Alex Ross, music critic, explores the illusive subject of fictional music by fictional composers in literature in The New Yorker (Aug. 24, 2009). This topic stirred my own quasi-Romantic musical/literary musings. Writers’ obsessions with music (and vice versa) was a phenomenon which began in the early Romantic period of the 19th century. At that time art influenced art, as literature aspired to be more like music, and music became more poetic, programmatic, story-telling, i.e., more “literary.” The sister Muses of Poetry and Music walked intimately hand in hand to inspire Romanticism throughout the century (and beyond), culminating in the grand Wagnerian vision of music-dramas as a fusion of the arts. E. T. A. Hoffman (who authored the story of The Nutcracker, later transformed into a ballet by Tchaikovsky) was in fact both an influential writer and a barely known composer. His fictional composer Johannes Kreisler was his thinly disguised alter ego, whom Schumann immortalized in his famous programmatic Kreisleriana–still a staple of piano repertoire. This work was an 8-movement “Fantasy” with each movement in two parts that reflected the manic-depressive tendencies of the fictional composer (and probably Schumann’s own as well).
Hear Alex Ross’s perfectly whimsical interview and enjoy a little fictional music and “musing” of your own. So what did Proust really hear in the musical phrase that recurs obsessively to his fictional character Swann (from his favorite fictional composer Vinteuil)? Alex Ross makes an educated musical guess, and it works for me! But then I am a fan of this real composer who might have composed this fictional music (he was the subject of my Masters’ thesis) and won’t give it away. Listen to the interview yourself, and if you disagree about what Proust really heard, then make up your own imaginary music!
For more delightfully idle speculation on the music Proust may have heard via his character Swann, along with Proust’s own peculiar obsessions on music, read this blog, “A Little Phrase” from Bagatellen.