The Little Phrase


At various times Proust provided different sources for the source of Vinteul’s “little phrase.” The original source, though, must have been the Saint-Saëns Sonata I for piano and violin. Proust would ask his lover Reynaldo Hahn to play the opening movement over and over (Carter, Marcel Proust, 207). Later he grew disenchanted with Saint-Saëns and would sometimes mention César Franck’s Sonata in A Major for piano and violin as a source. Both pieces of music are quite lovely. The only problem is that neither piece has music that lives up to this description:

At first he had appreciated only the material quality of the sounds which those instruments secreted. And it had been a source of keen pleasure when, below the delicate line of the violin-part, slender but robust, compact and commanding, he had suddenly become aware of the mass of the piano-part beginning to emerge in a sort of liquid rippling of sound, multiform but indivisible, smooth yet restless, like the deep blue tumult of the sea, silvered and charmed into a minor key by the moonlight. (I,294)

Then they were silent; beneath the restless tremolos of the violin part which protected it with their throbbing sostenuto two octaves above it–and as in a mountainous country, behind the seeming immobility of a vertigious waterfall, one descries, two hundred feet below, the tiny form of a woman walking in the valley–the little phrase had just appeared, distant, graceful, protected by the long, gradual unfurling of it transparent, incessant and sonorous curtain. (I,374-375)

When, after that first evening at the Verdurins’, he had had the little phrase played over to him again, and had had sought to disentangle from his confused impressions how it was that, like a perfume or a caress, it swept over and enveloped him, he had observed that it was to the closeness of the intervals between the five notes which composed it and to the constant repetition of two of them that was due that impression of a frigid and withdrawn sweetness; but in reality he know that he was basing this conclusion not upon the phrase itself, but merely upon certain equivalents, substituted (for his mind’s convenience) for the mysterious entity of which he had become aware, before ever he knew the Verdurins, at that earlier party when for the first time he had heard the sonata played. He knew that the very memory of the piano falsified still further the perspective in which he saw the elements of music, that the field open to the musician is not a miserable stave of seven notes, but an immeasurable keyboard (still almost entirely unknown) on which, here and there only, separated by the thick darkness of its unexplored tracts, some few among the millions of keys of tenderness, of passion, of courage, of serenity, which compose it, each one differing from all the rest as one universe differs from another, have been discovered by a few great artists who do us the service, when they awaken in us the emotion corresponding to the theme they have discovered, of showing us what richness, what variety lies hidden, unknown to us, in that vase, unfathomed and forbidding night of our soul which we take to be an impenetrable void. Vinteuil had been one of those musicians. (I,496-497)

How beautiful the dialogue which Swann now heard between piano and violin, at the beginning of the last passage! The suppression of human speech, so far from letting fancy reign there uncontrolled (as one might have thought), had eliminated it altogether; never was spoken language so inexorably determined, never had it known questions so pertinent, such irrefutable replies. At first the piano complained alone, like a bird deserted by its mate; the violin heard and answered it, as from a neighbouring tree. It was as at the beginning of th world, as if there were as yet only the two of them on the earth, or rather in this world closed to all the rest, so fashioned by the logic of its creator that in it there should never by any but themselves: the world of this sonata. (I,499-500)

But perhaps to hear music this intensely requires an altered state of mind. Swann’s barren life had eroded his ability to feel deeply. The little phrase changed that and Proust created some of his most startling metaphors to describe Swann’s new musical faculty.

There was a deep repose, a mysterious refreshment for Swann–whose eyes, although delicate interpreters of painting, whose mind, although an acute observer of manners, must bear for ever the indelible imprint of the barrenness of his life–in feeling himself transformed into a creature estranged from humanity, blinded, deprived of his logical faculty, almost a fantastic unicorn, a chimeaera-like creature conscious of world through his hearing alone. And since he sought in the little phrase for a meaning to which his intelligence could not descend, with what a strange frenzy of intoxication did he strip bare his innermost soul of the whole armour of reason and make it pass unattended through the dark filter of sound! (I,336-337)

As though the musicians were not nearly so much playing the little phrase as performing the rites on which it insisted before it would consent to appear, and proceeding to utter the incantations necessary to procure, and to prolong for a few moments, the miracle of its apparition, Swann, who was no more able to see it than if it had belonged to a world of ultra-violet light, and who experienced something like the refreshing sense of a metamorphosis in the momentary blindness with which he was struck as he approached it, Swann felt its presence like that of a protective goddess, a confidante of his love, who, in order to be able to come to him through the crowd and to draw him aside to speak to him, had disguised herself in this sweeping cloak of sound. And as she passed, light, soothing, murmurous as the perfume of a flower, telling him what she had to say, every word of which he closely scanned, regretful to see them fly away so fast, he made involuntarily with his lips the motion of kissing, as it went by him, the harmonious, fleeting form. (I,494)

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2 Responses to “The Little Phrase”

  1. sean Says:

    I came here because I wanted to know if Proust’s composer was Saint-Saëns. I’m glad I came and it makes me want to hear more Saint-Saëns, whether or not the answer is yes. But while I’m here, at 2am, when I should have been in bed four hours ago, Id like to say that although Proust makes you think for a while that it’s possible that a little phrase could mean so much, actually it couldn’t. Someone for whom seven notes mean this much would indeeed have a barren life. Proust or his interperter here suggest that somehow, these seven notes could make a life really intense and meaningful, maybe nearly as intense and meaningful as a life with great loves and friendships. I think this is one of the points at which proust goes over the top. But Proust woudn’t be proust if he wasn’t over the top.

    • Jim Everett Says:

      Remember that Swann first heard the little phrase at some concert and it had certainly intrigued him but it had only made him wanting to hear it again; it had certainly not fascinated him. It was hearing it in a highly emotional state, in his growing passion for Odette, that the phrase became to mean so much. Eventually the little phrase will expand in the novel to become a rich, multi-movement chamber piece; something that also reflects his more evolved emotional state. So, I would not reduce the little phrase to seven notes.

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