by Alex Ross
The New Yorker, Aug. 24, 2009
Forget the madeleine: the most potent sensual jolt in the first book of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is felt when Charles Swann falls under the spell of “a little phrase” in a violin sonata by a provincial composer named Vinteuil. It is a theme of five notes—“secret, murmuring, detached . . . airy and perfumed.” The first time Swann hears it, at a party, he fails to catch the composer’s name, but the melody haunts him. A year later, he encounters the sonata again and is entranced. The experience coincides with Swann’s sudden love for the courtesan Odette, yet the import of the music goes beyond matters of the heart: the refined Parisian aesthete discovers a country within, a new way for his spirit to walk. Proust writes, “After a high note sustained through two whole bars, Swann sensed its approach, stealing forth from beneath that long-drawn sonority, stretched like a curtain of sound to veil the mystery of its incubation.” Swann emerges a changed man, his mind absorbing “one of those invisible realities in which he had ceased to believe,” to which “he was conscious once again of the desire and almost the strength to consecrate his life.” The little phrase echoes through In Search of Lost Time, its intervals recurring in other compositions by Vinteuil, its implications rippling outward, until, in a central episode of The Captive, Vinteuil’s music has a life-altering effect on the narrator of the book, essentially inspiring a superficial young man to become Marcel Proust.
Proust captures the imaginary dimension of musical experience—the ability of the mind to conjure inner worlds under the influence of charged sounds. When we listen deeply, we aren’t simply registering music’s ebb and flow; we are remaking music in our own image, investing minor details with private significance. We may even develop a bond with music that we don’t hear clearly, that we heard once long ago, or that we never heard at all. When we listen to early acoustic recordings of divas such as Ernestine Schumann- Heink, we amend them on the basis of written accounts of the singers’ room-shaking power; the same goes for scratchy evidence of Charley Patton and other early blues masters. I am a poor pianist, yet my manglings of Schubert’s sonatas have told me as much as the greatest renditions by Artur Schnabel and Sviatoslav Richter, because my mind concocts a dream performance while I play.
Writers have long celebrated music’s properties of transcendence and ambiguity. They envy its seeming ability to break free of the material world, even as it remains passionately linked to daily life. “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music,” Walter Pater wrote. Schopenhauer called music “the most powerful of all the arts,” the one that directly embodies the human will. The shattering energies of Romantic music, especially the work of Beethoven and Wagner, prompted writers to seek new realms of feeling, setting the stage for modernism. Novelists of every generation have employed musical scenes to expose the longings of their characters, to decode the human heart. A virtuoso example appears in E. M. Forster’s Howards End, when Helen Schlegel and company attend a performance of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Tibby Schlegel, Helen’s brother, savors contrapuntal niceties; Fräulein Mosebach identifies emblems of Germanness; Aunt Juley waits for something she can tap her foot to; Helen dreamily pictures “a goblin walking quietly over the universe, from end to end.” Beethoven is recomposed by Forster’s characters to the point where none hear the same music.
In creating Vinteuil, Proust ventured into an esoteric subcategory of fiction— stories about composers who exist only in the pages of books. The genre goes back at least as far as Wilhelm Wackenroder’s The Remarkable Life of the Composer Joseph Berglinger, of 1796. Sometimes it has produced a particularly muggy kind of literary hot air, as in Elizabeth Sara Sheppard’s 1872 novel Charles Auchester, which features the compositions of one Chevalier Seraphael: “Soon the first trombone blazed out, the second and third responding with their stupendous tones as the amplifications of fugue involved and spread themselves more and more; until, like glory filling up and flooding the height of Heaven from the Heaven of Heavens itself, broke in the organ, and brimmed the brain with the calm of an utter and forceful expression, realized by Tone.” But some authors have accomplished the rare feat of inventing composers and works that seem nearly as real as those we have heard.
