Event Date: Friday 11 June, 2010 – 10am-6pm
The Boardroom, 2 Gower Street, London
Unsettling Scores: A Study Day on French Musico-Poetics from Banville to Duras
Jennifer Rushworth (Oxford):
Proust’s programme notes to Vinteuil’s music: À la recherche in the light of the nineteenth-century debate over absolute and programme music
Several extended similes interspersed throughout Proust’s novel imply the author’s dismissive attitude towards programme notes, an opinion which is shared by Debussy for instance and can be seen as a reaction against composers such as Liszt and Berlioz. However, Bowie is right to highlight that in the novel, descriptions of Vinteuil’s music are “stated in the empurpled language that a programme-note writer might use to endow abstract music with an accessible content of images” (Proust among the stars 1998: 78). This prompts the question whether putting music into words inevitably calls for attribution of meaning through narrative and imagery. Yet while programme music would seem to be an ideal musical form for writers to attach themselves to, absolute music is also itself a peculiarly literary concept associated especially with German Romantic philosophers and French Symbolist poets. While literature needs music (as a source of inspiration and idealised subject matter), music also needs literature to give it “general meaning” (Dayan, Music writing literature 2006: 95). Proust is in the paradoxical position of admiring the purity of Beethoven’s symphonies and late string quartets, and the orchestral interludes of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, yet also of justifying such preferences in terms of extra-musical ideas (titles, epigraphs, narrative), as well as relying in A la recherche on a programmatic style of musical depiction.