In Search of the Vinteuil Sonata

Jennifer Rushworth, Lecturer in French Studies at the UCL School of European Languages, Culture and Society (SELCS), reflects on the search for the Vinteuil Sonata, a creation of French novelist Marcel Proust.

This blog was originally written for the Rimbaud & Verlaine Foundation as part of their COVID-19 lockdown blog series. The arts organisation takes the French poets Arthur Rimbaud and Paul Verlaine as an inspirational starting point for a much wider mission to champion the arts and culture.

Vinteuil belongs to a series of imaginary artists in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. He joins company with Bergotte the imaginary writer and Elstir the imaginary painter. Vinteuil, for his part, is a composer, although he also teaches piano (including to the protagonist’s great-aunts) and is the village organist. As a character he does not survive long in Proust’s novel. By the end of only the first part of the first volume he is already dead.

Vinteuil’s music, however, lives on. For a long time, his only surviving composition is thought to be his sonata for piano and violin in F sharp, which Swann hears at Mme Verdurin’s salon in ‘Un amour de Swann’ and which the protagonist hears performed by Odette on piano in the first part of volume two. Much later in the novel, in the fifth volume (La Prisonnière), the protagonist hears another work by Vinteuil at Mme Verdurin’s salon: the septet. At this point, the protagonist’s eventual familiarity with yet ‘other works’ is also alluded to but not expanded upon.

Vinteuil’s septet is an unusual piece which seems to exceed its own genre. If you try to count the instruments named in Proust’s prose, you end up with more than seven: violin, piano, cello, double-bass, harp, flute, oboe, and unspecified brass (in the plural: ‘les cuivres’). The septet is also puzzlingly referred to at one point as a ‘piece for ten instruments’, exacerbating this confusion.i

Proust describes the septet in terms of changing weather from dawn to midday at sea, and for this reason it has most often been thought to be inspired by Debussy’s La Mer (1905). Yet Vinteuil’s septet has been much neglected compared to interest in his sonata. One reason may be that more people manage the early volumes of À la recherche (and even ‘Un amour de Swann’ as a standalone piece) than reach La Prisonnière. Another likely reason is that the violin sonata as a musical genre is much more established and recognisable than the septet, making the game of finding the real sonata much richer in potential material (as we will see in a moment).

Alan Halliday, ‘The Vinteuil Sonata’, oil on canvas

The focus of this blog will, similarly, be on Vinteuil’s sonata. But I would like to encourage readers to consider, too, the later passages on the septet, especially as the septet proves to be much more significant for the protagonist than the sonata. For the protagonist, the septet is a call to art and a significant waymark on his journey towards the promise to write his own book expressed in the final volume. Vinteuil’s septet also sounds much more interesting than his sonata: where the sonata is white, floral, rustic, and dove-like, the septet is red, stormy, oceanic, and ‘like a mystic cock-crow’.ii

Vinteuil’s sonata is rarely heard in its entirety in Proust’s novel. Odette and Swann isolate from the sonata a ‘little phrase’ that becomes ‘the national anthem of their love’.iii The sonata is also often performed in a version for piano solo, making it ideal for the home. Proust’s description of Odette’s performance at Swann’s request gives hope to amateur pianists everywhere:

he would ask her to play […] the little phrase from Vinteuil’s sonata, even though Odette played very badly, but the loveliest vision of a work of art that stays with us is often the one that transcended the wrong notes coaxed by unskilful fingers from an out-of-tune piano.iv

The sonata gives rise to moving meditations on the relationship between music and memory. Unlike the sporadic, epiphanic nature of involuntary memory, new music calls on a different, more hard-working form of memory. According to the narrator of ‘Un amour de Swann’, music would be impossible to describe or understand:           

if memory, like a labourer working to put down lasting foundations in the midst of waves, by fabricating for us facsimiles of these fleeting phrases, did not allow us to compare them to those that follow them and to differentiate them.v

Memory produces an imperfect transcription, one which is ‘summary and temporary’, and which ‘is no longer pure music’ but rather ‘drawing, architecture, thought’. Memory is necessary, even as it sullies the ‘purely musical’

