Aspects of Proust as Seen Through Music
Sunday, Oct 6th, 2013 at 2pm
Marshall Berland, host
Hyanghyun Lee, pianist
A Chloris* Reynaldo Hahn (1874–1947)
Le Rossignol des lilas**
Quand je fus pris au pavillon**
Sarah Tuttle*, Lucy Fitz Gibbon**, soprano
Chansons de Bilitis Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
La Flûte de Pan*
Le Tombeau des Naïades***
Kimberly Feltkamp*, Diana Yodzis**, Katherine Maysek***, mezzo-soprano
Sarabande* Albert Roussel (1869–1937)
Jazz dans la nuit**
Sara LeMesh*, mezzo-soprano
Devony Smith**, soprano
Danse macabre Camille Saint-Saëns (1835–1921)
Diana Yodzis, mezzo-soprano
Michael Hofmann, baritone
Fêtes Galantes II Claude Debussy (1862–1918)
Jeremy Hirsch*, Michael Hofmann**, baritone
Sara LeMesh, mezzo-soprano
from Clairières dans le ciel Lili Boulanger (1893–1918)
Vous m'avez regardé avec toute votre âme
Elizabeth Cohen, soprano
Si mes vers avaient des ailes* Reynaldo Hahn (1874–1947)
Dans la nuit****
Helen Huang*, Elizabeth Cohen**, Angela Aida Carducci***, soprano
Vincent Festa****, tenor
Je te veux Erik Satie (1866–1925)
Laura Soto-Bayomi, soprano
from Chansons des bois d’Amaranthe Jules Massenet (1842–1912)
Oiseau des bois
Helen Huang, soprano
Katherine Maysek, mezzo-soprano
Vincent Festa, tenor
Jeremy Hirsch, baritone
ASPECTS OF PROUST AS SEEN THROUGH MUSIC
In this, the centennial year of the publication of Swann’s Way, we return once more to the endless fascination with what has become the Everest of the modern novel—arguably the most important novel of the twentieth century virtually from its inception.
Interestingly, it is also the centennial of Stravinsky’s avant garde Le Sacre du Printemps, which changes the perception of the world of music from then on (although some of its’ succès de scandale might have been orchestrated by ballet impresario Diaghilev)--
sharing an irony that would have amused Proust in retrospect.
The stupendous achievement of À la recherche du temps perdu has not been diminished with the passage of time. From the outset, it has been a high-water mark of literary achievement on virtually all fronts; if anything it has gained in luster. First translated into English in 1922 by Moncrieff as Remembrance of Things Past, the seven volumes, encompassing nearly 3500 pages, incorporate virtually the entire social and cultural history of what was known to modern man at the time. This vast creative outpouring is dwarfed by the volume of works about Proust and his masterpiece since then by some of the greatest minds of our time.
Later scholarship (which has never diminished) now favors a title change from Moncrieff’s initial poetic flight of fancy to the more accurate In Search of Lost Time, truer to the final volume and spirit of the work. Everyone who is anyone in literature has weighed in on the matter. From the beginning, its effect has been global, particularly in the English speaking world. Graham Greene declared that Proust was the greatest novelist of the twentieth century, as Tolstoy was of the nineteenth.
(In the interest of fairness and full disclosure, I have read—am reading—the works in translation; much of my fascination has been with the social and literary impact of Proust on his contemporaries and followers. MB)
Even though reading it in translation, one admittedly loses many of the literary allusions and some of the more delicious bons mots of ironic humor, if it is to be experienced at all, even with a rusty knowledge of rudimentary French, one must
trust the translator. It is a testament to the vitality of the work that there continue to be revisions and reinterpretations honing the nuances of translation as time goes by.
Proust’s range of knowledge is mind-boggling – to recount a quip heard years ago, “He never had an unexpressed thought.” There is virtually nothing affecting the human condition that is beyond his range of interest and preoccupation. At first blush, his sense of concentration and focus are disconcerting to say the least—unnerving even to someone as formidable as his contemporary, Colette, whom he fixed with his riveting gaze at a literary salon when they met as precocious young talents. He compared her to the god Hermes and perceived her bisexuality, which might have contributed to her unrest at the meeting. He seemed able to absorb the qualities of whomever and whatever caught his attention; no detail escaped his notice.