To read the literature of fictive music in sequence—from E. T. A. Hoffmann’s fantastical tales of Kapellmeister Kreisler to Proust’s exhilarating passages on Vinteuil, and from Thomas Mann’s apocalyptic Doctor Faustus to Randall Jarrell’s satirical Pictures from an Institution—is to see the rise and apparent decline of classical music as a medium of cultural power. Composers free themselves from servitude, ascend to heights of bourgeois splendor, invent esoteric new languages, lose their minds, and straggle on as misfits and kooks. Yet, from era to era, authors have returned to the central theme of music’s hold over creators and listeners alike— the great trick being to duplicate, in prose descriptions of nonexistent works, the fascination that actual music inspires. What Proust’s narrator says about memories of his grandmother applies as well to the spirit voices that speak through music: “We acquire a true knowledge only of things that we are obliged to re-create by thought, things that are hidden from us in everyday life.”
E. T. A. Hoffmann struggled to establish himself as a composer and a conductor in the first years of the nineteenth century. He showed greater flair as a critic and a storyteller, as readers who have felt the chill of his story "The Sandman" can attest. In 1810, Hoffmann more or less inaugurated the Romantic epoch in music when he perceived in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony the gateway to a new sensibility—a world of “infinite yearning,” of “awe, fear, terror, and pain.” Hoffmann celebrated what critics since Plato had sensed: music’s ability to drug the senses and awaken the subconscious.
The character of Johannes Kreisler, who appears first in two sets of essays and prose sketches called Kreisleriana (1814-15) and then in the novel Kater Murr (1819-21), is Hoffmann’s alter ego and fantasy self, a “mad musician par excellence” who seethes against the lackey status to which most composers were relegated before the advent of Beethoven. Kreisler holds the post of Kapellmeister, or music master, at various courts, writing pieces for occasions and giving lessons to unhealthily hypnotized female pupils. He is prey to manic-depressive mood swings, going in a moment from wild merriment to inconsolable weeping. He has a habit of composing prolifically by night and then burning his work the next day. Eventually, he disappears, his fate unknown. In telling Kreisler’s story, Hoffmann delivers a merciless assault on musical philistinism—the taste for florid virtuoso display and trivial wallpaper accompaniments. The essay "Beethoven’s Instrumental Music" challenges the reader to take music seriously as a mode of artistic expression: “What if it is entirely your fault that the composer’s language is clear to the initiated but not to you?”
If the phantasmagoric Kater Murr were published tomorrow as the work of a young Brooklyn hipster, it might be hailed as a tour de force of postmodern fiction. Murr, a tomcat who has taught himself to read and write, decides to issue an autobiography. As cats do, he enjoys pawing through stacks of paper, and ends up inscribing his memoir on spare pages of a manuscript on his master’s desk—the biography of Kapellmeister Kreisler. Thus, fragments of the composer’s life are strewn through Murr’s pompously charming monologues. (“Our race is chromatic,” Murr writes of the songs of his species.) In a way, Hoffmann is visiting the ultimate indignity on his suffering artist—equating him with a household pet.
Kreisler’s music seems relatively conservative in style; it honors the contrapuntal art of Bach and the melodic elegance of Italian opera. Yet it has an electrifying effect. Kreisler’s vocal duet “Ah che mi manca l’anima in si fatal momento”—a title that also appears in Hoffmann’s musical catalogue— is described thus: “Both voices rose on the waves of the song like shimmering swans, ready to fly aloft with beating wings to the golden shining clouds, then, dying in love’s sweet embrace, to founder in the roaring stream of chords until ardent sighs announced imminent death and the last addio burst forth in a wild cry of pain from the lacerated heart like a fountain of blood.” Though Kreisler works within strict formal boundaries, he expects his listeners to discern fathomless depths. Listening, too, must be creative.
Hoffmann’s fictional composer affected the real music of the nineteenth century. Robert Schumann, at an early age, devoured Hoffmann’s stories— “One hardly dares to breathe while reading Hoffmann,” he reported—and, in 1838, wrote a cycle of eight piano pieces titled Kreisleriana, whose abrupt transitions of style and mood echo both the Kapellmeister’s personality and Hoffmann’s disjunct way of telling his story. Certain passages brood over the legacy of Bach. Others scurry madly up and down the keyboard, resembling nothing so much as the literate paws of Meister Murr.
