July 10, 2013

“Time Is a Very Considerable Place” — Beethoven Plays an Adagio for Proust’s Birthday

book rev proustI can be visited in bed by the brook and the birds of the Pastoral Symphony, which poor Beethoven enjoyed no more directly than I do since he was completely deaf. He consoled himself by trying to reproduce the song of the birds he no longer heard …. I, too, compose symphonies in my own way, when I portray what I can no longer see.

—Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

Proust was able to hear the Pastoral Symphony in bed with the help of a device called a theatrophone, the 1913 equivalent of streaming music. For 60 francs a month, a system using telephone wires connected the subscriber to live performances at eight Paris theaters and concert halls, including the Opéra. According to William C. Carter’s Marcel Proust: A Life (Yale 2000), “no matter how sick he was,” the novelist could place his ear “next to the black trumpet” and enjoy concerts, operas, and even plays.

One drawback to the theatrophone was the erratic quality of the transmission. Three years later Proust solved this problem by inviting a string quartet into his bedroom to play César Franck’s Quartet in D. During a performance “lighted solely by candles,” Proust lay on a divan covered in green velvet “with his eyes closed, without making the slightest movement,” and when the 45-minute-long piece had been played, he thanked the musicians and asked them to play it again. By then it was two in the morning. Proust sealed the deal by giving each man three 50 franc notes that were redeemable for gold. After they finished the second performance, Proust’s housekeeper Celeste Albaret served them champagne and fried potatoes and sent them home in four taxis shortly before dawn. A month later they returned to perform Beethoven’s 13th Quartet.

book rev beethovenMagnificent Monologue 

For more than a week now I’ve been reading Proust and listening to Beethoven’s piano sonatas. After a steady diet of various performances on CDs borrowed from the library, I bought Wilhelm Kempff’s The Late Piano Sonatas on Deutsche Grammophone. Until Kempff (1895-1991), the listening experience had been uneventful, except for reminding me how out of touch I’ve been, not just with the piano music but with Beethoven in general. What finally, dramatically, caught my attention was Kempff’s performance of Sonata number 29 in B flat major (Opus 106), known as the Hammerklavier. I was in the car when the third movement stopped the world and demanded to be heard again and then again. I had to pull over. It’s always exciting when music surprises you, comes at you, conquers you. Seven minutes and twenty seconds into the prodigious Adagio Sostenuto there’s a series of variations so stirring that all you can think is how thankful you are that you heard it before you died. At this point you’re only halfway through the movement Kempf’s liner notes call “the most magnificent monologue Beethoven ever wrote,” an adagio “unequalled in the entire piano literature.” To Andreas Schiff, it’s the “greatest slow movement” ever composed.

While I can find no references to the Hammerklavier in Proust’s work, he must have appreciated what the Adagio Sostenuto does with time, or rather what it allows the pianist to do. At the end of the final volume of Terence Kilmartin’s translation of Remembrance of Things Past, time is “a very considerable place compared to the restricted one which is allotted to [men] in space, a place … prolonged past measure.” How far is the Hammerklavier’s third movement prolonged past measure? The same territory that Kempff traverses in 16½ minutes takes Christoph Eschenbach 25. The wikipedia listing for Sonata number 29 suggests a duration of 16 to 30 minutes. In his attempt to describe “the wonders of this movement,” Kempff refers to “the immense area in which the imagination is free to roam untrammeled” following a “principal subject, whose nocturnal sigh extends over 26 bars.” Spreading his rhetorical wings, Kempff pictures the theme shining through “like a distant star piercing luminous clouds.” At his most inspired (“I, too, compose symphonies … when I portray what I can no longer see”), Proust accomplishes comparable wonders within the prose equivalent of “such an immense area” by filling a single paragraph or even a single sentence with a variety of tones, turns, colors, reversals, metaphors, and associations like the subjects, themes, variations, intervals, inversions, transformations, themes, and recapitulations in Beethoven’s “unequalled” adagio.