Beyond the exquisitely detailed descriptions of his surroundings, altered subtly to enhance his art (for example, the conversion of his childhood memories of Illiers become Combray in literature; seaside resort Cabourg becomes Balbec); the fluidity of his transformation of male to female characters and vice versa amplifies his abiding obsessive need to transform life into pure art; grist for the mill of his own unique Enigma Variations. His great interest in music and composers serves his art; the Artist, the Painter and the Author are synthesized from his friends and acquaintances into symbolic characters to advance his ideas and his ideals; the most evident association being his affair with Reynaldo Hahn—who continued to be one of the most important presences in his life, longer than almost any of his obsessive romantic relationships, all doomed to failure by his frenzied intensity.
It is more or less acknowledged that Hahn had also been a young lover of the closeted Saint-Saens, his teacher and mentor—perhaps one of the reasons that the jealous Marcel professed a lack of enthusiasm for his music. Gabriel Fauré, born in 1845, had also been a prodigy studying with Saint-Saëns a generation before. Proust loved the Faure setting of one of his favorite poems from Baudelaire’s Fleurs de Mal, “ J’aime de vos longs yeux la lumière verdâtre” (“I love how the greenish light of your long eyes”). He used to hum it to Mary Finaly, a girl he had a crush on in his early years. This theme of love and dreamy escape is echoed in Après un rêve, one of Faure’s loveliest songs, set from an anonymous Tuscan poem, translated into French by Romain Bussine.
Proust first met Hahn when Reynaldo was about nineteen, three years his junior, at the salon of Madame Lemaire, and they soon became close companions. Urged on by Proust’s ardent attentions, he proposed that they collaborate on a biography of Chopin whom they both admired. Hahn was trying to produce his first opera, L’Île du rêve (The Island of Dreams) while Proust was involved with the creation of a deluxe volume called Les Plaisirs et les Jours (Pleasures and Days) with illustrations by Madeleine Lemaire and an introduction by Anatole France (who also became the inspiration for one of his characters). Hahn contributed music set to two poems by Proust, praising painters and musicians.
Hahn had been a prodigy as well. Moving from Venezuela with his family at the age of three, he made his artistic debut at eight in the salon of Napoleon’s niece, the Princesse de Metternich, singing Offenbach and accompanying himself on the piano. By the age of ten, he had begun his studies with Jules Massenet, Charles Gounod and Camille Saint-Saëns at the Conservatoire de Paris! By the age of fourteen he had set Paul Verlaine’s Chansons grises to music, reprinted in Le Figaro, making him an overnight sensation; by the age of sixteen he was performing his setting of Victor Hugo’s Si mes vers avaeint des ailes (If my verses had wings) frequently on request in the best of chic Paris’ salons. He was known from childhood for his beautiful singing voice.
During these early years, he was devoted to the beautiful young courtesans Liane de Pougy and Cléo de Mérode, ostensibly dancers from the Paris Opera ballet (and famous Grandes Horizontales of the fin de siècle). We cannot know the extent of the hanky-panky between these steamy seductresses and the androgynous Hahn and Proust. They were all precocious, spoiled and brilliant—fascinating to and fascinated by each other and those around them; the discreet curtain of circumspection is drawn across these friendships—which has a certain appropriateness—compared to these “tell it like it is” days. One suspects that if given acquiescence, the boys would have probably beaten a hasty retreat.
These courtesans were like rock stars … everyone knew the most intimate details of their lives and who gave them their fabulous jewelry and how much it was worth. Although these gorgeous creatures lived beyond the pale, they were nevertheless celebrated in the upper echelons of polite society, their exploits and adventures known by le tout-Paris, discussed the next morning over Le Figaro with their café au lait and croissants. Their patrons were often the nobility—princes and dukes celebrated in literature and music. They were the divas of their time, women with discretion, business acumen and personality as well as physical charms-- like Laure Hayman, Cora Pearl and La Belle Otéro, who had a soi-disant career as a Spanish singer and dancer (One wag, commenting on her performance, noted: “I have seen Otéro sing and I have heard her dance!”) People collected their pictures with the same fervor as the baseball cards of a later era.