In the eighteen-twenties and thirties, composers began to liberate themselves from the servant role: Beethoven offered up his visionary last works, the youthful Berlioz unleashed his Symphonie Fantastique, and Liszt and Paganini won fame for their diabolical virtuosity. Balzac, in his 1837 novella Gambara, looked ahead to the emergence of a radical bohemian sect in the music world. Paolo Gambara, an Italian composer living in near-poverty in Paris, believes that his art is still in its infancy, and proposes to reinvent it in accordance with a deeper understanding of acoustical laws. His opera Mohammed moves through a maze of conflicting harmonic areas, at one point landing on the exotic key of C-flat major. When an Italian count hears the composer demonstrate Mohammed at the piano, he is horrified: “The principles of harmony, the most elementary rules of composition were totally alien to this formless creation. . . . The harrowing discords emerging from his fingers had evidently echoed in his ears as celestial harmonies.”
Then, in an exalted, inebriated state, Gambara rolls out the Panharmonicon, a kind of one-man orchestra that he has devised to realize his theories. When Mohammed is heard with the correct instrumentation, it turns out to be celestial after all—“the purest and sweetest music the count had ever heard.” Gambara resigns himself to obscurity; his scores “can have listeners only among people of genius.” His story is an uncanny prophecy of the twentieth-century avant-garde, and in particular of Harry Partch, who built new instruments to accommodate his radical concepts of tuning.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, composers achieved almost godlike status in Europe and America: middle-class audiences gathered at concert halls that had been erected as quasi-religious shrines to Beethoven and company. The cult of musical genius turned feverish in Romain Rolland’s Jean-Christophe, a sixteen-hundred-page behemoth that was published in installments between 1904 and 1912, became an international best-seller, won for its author a Nobel Prize, and now rests mutely on the shelves of used-book stores across the land. It tells the story of the German composer Jean-Christophe Krafft, whose last name suggests “power.” Rolland, a Frenchman, had a love-hate relationship with the august German tradition; he is best remembered in musical circles for his correspondence with Richard Strauss, whose daring he admired, although he urged Strauss to improve his taste and open his ears to French culture.
If only Jean-Christophe were itself a little less "German," in the pejorative sense. It is a novel of great laboriousness that devotes hundreds of pages to the composer’s childhood alone. The prodigy is only a few hours old when he becomes aware that “an unknown sorrow had arisen from the depths of his being.” A hundred pages in, we read that “he was like a mountain, and storms raged within him—storms of wrath, storms of sorrow!” He is now ten. Six years and a hundred and fifty pages later, he sees God—indeed, “was God. . . . God-abyss! God-gulf! Fire of Being!”
Eventually, Krafft is driven into exile by the neo-barbarism of imperial Germany, and takes refuge in Paris. After discovering the impressionism of Debussy, he fashions a synthesis of French and German musical values. But Rolland fails to give us a clear idea of what this fusion sounds like. A work inspired by Rabelais is alleged to include “great symphonic pictures, with soli and chorus, mock-heroic battles, riotous country fairs, vocal buffooneries, madrigals à la Jannequin, with tremendous childlike glee, a storm at sea, the Island of Bells, and, finally, a pastoral symphony, full of the air of the fields, and the blithe serenity of the flutes and oboes, and the clean-souled folk songs of Old France.” This suggests what Strauss might have composed if he had been given a fat check by the French tourism office.
In Search of Lost Time traverses much of the same territory with far greater authority. Proust understood acutely both the realities of musical culture and the internal life of listening. His salons are thronged with well-heeled music lovers, although their appreciation sometimes goes no deeper than that of the philistines in Hoffmann’s Kreisleriana. At one of Madame Verdurin’s salons, the adored young violinist Morel attempts to play Debussy’s "Fêtes" and, after forgetting how it goes, switches to Meyerbeer. The connoisseurs, who ordinarily would have dismissed Meyerbeer as a relic, don’t notice, and exclaim, “Sublime!” For Proust, Debussy was the supreme living composer. At one point, Proust subscribed to a rudimentary broadcast service that allowed him to monitor performances from Paris opera houses and concert halls over a telephone line. In his cork-lined room, he listened to Pelléas et Mélisande night after night, placing it beside Wagner’s Parsifal in his gallery of transcendent works.
