Eivind Buene – a fragment from his essay "Swann’s Ears: Proust and Music"

Eivind Buene is a Norwegian composer and writer. Since 2000, he has been a freelance composer living in Oslo, collaborating with a variety of European orchestras and ensembles. Buene has written reviews and essays, and made his literary debut with the novel "Enmannsorkester" in 2010. At the 30th MBZ Eivind Buene will introduce his composition "Possible Cities / Essential Landscapes" on April 7, at the Gavella Drama Theater. Here is the fragment from his essay "Swann’s Ears: Proust and Music".

Swann’s Ears: Proust and Music


Of all the scholarly paragraphs spent on In search of lost time, a fair amount is dedicated to the role of music. There is a small cult dedicated to Vinteuil and his sonata, and it is no surprise that several musicians and composers have tried to realize fiction – to actually compose the Vinteuil sonata. On websites and blogs you can find posts by people looking for recordings of the Vinteuil sonata, and a lot of snippets on YouTube play Saint Saëns Violin Sonata in d-minor under the heading of Vinteuil. Yes, Proust wrote in a letter that this piece was a model for the sonata – even though he found Saint Saëns to be mediocre. But Proust created his musical fictions in the same way that he created character: His characters are compounds of features lifted from several different persons in his surroundings, and by the same token his music is composed by traits from an array of different pieces. Proust’s lover, the composer Reynaldo Hahn, describes how Proust made him play a phrase from Saint Saëns Violin Sonata again and again, similar to how Odette played the little phrase to Swann. But Proust also writes, in another letter, that he has used the Good Friday music from Wagner’s Parsifal and music by César Franck in descriptions of the Vinteuil sonata.

In Proust’s time serious music was linked to long durations and large-scale form. Proust was into opera, and one of his earliest fascinations was Richard Wagner. I imagine Marcel as a boy must have had similarities with the young Hanno in Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks; the upper-class kid devoured by a Wagner-cult representing the last, decadent phase of the decline of a bourgeoisie family. In the first versions of In Search of Lost Time the narrator had his epiphanies during a performance of Wagner’s Parsifal. In the finished book, in The Captive, Wagner was substituted by the fictitious Vinteuil, a change that gives Proust – and the reader – a great advantage: Wagner would have linked the reading to something already known, non-fictional, with what we could call a reality-effect. But by choosing the fictional Vinteuil, Proust opens up a room for our imagination, a space we can populate with our own musical imaginations of an ideal, world-changing music. Having to relate to the very real Wagner would reduce this space for imagination and co-creation. Proust does the same with two other artists that are prominent in the weave of In Search of Lost Time; both the writer Bergotte and the painter Elstir are fictitious, even though readers with special knowledge surely can deduce their real-life models. There are numerous references to real writers, composers, musicians, artists and great gardeners (!) – their works and ideas are discussed at length both in dialogue and in the inner monologues of the narrator. But the important moments, the epiphanies and turning points, deal exclusively with the experience of fictitious works of art. The narrator hints at this hierarchy when he asserts that “in the state of mind in which we ‘observe’ we are a long way below the level to which we rise when we create.” Proust wanted to spare the reader for the disappointment the narrator felt when he finally got to see the church in Balbec; in its modest surroundings chained to the main street with bank, café and omnibus office, the historical church appears depressingly trivial compared to the vision the narrator had created for himself. The famous sculpture of Maria was reduced to its own appearance, “transformed, as was the church itself, into a little old woman in stone whose height I could measure and count her wrinkles.”

So the descriptions of Vinteuil’s music are infused with the music of Proust’s contemporaries. Here, in the French music, he found the care for detail, the fugitive and brilliant moment, like the one we can read from the description of the little phrase. But even if it were romantic composers close to the worn-out music of the Salons that inspired this writing, Proust was an avid listener to the avant-garde of his time. His tastes were advanced, not least in his admiration for Claude Debussy. Debussy was nine years older than Proust, born in 1862, and a true pioneer in ways that are not so easy to grasp when we hear his music today. Debussy suspends the causal, dramaturgical development that governed both sonata form and the symphony. While Beethoven creates a dialectic where main theme and secondary theme confront each other in the symphonic development, Debussy is not preoccupied with dramatic development. In short: He breaks the arrow of time. Time is no longer unidirectional; themes and motives are juggled around, colored in different hues, but they are not developed in any classical sense. They are unfazed by the gravitational force of time. The parallel to Proust’s mnemonic work is striking. We also find literal traces of Debussy in In Search of Lost Time, most obvious in the description of Vinteuil’s Septet, where the opening of Debussy’s La Mer is a palpable model. Proust even had his opera Pelléas et Mélisande transmitted live from the Garnier-opera to his bedroom, via telephone line, in a Stone Age version of streaming. We can picture the sound quality of the transmission, and admire Proust’s sonic imagination and ability for creative listening.

This takes us to a mode of listening that is not passively consuming, but that demands that we as listeners recreate music in our own inner imaginations. Which we can assume that Proust did, in his bed with his ear pressed against the telephone receiver. This mode of listening (both via noisy phone-lines and following operatic time-spans) demands something else from us than the motive, the phrase or the song does. In the same way that it takes something else to read Proust than, why not, this little essay that you can read while you wait for the teakettle to boil. Listening to long structures of sound demands that we can meet the slow, outer time of music with an inner sense of time where we direct our attention towards what is happening in our ears. We have to sort and classify sonic information, keep it alive in a room that is not created by visual means but which is purely mental. This active, co-creative listening is one of the abilities that allow Proust to write so convincingly about the possibilities of music. He puts it beautifully in In a Budding Grove, where the narrator reflects on listening to Wagner’s overtures: “I was trying to elevate myself, as far as I could, so as to attain to a comprehension of them, I was extracting from myself so as to understand them, and was attributing to them, all that was best and most profound in my own nature at that time.” Music is not only something that comes to you. You also come to music, with all the powers of your imagination.


Eivind Buene