This luxurious demi-monde existed in a parallel universe along side of the ultra-conservative precincts of Le Gratin, each known to the other, but seldom intersecting. The 1958 Vincent Minnelli film Gigi from Colette’s sentimental novella, explored this world musically. Proust’s fluidity of social ease made him a denizen of both, keenly observing without judgment, defined in his narration of the life of Charles Swann and his disastrous loyalty to the louche Odette.
Edmund White recalls when Marcel and Hahn were walking through a garden, Marcel became transfixed by a rosebush, telling Hahn to continue without him. Reynaldo returned after taking a tour of the entire garden to find him, still in the same spot, completely absorbed to the exclusion of all else. This was his way; and there was very little that missed his total focus. The hawthorn blossoms that surround the Narrator of Swann’s Way take on a ritualistic significance that is communicated in Proust’s sinuous recollection of their effect like a fly in amber, caught in the moment, immutable for all time.
This quality of intense observation, dispassionate and removed, is used with enormous effect in his recitation of the foibles and nuances of the petite and grande bourgeoisie of this fading world, recounting the minutiae and social rituals at the end of La Belle Époque as they perform their final stately maneuvers. By the time Proust died in November of 1922, the last vestiges of France’s Ancien Régime were gone forever, rent asunder by the horror of the First World War. Whatever remained of the Belle Époque
was swept away by the Spanish Influenza pandemic afterward, between 1918 and 1920, which killed nearly 100 million people all over the world--a vast number beyond comprehension.
But the trajectory of Proust’s novels indelibly recreates the lingering zeitgeist of this privileged world. He was born into this world of wealth and comfort, the son of a very successful doctor and his Jewish heiress wife. Neurasthenic and of delicate health from his early years, he suffered from acute asthma. Either because of or as a result of his frailty, he developed a neurotic dependency on his mother, made immortal in the pages of Swann’s Way –with the flood of memories rushing forth when he famously dipped his madeleine into lime-flower (linden blossom) tea, perhaps the most historic act of recollection in all of literature.
It is impossible to even begin to encapsulate any of the story lines. They transport us from the bosom of Le Gratin at the upper echelon of France’s noblest families — through the voluptuous decadence of Volume IV, Sodom and Gomorrah (Cities of the Plain) and the futility of true love to his final realization and commitment to the ideals of Art and Truth in the final volume, Time Regained with his return to Paris after the war and his recollections of all that has transpired with shattering clarity. It is a monument to contrast: we see life at the top as well as the intimate honest lives of the humblest servants, drawn with dignity, humor and respect. All the people are portrayed in intricate detail piled upon detail, in the grandest salons of Paris or at their ease in the chateau-strewn countryside, with an appreciation of nature that rivals Thoreau’s Walden Pond in its bucolic splendor. Yet there is a sympathy, a lack of moral judgment and generosity, even in the avalanche of words and impressions that confound, that overwhelm those without the dogged determination to continue, lulled by the sonority, the musicality of the incomparable prose. One must accept the pace of the prose and its unique rhythm. (The novels probably top the list of Books Started and Never Finished – comparable to attempts to give up smoking or Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Steps!) But the rewards are many. If he hadn’t lived, I doubt whether anyone would believe his life reported as it actually happened.
Proust’s preoccupation with music is a central leitmotif in his work. The shy fictional composite composer Vinteuil (thought to be based on César Franck) creates the ‘little phrase’ (referred to in the accompanying program notes by Byron Adams) “…the charming but mediocre phrase of a violin concerto by Saint- Saëns, a musician I do not care for.”(Saint- Saëns’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in D Minor, Opus 75).
Marcel’s interests were encouraged from an early age: when he was in high school at the Lycée Condorcet, he was friendly with Daniel Halévy, nephew of Fromental Halévy. composer of La Juive, one of the grandest of 19th century Grand Operas. Proust’s ardent adolescent advances were repulsed by young Halévy; he then switched his romantic attentions to Daniel’s young cousin. classmate Jacques Bizet (son of Georges Bizet, composer of Carmen, who had died when the boy was only three). Proust loved his widow, Geneviève Halévy Bizet, married to the lawyer Émile Strauss, who was kind and attentive to his youthful devotion; she became the model for the clever and charming Duchesse de Guermantes in the novel.