The composer Vinteuil, an unheralded genius who finds posthumous renown, is threaded through In Search of Lost Time, although we never find out much about him. When the narrator first encounters him, in the mythic landscapes of Combray, he cuts a pathetic figure, “timid and sad.” He spends his time mourning the loss of his wife and ignoring the behavior of his daughter, who has formed a lesbian attachment to her music teacher. He seems a nullity of a person. Yet, when the music teacher undertakes the task of bringing Vinteuil’s oeuvre to light, deciphering and making fair copies of his sketches—“the modest pieces, we imagined, of an old piano teacher, a retired village organist, which we assumed were of little value in themselves”—a major body of work emerges. A cultish admiration for Vinteuil’s Sonata in F-Sharp, the piece that mesmerizes Swann, gives way to general adulation for the Septet, which transfixes and transforms the narrator when he first hears it, at the Verdurins’. By telling us so little about Vinteuil—we don’t even know his first name—Proust shows his disdain for biographical approaches to art (and for heroic sagas such as Jean-Christophe). The Septet is a masterpiece that comes from nowhere. In The Captive, Marcel marvels that “the boldest approximation to the bliss of the Beyond should have materialized precisely in the melancholy, respectable little bourgeois whom we used to meet in the Month of Mary at Combray!”
What does Vinteuil’s Septet sound like? Scholars have suggested various sources: one passage or another might echo the music of late Beethoven, César Franck, Debussy, or Proust’s onetime lover Reynaldo Hahn. The chamber works of Gabriel Fauré may resemble most closely the cultivated, compressed music that Proust describes—in particular, the “violet mist” that Vinteuil summons with certain of his textures, “so that, even when he introduced a dance measure, it remained captive in the heart of an opal.” As for the Vinteuil Sonata, the description of the "little phrase" was originally pegged to Saint-Saëns's First Violin Sonata, the character of Vinteuil having been a late addition to the inaugural volume. Wagner also lurks behind the scenes. Jean-Jacques Nattiez, in his book Proust as Musician, notes that the narrator was originally supposed to undergo a series of epiphanies while listening to Wagner operas, but Proust then decided that Marcel should “experience his revelation through an imaginary work of art, for according to the logic of the novel a real work always disappoints: attainment of the absolute could only be suggested by a work that was unrealized, unreal, and ideal.” Thus, a passage that in an early draft was intended to describe the Good Friday Spell in Parsifal—“like an iridescent bubble that had not yet burst, like a rainbow that had faded for a moment only to begin shining again with a livelier brilliance”—was reassigned to Vinteuil. This blend of French refinement and German grandeur is, as Nattiez says, a blueprint for In Search of Lost Time. Like Rolland, but far more evocatively, Proust is fantasizing a fusion of his favorites.
For the narrator, the Septet becomes an allegory of his life; phrases recurring from the Sonata remind him of past loves as well as of the sorrows of the now deceased Swann. Still, Vinteuil’s works escape Marcel’s interpretation of them, just as they would defeat the mundane biographer. They attain a higher reality precisely because the novel addresses them from so many angles, filtering them through the distracted ears of various listeners—not unlike Forster’s treatment of Beethoven in Howards End. As Vinteuil’s music is played at intervals through the cycle of novels, the Verdurins spew sophisticated platitudes, Swann keeps trying to pin down the significance of five fugitive notes, and the narrator savors the gradual evolution of phrases over time. Uncertainty about what the music means convinces us that it really exists. The ending of the Septet proclaims Vinteuil’s independence even from his creator. The fragrant little phrases drop away, and all that remains is a roughly joyful theme, like a “lurching and riotous clangour of bells.” This is the anthem of Vinteuil’s “lost fatherland”— the native country that takes shape only in sound.
