Posted on:Tuesday 1st September, 2020
The French novelist Marcel Proust is famous as a lover of instrumental music, in particular Beethoven’s symphonies and string quartets. In the nineteenth century, such music was often considered ‘absolute’ or ‘pure’, in opposition to so-called programme music (music with a narrative, plot, or words). Absolute music was argued to be the best art because it was purportedly beyond language, although as critics have pointed out this assertion relied upon language to be made. Proust’s commitment to absolute music is attested in his novel by the fact that the fictional composer Vinteuil is the author of imaginary instrumental music: on the one hand, the sonata for piano and violin (about which I have written in a previous blog); on the other hand, the septet.
Despite this professed love of absolute music, I have recently been reading Proust against the grain, in search of songs in his novel. This is partly because of my own love of song, partly because of Proust’s relationship with the song composer and singer Reynaldo Hahn, and partly because I think that Proust’s references and aesthetic views are often less purist and less consistent than we tend to allow. In looking for songs in Proust’s novel, my attention has been particularly caught by the last meeting between the protagonist and his best friend, Robert de Saint-Loup.
Saint-Loup assumes a number of disparate roles in Proust’s novel: a new friend for the protagonist while on holiday in the seaside town of Balbec; a soldier in training at the barracks in Doncières; the lover of the actress Rachel known to the protagonist from her brothel days; the husband of Gilberte Swann, daughter of Swann and Odette; the lover of the violinist Morel, formerly the baron de Charlus’s protégé; a frequenter of Jupien’s male wartime Parisian brothel; a noble soldier who dies for his country at the Front. In all these metamorphoses, Saint-Loup demonstrates the instability of identity according to Proust. If we want to seek a unifying thread, a tempting solution is that suggested by Brigitte Mahuzier, who reads Saint-Loup as akin to Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s ‘Little Prince’: blond, aristocratic, charming, and unpredictable.
Here is the brief narrative of the protagonist’s last encounter with Saint-Loup, from the final volume of A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time, citing from the English translation of Time Regained by Andreas Mayor):
les derniers mots que j’avais entendus sortir de sa bouche, il y avait six jours, c’étaient ceux qui commencent un lied de Schumann et que sur mon escalier il me fredonnait, en allemand, si bien qu’à cause des voisins je l’avais fait taire.
the last words which I had heard on his lips, six days before he died, were the beginning of a song by Schumann, which he had started to hum in German on my staircase, until I had made him desist because of the neighbours.
The protagonist hushes Saint-Loup because of the wartime context, which means that he does not want his neighbours to hear a song in German. In this retrospective, posthumous account, their last encounter proves to be a tragic moment where song and friendship are sacrificed to nationalism and social expectations. Like this song, Saint-Loup’s life is cut short, although it is crowned with a noble death in action. In another of the apparent contradictions of his character, Saint-Loup combines fighting and dying for his country with a love of German culture. Saint-Loup’s Germanophilia is all the more striking if we juxtapose his German song not only with anti-German sentiment at the time but also with the deeper-rooted French habit of performing Lieder in French translation.
There is much that I find intriguing about this passage. Firstly, there is the emphasis on language (‘last words’), leading to the odd formulation ‘to hum in German’ (the verb in the original is ‘fredonner’). Are there different styles of humming in different languages? And if Saint-Loup is articulating words, in German, that the neighbours might overhear and recognize as German, surely this means something more vocalized than humming?
Secondly, there is the question of the choice of a song by Schumann, a question that is rather painfully heightened by the fact that the most recent English translation of Proust, published by Penguin, writes Schubert rather than Schumann. I have discussed this with the editor. Mistakes happen. More interesting to me is what changes in our reading of this scene and of this character if Saint-Loup sings either Schubert or Schumann.
Finally, there is the question of which song by Schumann is begun by Saint-Loup. Proust is tantalisingly vague on this point, but I think this underspecification is an invitation for the reader to become involved in the scene through consideration of possible candidates. Of course, we can never answer this question correctly or definitively, but considering it helps us, all the same, to think more about Saint-Loup, Schumann, and Proust, as well as about our own tastes and assumptions.
