Friday, November 13, 2009

Proust and Music

All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.”
- Walter H. Pater

Last night I attended a lecture at The Art Institute of Chicago, "The Vinteuil Sonata: Where Music and Literature Collide", given by John Adams. John Adams is particularly qualified to lecture on this subject as he is one of the most respected of contemporary composers having written several operas including Nixon in China and Doctor Atomic, as well as important symphonic works including On The Transmigration of Souls for which he was awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Music and three Grammys. In his lecture he discussed the ability of authors to describe both music and the act of listening to music.

Beginning with Walter Pater's idea regarding the musicalization of literature, Mr. Adams discussed the impact of music on the novels of Thomas Mann through his use of thematic integration and adaptation of Wagner's emphasis on leitmotifs. For Mann this culminated in his magisterial novel Doctor Faustus where his protagonist, Adrian Leverkuhn, was a composer who sold his soul to Mephistopheles just as Faust does in Goethe's drama. Moving on to Proust's discussion of artists he focused on the examples of Bergotte (the author), Elstir (the painter), and above all Vinteuil (the composer). With Vinteuil we see the height of Proust's ability to express in words the impact of music through his "aesthetic sensibility". For Proust, an author with little or no formal training in music, this is impressive and another example of Proust's genius. We find Proust, in Swann's Way, describing a particularly moving passage from the Vinteuil Violin sonata as the "essence of emotion" in its musical expression. John Adams commented that Swann was an "active listener" and through Proust's ability to describe the effect of music upon him we as readers have an example of the listening process. Overall the lecture was a beautiful portrayal of Proust's art and a great introduction to one aspect of his literary accomplishment.

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