At one point, the narrator asks, “Was there in art a more profound reality, in which our true personality finds an expression that is not afforded it by the activities of life?” The sentence paints a picture of European civilization in majestic repose, with music shining at its center. Yet Proust lets a question mark hang in the air, as if he did not quite believe the image. He adds another tinge of doubt in Time Regained, the coda of the cycle. Earlier, the narrator praised Wagner’s ability to generate an “outward and absolutely precise reality”—a terrain over which listeners are borne aloft, as in an airplane. But that metaphor of the ecstatic wedding of art and power darkens when the First World War shatters the aristocratic idyll. Paris comes under attack from a zeppelin, and when the narrator’s friend Robert de Saint-Loup hears the air-raid sirens wailing he compares them to Wagner, saying, “What could be more appropriate as a salute to the arrival of the Germans? . . . The Germans have to arrive before you can hear Wagner in Paris.” Debussy, as it happens, died during one of the most brutal bombardments of Paris, his gossamer dreams buried in twentieth-century noise.
Thomas Mann took a hard-eyed view of the bourgeois cult of art, even as he joined the youths who genuflected to Wagner and jostled to catch a glimpse of modern heroes such as Strauss and Mahler. Driven into exile in Los Angeles by the Wagner-loving Hitler, Mann decided to dismantle the myth of the Tragic Artist and, naturally, chose a composer as his subject. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkühn as Told by a Friend, published in 1947, is a horror show of intellectual life, twisting with inexorable logic toward a conclusion of crushing bleakness. If Vinteuil is a non-person, Leverkühn is an implosion of human negativity, a spiritual black hole. Serenus Zeitblom, the book’s narrator, says of him, “I might compare his isolation to an abyss into which the feelings others expressed for him vanished soundlessly without a trace.” We are given to understand that as a young man Leverkühn sold his soul to the Devil, although that encounter might have been a hallucination induced by syphilitic insanity. Leverkühn’s coldness also finds expression in the density and obscurity of his musical designs. Mann struggled to comprehend the modernist tendencies of the Schoenberg school, and, by giving Leverkühn a devilish aura, the novelist expressed his unease over the directions that contemporary composers were taking.
Yet Mann’s urbane, ironic sensibility would never permit a simplistic allegory. For help in constructing a musical career that could withstand expert scrutiny, he turned to the philosopher, theoretician, and ex-composer Theodor W. Adorno, who had also fled Germany for Los Angeles. A student of Alban Berg, Adorno had produced a small group of works in a largely atonal idiom, but by the forties he had given up composition, never finishing his projected magnum opus, an opera based on Huckleberry Finn. He was able to live out a vicarious career when Mann asked him to flesh out on paper Leverkühn’s most ambitious later works—Apocalipsis cum Figuris, an oratorio based on the Book of Revelation; and The Lamentation of Doctor Faust, a setting of the sixteenth-century Faust tale, in which Leverkühn’s own madness is heralded. Mann adopted Adorno’s sketches almost word for word, although his elaborations were crucial. In a prospectus for Leverkühn’s String Quartet, Adorno called the first movement “a kind of conversation among four instruments”; Mann made it a “deep-thinking, intellectually strenuous conversation among four instruments taking counsel from each other.” Mann also drew liberally on Adorno’s prose writings; when Leverkühn converses with the Devil, the latter quotes at length from Adorno’s Philosophy of New Music.
Doctor Faustus is almost a Joycean collage, in which Mann’s own voice is mingled with authentic voices from modern music. As a result, Leverkühn, like Proust’s Vinteuil, wins a certain freedom from his maker. The composer’s life may be one long descent into madness, but his music represents a quest to escape the horror, or, failing that, to capture it with all the resources at a composer’s command. I first read Doctor Faustus at the age of eighteen, and I remember feeling both appalled and thrilled by the all-devouring, chaotically conflicted concept of musical expression that it embodied, so different from the prim community of “classical music” that had been presented to me. I read the final part of the book standing by my bed in the middle of the night, the silence of the room contrasting with the sonic eruptions on the page:
This gehennan gaudium, sweeping through fifty bars, beginning with the chuckle of a single voice and rapidly gaining ground, embracing choir and orchestra, frightfully swelling in rhythmic upheavals and contrary motions to a fortissimo tutti, an overwhelming, sardonically yelling, screeching, bawling, bleating, howling, piping, whinnying salvo, the mocking, exulting laughter of the Pit.