Two aspects have been instrumental to my thinking on this matter: firstly, the fact that Saint-Loup is a soldier who dies in battle; secondly, the atmosphere of regret and betrayal in the narration of this moment of cantus interruptus. With these aspects in mind it is perhaps unsurprising that one particular song by Schumann that comes to my mind is ‘Der Soldat’ (Op. 40 no. 3), from a set of five songs, all translated by Adelbert von Chamisso and of which four are poems originally by Hans Christian Andersen.
Proust in military uniform
‘Der Soldat’ is a setting of a short poem of four four-line stanzas which narrates a firing squad where one friend reluctantly shoots the other. The musical setting is dramatic and percussive, capturing the sense of an inexorable, reluctant march towards death. The first stanza describes the friend’s agonising walk to his death (the English translation is by Richard Stokes):
Es geht bei gedämpfter Trommel Klang;
Wie weit noch die Stätte! der Weg wie lang!
O wär er zur Ruh und alles vorbei!
Ich glaub’, es bricht mir das Herz entzwei.
He walks to the sound of the muffled drum;
How far away the place! how long the way!
Ah, were he at rest and all this done!
My heart, I think, will break in two.
In a beautiful sense of circularity, the last word of the song is also ‘Herz’ (heart). Yet the final heart is not the broken heart of the lyric subject anticipated in the first stanza but rather the literally broken heart of the friend. The other eight members of the firing squad miss the target, ‘Ich aber, ich traf ihn mitten in das Herz’ (But I, I shot him clean through the heart).
This would be quite a sinister song for Saint-Loup to start to sing, granting him an uncanny ability to anticipate his own death and also somewhat cruelly implicating the protagonist in that death (as if to cut short a song were analogous to homicide). All the more reason for the protagonist to wish to hear very little of the song!
In favour of ‘Der Soldat’ as sung by Saint-Loup is Proust’s long-standing familiarity with this song. In particular, the song is alluded to at the start of a much earlier poem on Schumann by Proust included in his first book Les Plaisirs et les Jours (Pleasures and Days) published in 1896. This poem is part of a series of four ‘Portraits de musiciens’ (‘Portraits of composers’), including not only Schumann but also Chopin, Mozart, and Gluck. The Schumann poem begins as follows (with English translation by Lauren Watel):
Du vieux jardin dont l’amitié t’a bien reçu,
Entends garçons et nids qui sifflent dans les haies,
Amoureux las de tant d’étapes et de plaies,
Schumann, soldat songeur que la guerre a déçu.
In the old garden where friendship hailed you from afar,
Listen to young men and nests that whistle in the hedges,
To lovers weary of so many wounds and false pledges,
Schumann, pensive soldier disappointed by war.
In these lines we find a strange connection between Proust’s first book and the last volume of In Search of Lost Time, through the nexus of friendship, Schumann, and the ‘pensive soldier’.
Perhaps you would like to suggest a different song by Schumann (and/or Schubert, if you are reading the Penguin translation)? In your reading, what do you imagine Saint-Loup to start to sing? Is your Saint-Loup less melodramatic and less war-focused? Could he indulge in a lighter, more escapist song? Might he sing of love rather than death? Can one ever sing of one without the other?
In the case of this particular moment of song, let us be more like Saint-Loup than the protagonist. If friendships have to end, let them end in song. And let that song not be interrupted, especially not as a result of bowing to nationalist pressures.
Lecturer in French Studies at UCL
The German text and English translation of Schumann’s ‘Der Soldat’ can be found online here: https://www.oxfordlieder.co.uk/song/356.Translation © Richard Stokes, author of The Book of Lieder, published by Faber, provided courtesy of Oxford Lieder (www.oxfordlieder.co.uk).
For a recording of ‘Der Soldat’, I recommend the performance of Christopher Maltman and Joseph Middleton on their 2019 CD for Signum Classics: The Soldier: From Severn to Somme: https://signumrecords.com/product/the-soldier-from-severn-to-somme/SIGCD592/.
For other songs by Schumann about soldiers, see also ‘Soldatenlied’ and ‘Die beiden Grenadiere’.
The translation of Proust’s Schumann poem is taken from Proust, The Collected Poems: A Dual-Language Edition with Parallel Text, edited by Harold Augenbraum (New York: Penguin, 2013).