This was one case in which Proust did not reassign the sex or major characteristics of his literary creation. Swann was modeled on another friend, Charles Haas, also of Jewish descent. Curiously, a number of the people who figure intimately in the life of Proust have a Jewish connection but do not practice the religion. Although his own mother was Jewish, he was raised as a Catholic, baptized in the Church, but lived his life free of any real religious affiliation. Reynaldo Hahn also had one Jewish and one Catholic parent.
The spurned love of his youth created a pattern that was unfortunately to be repeated time after time throughout his life. The obsessive dependence on his mother and then on various men in his life drove people away, no matter how devoted they were to ‘notre petit Marcel’. But he was nevertheless welcomed in the finest salons of Paris –he and Colette were described by a contemporary as ‘the funniest people of Paris.’ Some things never change: even now, what’s left of Le Gratin likes to be amused and they will tolerate a great deal as long as it remains unspoken and the invisible boundaries are not breached.
Around this time, famed British actress Mrs. Patrick Campbell remarked, “It doesn’t matter what one does, as long as you don’t do it in the road and frighten the horses. “
A noted wit in her time –she carried on a cerebral affair by correspondence with George Bernard Shaw, collected under the title Dear Liar. Weary of the chase, she finally married, writing Shaw that she had “given up the hurly-burly of the chaise-longue for the deep deep peace of the double bed.”
Marcel’s unmistakable brilliance made him welcome among the nobility and haute bourgeoisie of Paris and the Faubourg Saint-Germain; his increasing eccentricities were tolerated nevertheless as his illness progressed. Late in his life, as his condition worsened, he felt constantly chilled—wearing a fur-lined coat over his evening clothes (and sometimes his hat as well) indoors for entire evenings –sorties that became more and more rare as his frailty increased. He would appear after midnight when his breathing became easier. The soirées musicales of these elegant entertainments often featured the music of Reynaldo Hahn as well as the work of other friends like Faure and Debussy, whose Pélleas and Mélisande he much admired; he and Hahn disagreed on this and the work of Wagner, that Proust also enjoyed. Passionate letters to Debussy went unanswered. It is thought that the ‘little phrase’ spoken of was also influenced by the Franck String Quartet.
Think of the Narrator in Swann’s Way, who reflects “No one can tell at first that he is an invert, or a poet, or a scoundrel.” ‘Invert’ was Proust’s chosen term for the homosexual, (Baudelaire refers to the pederast). Marcel never actually defines his sexuality in so many words, despite his passionate outpourings of love to various men through the years.
As a matter of fact, it is a fascinating anomaly that he challenged the father of young Marcel Plantevignes in Cabourg to a duel in a complicated situation over his fervent attention to the young boy. This was one of several instances where he reacted with uncharacteristic hubris, taking umbrage over accusations of homosexuality, despite general acknowledgement and acceptance of his sexual preference. In later years, like
E. M. Forster’s Maurice, he displayed a penchant for young men of the lower classes –waiters at the Ritz and his Argentinean chauffeur in particular, which resulted in the embarrassment of his arrest on January 11, 1918 in a raid on a male brothel in the Rue de L’Arcade.
The laissez-faire attitude toward sexuality also applies to the uniquely Gallic take on bad girls who were only as good as they have to be, reappearing in different guises as one of the most durable heroines in opera; premiered in 1884, Manon by Hahn’s mentor, Massenet, was wildly successful. Based on the 1731 cautionary tale by Abbé Prevost, it was first set as an opera by Auber in 1856. The classic story of a girl from the provinces caught up in the lure and allure of Paris’ Beau Monde. The aria, “Adieu, notre petite table” bids farewell to the simple life as she succumbs to a life of luxury and ultimately betrayal; caressing the voice, it is a mainstay in the repertoire of every smart soprano. Manon was so popular that Massenet penned a one-act sequel (Le Portrait de Manon) premiering in 1894, which unfortunately didn’t match its progenitor’s success. After seeing Manon, Puccini — who knew a good thing when he saw it—penned his own version, Manon Lescaut, achieving his first real notoriety in 1893. As a classic more than 150 years old, it was fair game for another take which did the trick in setting Puccini up as the inheritor of Verdi’s mantle of success.