More than a few composers of the postwar era responded with perverse enthusiasm to Mann and Adorno’s descriptions, attempting to bring them to life. György Ligeti, in Hungary, first learned about twelve-tone writing through Mann’s eccentric account of it. Hans Werner Henze, Henri Pousseur, Peter Maxwell Davies, Poul Ruders, Bengt Hambraeus, and Alfred Schnittke, among others, alluded to Leverkühn in their music; Schnittke went so far as to write an operatic adaptation of the original Faust text of 1587, as Leverkühn does. “The book had an incredible influence on me,” Schnittke told me in 1994, in a conversation at the Watergate Hotel. Like Kreisler, the fictional Leverkühn became real in the minds of composers who heard his music as they read.
In 1954, a glorious parody of Leverkühn appeared in the form of Gottfried Rosenbaum, the lovable émigré composer in Randall Jarrell’s academic satire Pictures from an Institution. Rosenbaum grew up amid the musical giants of Vienna, planning to “become Mahler”; he now has to adjust to the very different reality of an American women’s college, where he teaches music. In Rosenbaum, Leverkühn’s cold superiority mutates into rueful resignation, his diabolism into harmless eccentricity. Rosenbaum’s compositions have an absurdist dimension to them, as if Arnold Schoenberg had pooled resources with his former student John Cage:
He loved hitherto-unthought-of, thereafter- unthinkable combinations of instruments. When some extraordinary array of players filed half-proudly, half-sheepishly onto the stage, looking like the Bremen Town Musicians— if those were, as I think they were, a rooster, a cat, a dog, and a donkey—you could guess beforehand that it was to be one of Gottfried’s compositions. His Joyous Celebration of the Memory of the Master Johann Sebastian Bach had a tone-row composed of the notes B, A, C, and H (in the German notation), of these inverted, and of these transposed; and there were four movements, the first played on instruments beginning with the letter b, the second on instruments beginning with the letter a, and so on. After the magnificent group that ushered in the piece (bugle, bass-viol, bassoon, basset-horn, bombardon, bass-drum, bagpipe, baritone, and a violinist with only his bow) it was sad to see an Alp horn and an accordion come in to play the second movement. Gottfried himself said about the first group: “Vot a bunch!” When I asked him how he thought of it, he said placidly: “De devil soldt me his soul.”
Perhaps for the first time since the days of Kapellmeister Kreisler, a fictional composer displays a sense of humor about his peculiar station in life. Jarrell’s book signalled a change in how novelists depicted composers and classical music. When contemporary novelists address this world, they tend to see it in tragicomic terms, as a ship of fools sailing toward oblivion. In William Gaddis’s JR, the character of Edward Bast is a would-be Leonard Bernstein who has taken a job as composer- in-residence at a junior high school. Heedlessly, he leads a rehearsal of Wagner’s Rheingold and delivers an in-school television lecture on Mozart. Clive Linley, in Ian McEwan’s Amsterdam, styles himself as the heir to Ralph Vaughan Williams, a conservator of melody in the face of avant-garde fashion; but his Millennial Symphony turns out to be a bombastic mess, its main melody unconsciously lifted from Beethoven’s Ninth. The protagonist of Christopher Miller’s savagely funny novel Simon Silber: Works for Solo Piano is a demented composer- pianist who mingles aspects of Glenn Gould (he wears earmuffs when he plays) and John Cage (his rendition of Chopin’s “Minute Waltz” lasts an hour). “Never to have hated Silber would mean never to have known him,” the narrator says of his subject.
If the present state of imaginary music seems bleak, science fiction suggests a brighter future. Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel The Memory of Whiteness looks ahead to 3229 A.D., when a magical mechanical orchestra is the star act of the solar system, its tours attended by vast interplanetary throngs. A young man named Johannes Wright is named the ninth master of the orchestra, but he worries that the art has fallen into routine, its apparatus controlled by soulless manipulators. He imagines a new kind of music that, as Mahler once suggested of his Eighth Symphony, represents the entire universe resounding: “What is needed is a harmonic texture as dense as the fabric of the real; not notes at every possible pitch all at once, for that is not the way of the world, but chords of immense volume . . . chords woven as densely as glints in spacetime.” Wagner can rest in peace: one day, a composer will rule the universe.
Addendum: Reading list.