Beethoven and the Baron

Almost all of Proust’s references to Beethoven in the seven volumes of Remembrance of Things Past relate to his most complex and ambiguous character, Baron de Charlus. Like Proust, the Baron brings musicians into his home. In the drawing room, “one could hear the first chords of the Pastoral Symphony, ‘Joy after the Storm,’ performed somewhere not far away, on the first floor no doubt” by an orchestra. Asked the musicians’ names, M. de Charlus, who refers to Beethoven as “the Deaf One,” says he doesn’t know. “One never does know. It’s invisible music.” Earlier in the same scene from The Guermantes Way, the Baron’s mood-swings are compared to “those symphonies which are played without a break between the different movements, in which a graceful scherzo, amiable and idyllic, follows the thunder-peals of the opening pages.” In The Captive, when a musician named Charles Morel is being scolded for keeping company with Charlus, “a tainted person no one will have in their house,” he is described “sweating more abundantly than if he had played all Beethoven’s sonatas in succession.”

Charlus inspires a movement in the opening pages of Cities of the Plain, where, much as Beethoven does in the monumental adagio, Proust sounds a theme, recapitulates it, and brings it to fruition, all in the space of six pages and two immense paragraphs (the first being four pages long). The gist of what happens is that Marcel, or the Narrator, after peering like “a botanist” at the “offered and neglected pistil” of a “precious plant” in the courtyard of the Hôtel de Guermantes, watches M. de Charlus eyeing and then approaching and in effect picking up an ex-tailor named Jupien, who “strikes poses with the coquetry that the orchid might have adopted on the providential arrival of the bee.” What makes Proust’s orchestration of the moment particularly fascinating is the part Beethoven’s music plays in the development of his motif, a dumbed down version of which would be “the birds and the bees” or in this case, the bee and the “offered pistil” of an orchid in the Guermantes garden.

Five pages into the passage, Proust devotes the greater part of the second paragraph to the way the Baron is looking at Jupien. In the the great adagio, the equivalent would be a series of variations on the theme of the look, detached, attentive, “infinitely unlike the glances we usually direct at a person we scarcely know,” with a “peculiar fixity” as of someone about to tell you “you have a long white thread hanging down your back” or about to employ the pretense that you both come from Zurich and must have seen each other there. At this point, the ways in which the same question seems “to be put to Jupien” through M. de Charlus’s “ogling” are compared to “those questioning phrases of Beethoven’s, indefinitely repeated at regular intervals and intended — with an exaggerated lavishness of preparation — to introduce a new theme, a change of key, a ‘re-entry.’”

Here you might want to catch your breath but the music of the paragraph continues with “the beauty of the reciprocal glances of M. de Charlus and Jupien,” an echo of the Zurich look: “In the eyes of both of them, it was the sky not of Zurich but of some Oriental city, the name of which I had not divined, that I saw reflected.” Aware by now that he has your head spinning, Proust admits the “multiplicity of these analogies.” Speaking of man in general, “if we examine him for a few minutes,” he “appears in turn a man, a man-bird, a man-fish, a man-insect” and before you know it Charlus and Jupien have become “a pair of birds, the male and female,” the female “preening her feathers” as Jupien goes out “through the carriage gate.” The Baron, “trembling lest he should lose the trail,” hurries “to catch up with him,” disappearing “through the gate humming like a great bumble-bee” while “a real one this time” flies “into the courtyard.”

When the Baron made his exit as a bumble-bee, I had to put the book down in order to reflect on Proust’s audacity, much as I had to put the CD player on pause after Beethoven pushed “past measure,” taking me up and up and up the stairway of wonders with those spinechilling variations halfway through the Hammerklavier’s Adagio Sostenuto.


The beauty of virtual technology is that you can hear the music for yourself on YouTube (such an ungainly word for so fabulous a resource) and you can zero in on the equivalent word music in Proust through any number of online venues. Finally, it’s a shame that one of the best films ever made about a writer, Percy Adlon’s Celeste, where the scene with the string quartet is enacted, has yet to be released on DVD.

The quote at the top is from a letter to Madame Geneviève Bizet-Straus written around March 1913 from the Letters of Marcel Proust edited by Mina Curtiss (Random House 1949). Barry Cooper’s The Beethoven Compendium (Thames and Hudson 1991) provided a helpful overview of Beethoven. Stewart Goodyear’s June 25 one-day marathon at McCarter (all 32 sonatas in 11 hours) helped spark my interest in exploring Beethoven’s piano music.