The lure of Parisian high life as a trap for impressionable young girls had another viewing in Gustave Charpentier’s popular verismo opera, Louise, which premiered at the Opéra Comique in Paris in 1900 –during Proust’s lifetime, by 1921 it had been performed more than 500 times. Launching the career of Mary Garden, it tells the tale of Montmartre, the other side of Paris. The young daughter, the eponymous Louise, is a seamstress living with her poor but proper family, longing for the freedom of bohemian Paris instead of the constraints of living at home. Some things never change. She breaks free and goes off to live with lover, Julien, while her father curses the lure of the fleshpots of Paris. Her most famous aria, Depuis le Jour—“Since the day I gave myself, my fate seems all in flower… .” is a staple as a concert showpiece. The complete opera is not performed too often these days, but it was a great hit in the heydays of the New York City Opera as one of Beverly Sills’ stellar roles. A sequel, Julien, followed but did not achieve success for Charpentier. Certainly seen by Proust at the time, one wonders about his view of the seamier side of his beau monde. This was also the time the same neighborhood was portrayed by Puccini in La Bohème, which premiered in Turin on 1 February 1896 conducted by the young Arturo Toscanini. One could imagine Louise and Mimi being friends and neighbors, dreaming and sewing together.
Unquestionably the most riveting of these girls of easy virtue was Lola Montez, who was born Eliza Gilbert and numbered Franz Liszt, Alexander Dumas, and King Ludwig of Bavaria among her conquests — in a long and checkered career which was dramatized in a famous 1955 Max Ophüls’ bio-movie, starring Martine Carol as the eponymous Lola — famous for, among other things, her notorious Spider Dance (which unfortunately was not been captured on film). One of the last of these Bad Girls of la Belle Époque was the notorious Mata Hari (born in Holland as Magaretha MacLeod) who went out with a bang at the end of World War I. (She wasn’t much of a spy, but as a matter of fact, she wasn’t much of a dancer, either.)
Alexander Dumas, fils created the most enduring demi-mondaine with the doomed Marguerite Gautier, inspired by Marie Duplessis, his mistress in real life. Marie came from Normandy and became a courtesan by the age of fifteen, dying tragically at the age of just 23. She lives on, of course, as both La Dame aux Camelias and as Verdi’s tubercular charmer, Violetta Valéry in La Traviata. Her virtuous demise proved to be a goldmine for both Proust muses Réjane and Sarah Bernhardt, who commissioned Alfonse Mucha’s famous poster of her in the role for her theatre.
She was also played by the fascinating Russian dancer, Ida Rubinstein, a beautiful Jewish Russian heiress who became muse to so many. Among other works, she commissioned Ravel’s Boléro — dancing on a table choreographed by Nijinska, first performed November 22, 1928 with tremendous success. She also commissioned Debussy’s setting of her lover Gabriele D’Annunzio’s The Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, choreographed by Michel Folkine. The Bakst painting of her in costume for the role is in the Isabella Stuart Gardner Museum in Boston.
Ida Rubinstein was another of those fabulous creatures that seem to have been the special breed of the fin-de-siècle. Born in St Petersburg in 1885, she didn’t have to struggle or sacrifice her virtue — she was orphaned very young, inheriting an enormous fortune which she used creatively. She studied ballet with Folkine and joined Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes who took her to Paris—she danced Schéhérazade, Stravinsky’s Firebird and Cléopatra with Nijinsky, costumed by Bakst, performed the Dance of the Seven Veils in the nude as Oscar Wilde’s Salomé in a private performance; she married in 1936 and lived in England until 1960. Not really much of a dancer, she nevertheless had enormous charisma, exquisitely beautiful with a lovely expressive voice and great acting ability. Like Sarah Bernhardt, she had her own ballet and acting company touring the world. She was painted and photographed by scores of artists, including Serov and Van Dongen, sculpted as one of the Art Deco icons by Russian Demetre Chiaparus.
There is a silent movie of her in an obscure D’Annunzio play called La Nave that is visible on the Internet. It became the libretto for the obscure Montemezzi opera of the same name. I like to imagine that she and Proust met—there is no reports that they hadn’t –and he was one of the guests of honor at a party for the opening of the Stravinsky ballet Renard on May 18, 1922 which provides the fictionalized backdrop for the engrossing book, Proust at the Majestic by Richard Davenport-Hines depicting the last days of Proust.
There is a tremendous nostalgia in these recollections of this stylish unique world, set down for eternity by Proust—a world of enormous creativity and originality never to return.
October 6, 2013
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