Once familiar, however, music can still become a catalyst for involuntary memory, as when Swann unexpectedly hears the Vinteuil sonata at a concert at Mme de Saint-Euverte’s towards the end of ‘Un amour de Swann’, and is suddenly reminded of his lost love:

And before Swann had time to understand, and say to himself: ‘It’s the little phrase from the Sonata by Vinteuil; don’t listen!’ all his memories of the time when Odette was in love with him, which he had managed until now to keep out of sight in the deepest part of himself, deceived by this sudden beam of light from the time of love which they believed had returned, had awoken and flown swiftly back up to sing madly to him, with no pity for his present misfortune, the forgotten refrains of happiness.vii 

Finally, although Vinteuil’s septet may turn out to be much more dramatic, Proust does also use gorgeous imagery for the sonata. Particularly charming is the following comparison to a conversation between birds:

First the solitary piano lamented, like a bird abandoned by its mate; the violin heard it, answered it as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at the beginning of the world, as if there were only the two of them still on the earth, or rather in this world closed to all the rest, constructed by the logic of a creator, this world in which there would never be more than the two of them: this sonata.viii 

The sonata is a ‘world closed to all the rest’, and yet frequent attempts have been made to trespass upon its exclusivity. The dyadic, closed world of Vinteuil’s sonata has become overpopulated with other sonatas in a quest to find the real sonata behind Vinteuil’s imaginary music. Even this passage is a case in point. Its similarity to a description of Franck’s violin sonata in A major in one of Proust’s letters is a key piece of evidence adduced in favour of the argument that Franck is Vinteuil.

The quest for the ‘real’ sonata had already started in Proust’s lifetime. In the following note to the friend and fellow novelist Jacques de Lacretelle dated 20 April 1918, we find Proust grappling with questions about the various keys and models to places, characters, and music in his novel:

            Dear friend,

There are no keys to the characters in this book, or rather, there are eight or ten to a single one; equally, for the church at Combray, my memory borrowed several churches (or had them pose) as ‘models’. I can no longer tell you which ones. […]

My memories are more precise for the Sonata. To the extent that I drew on reality, a very limited extent, in fact, the little phrase from this Sonata, and I’ve never told anyone this before, is, at the Saint-Euverte soirée (to begin at the end), the charming but mediocre theme from a Violin and Piano Sonata by Saint-Saëns, a composer I dislike. (I’ll show you the precise passage, which recurs several times and was a triumph for Jacques Thibaud.) At the same soirée, a little further on, it wouldn’t surprise me if, talking of the little phrase, I hadn’t been thinking of the Good Friday Spell. Still at the same soirée, when violin and piano lament like two birds calling to one another, I was thinking of Franck’s Sonata, especially as played by Enesco (Franck’s Quartet appears in later volumes). The tremolo passages played over the little phrase at the Verdurins’ were suggested by the Prelude to Lohengrin, but the phrase itself at that moment by a piece by Schubert. At the same Verdurin soirée, it becomes a ravishing piece by Fauré. […]ix 

To those who want to find Vinteuil’s sonata, this text initially appears to be a godsend. The reader is offered a whole series of clues. Some are quite specific: the Franck violin sonata, once again, but before that Saint-Saëns’s violin sonata in D minor, as well as music by Wagner. Others are much vaguer: namely, the unspecified pieces by Schubert and Fauré. To find Vinteuil’s sonata, it seems that all we need to do is imagine a heady mix of music by all these composers.

On reflection, however, I think that this note raises more questions than it answers. Firstly, Saint-Saëns (a favourite candidate) is introduced only to be immediately undermined, since Saint-Saëns is a composer Proust dislikes. Secondly, Proust asserts here that À la recherche is not a roman à clef. As he writes at the start of this note and reiterates at its close, ‘there are no keys’. Thirdly, and most importantly, Proust’s list of sources for the Vinteuil sonata creates a monstrous, parodic chimera rather than a credible piece of music.

Despite the complex tone of this letter, the sonatas of Saint-Saëns and Franck have remained as the most commonly cited models for the Vinteuil sonata. Still other suggestions have been made, including most recently a recording of violin sonatas made by Maria and Nathalia Milstein under the seductive title La Sonate de Vinteuil (Mirare, 2018). These sisters include not only the quasi-obligatory Saint-Saëns but also violin sonatas by Debussy and — their personal favourite, and a newcomer to this question — Gabriel Pierné.

