all the more true.

Broadcast details: Sunday Special, Celebrating Marcel Proust, Sunday, 25 July, 3-5pm

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