The ‘real’ Vinteuil is a great hook for this CD, and a great way to bring a less well-known violin sonata from the period into the limelight. But these sorts of projects are ultimately reductive as approaches to Proust’s novel and miss the point of the choice of imaginary rather than real music in À la recherche.

Instead of seeking to find Vinteuil’s sonata in existing repertoire, a different but related quest is the composition of new music inspired by Proust’s novel. Some of these compositions have been necessitated by adaptations of Proust for the screen, in particular Volker Schlöndorff’s Un amour de Swann (1984) and Raoul Ruiz’s Le Temps retrouvé (1999).x I have also played my own small part in adding to this body of musical works inspired by Proust, in 2017 commissioning two then-undergraduate music students at the University of Oxford to compose music inspired by Vinteuil’s sonata.xi These sort of activities are fun as a way to find out how different readers imagine Vinteuil’s music. But they can never please everybody. Their pleasure lies in their being collaborative, provisional, and multiple in nature and scope, rather than in offering an impossibly definitive version of Proust’s Vinteuil.

This more creative, imaginative response to Proust’s music has also borne literary fruits in the recent fictional biography of Vinteuil by Jérôme Bastianelli: La Vraie Vie de Vinteuil (2019). If anyone can pull off such a project, it is Bastianelli, who is both a biographer of real composers (including Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky, and Bizet) and a noted Proustian and current president of the Société des Amis de Marcel Proust. In this book, Bastianelli beautifully sidesteps issues of the real Vinteuil by arguing for Vinteuil’s influence on Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Debussy, and Franck, rather than vice versa. He also avoids the identification of Vinteuil and Franck, instead presenting Franck as Vinteuil’s ‘seul véritable ami’.xii

Vinteuil is neither Franck, nor Saint-Saëns, nor Fauré. Nor is he any other real composer, past, present, or future, even if it is enjoyable to hear later composers imagine themselves in his shoes. Ultimately, we ought to respect Proust’s decision to include an imaginary composer in his novel, with all the challenges attendant upon this decision. Vinteuil’s music is meant to be inaudible and inaccessible to Proust’s readers, and therefore all the more desirable. For Proust’s narrator, after all, ‘we love only what we do not possess’.xiii

In the end, my advice is: don’t go in search of the Vinteuil sonata. Admire and respect Vinteuil’s sonata as a ‘world closed to all the rest, constructed by the logic of a creator’ who is none other than Proust himself. Save your energy for remembering and returning to the music that has been significant in your own life. Don’t try to live through Proust’s protagonist. Find your own, personal equivalent of Proust’s Vinteuil. And, if you like, try to write about it.

i The Prisoner, trans. by Carol Clark, in Marcel Proust, In Search of Lost Time, ed. by Christopher Prendergast, 6 vols (London: Penguin Classics, 2003), v, 241. All further quotations from Proust’s novel are from volumes in this translation.

ii For this comparison of the sonata and the septet, rather to the detriment of the former, see The Prisoner, p. 229.

iii The Way by Swann’s, trans. by Lydia Davis, p. 221.

iv The Way by Swann’s, p. 239.

v The Way by Swann’s, p. 212.

vi All these quotations come from the same passage in The Way of Swann’s, p. 212.

vii The Way by Swann’s, p. 347.

viii The Way by Swann’s, p. 354.

ix Letter cited from Proust, Selected Letters: Volume 4: 1918–1922, ed. by Philip Kolb and trans. by Joanna Kilmartin (London: HarperCollins, 2000), pp. 39–41.

x On the music for these films see Arthur Morisseau, ‘L’après-Vinteuil: la partition littéraire proustienne vue par les compositeurs Jorge Arriagada et Hans Werner Henze’, Quaderni proustiani, (2015), 247–58.

xi The composers in question were Alice Buhaenko and Adam Turner, and the project was funded by the John Fell OUP Research Fund: see

xii Jérôme Bastianelli, La Vraie Vie de Vinteuil (Paris: Grasset, 2019), p. 13.

xiii The Prisoner, p. 355.

Feature image: Photo by Geert Pieters on Unsplash

NoteThe views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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