Paris 1907: Proust at the Ritz
Saturday August 12 at 12:00 pm
Central United Methodist | Free admission
This afternoon, we travel over a century back in time to an intimate musical gathering held at the luxurious Ritz Hotel in Paris. On July 1, 1907, author and socialite Marcel Proust convened a musical evening with friends and members of Parisian high society. The event appeared to double as an enjoyable evening’s entertainment, as well as an opportunity for Proust to observe firsthand the type of musical salon which he would recreate in his multivolume work In Search of Lost Time. All pieces performed this afternoon appeared on the program Proust designed for his own event over a hundred years ago.
Readers of Proust will know that a theme from a violin sonata by the fictional Vinteuil is one of the most significant elements in the entire novel. One possible source for this work is Gabriel Fauré’s Violin Sonata No. 1 in A Major (though Saint-Saëns’ sonata is considered more likely). With no introduction, we are launched immediately into an electric musical atmosphere with a statement of the expansive first theme, which leaps between registers with admirable alacrity. The second theme, introduced subito piano (suddenly quiet), contrasts with the first by virtue of its smooth, stepwise motion up and down the scale. Even with its subtler, softer moments, energy remains high and dynamic throughout the piece, indicating that Proust never planned on easing his audience into his July program—it would demand their attention from the start.
Frédéric Chopin’s “Raindrop” Prelude in D-flat Major, by contrast, enters much more gently, evoking the steady patter of a light storm before moving to more grave, thunderous passages. This prelude appears near the middle of Chopin’s influential set of 24 in all major and minor keys, composed around 1835-1839. Today’s performance will feature the harp, rather than piano, substituting an instrument equally adept at suggesting the soft, percussive fall of rain. Robert Schumann’s character piece “Des Abends” (“In the Evening”) follows immediately after. Its simple, yet evocative title guides the listener’s interpretation of the piece, encouraging them to imagine the setting of the sun as the opening notes of the piece slowly descend. As in Chopin’s Prelude, this piece is a part of a larger set, the twelve Fantasiestücke Op. 12, composed in 1837.
Proust would have a complex relationship with the music of Richard Wagner. The latter’s music was still incredibly popular after 1900, though his anti-semitism polarized the public, Proust included. At a time when scholarly interest in medieval music was still in its infancy, Wagner celebrated both Minnesänger and Meistersingers in opera. Most famous of all is Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, which Wagner composed in 1867. The Act I Prelude opens with a grandiose march, which the piano’s percussive nature can amply bolster. This becomes more apparent on the theme’s very grandiose reprise at the very end of the work. In between Wagner turns toward several polyphonic themes, one of which is given fugal development. And melody cannot take second stage to bombast, for this is the Prelude to an entire opera centered on a master singer, Hans Sachs, one of the first recognized professionals in his field. Liszt made numerous piano transcriptions of opera that allowed households to experience music outside of the concert hall. Here, in this arrangement for piano and string quartet, even more of Wagner’s original music can be retained.
Following the Meistersinger Prelude, Idylle provides us with light, energetic fare from one of France’s most influential composers at the turn of the century, Emmanuel Chabrier. Although perhaps not as familiar to listeners now as he was in France in the early 1900s, Chabrier made his mark with a small, robust body of compositions, principally comprising songs, piano pieces, and stage works. Today we hear a selection from his Ten Pièces pittoresques for piano. These pieces were composed in 1880 and enthusiastically received. Several remarked how Chabrier had managed to recapture a soundworld of the French Baroque.
The next composer on the program hardly needs introduction for anyone acquainted with Western classical music or, alternatively, with Proust’s writing. The Frenchman referred to Ludwig van Beethoven’s music numerous times throughout his written work and expressed great admiration for the German’s late string quartets before these pieces had become popular within early 20th-century French society. For his 1907 Ritz concert, Proust selected the slow movement from Beethoven’s very last quartet, Op. 135—a beautiful slow movement with hymn-like theme and variations. The introspective voice presented here ushers in a stark sense of stillness and quiet, like a sort of musical oasis nestled in the middle of the program.
Proust’s musical interests ranged from contemporary through the early Romantics all the way back to the Baroque. François Couperin (1668-1733) grew up surrounded by music and famous musicians. Upon his father’s death, the young boy continued lessons with the music director at the royal chapel; he himself gained that post in 1693. Within a few years more, François would attain the highest musical job at Louis XIV’s court. François continued the family’s significance in harpsichord music, compiling four massive volumes of keyboard works and writing a major treatise on performance practice. Couperin often used poetic or descriptive titles for instrumental works, but exactly what Les barricades mystérieuses are remains a mystery today. It matters little in the end, for the hypnotic effect of the gently swaying harmonic progression carries everything before it. This delightful piece offers simple joy in harmony, a moment for quiet reflection hidden behind its imposing title.
As the program draws to a close, we hear another popular selection from Wagner, but this time through the ventriloquizing voice of Hungarian composer Franz Liszt. Confronting the task of recreating the sound of an operatic orchestra on the piano, Liszt takes the meat and bones of Wagner’s infamously tragic passage from Tristan and Isolde and turns the notes into a vehicle for a dazzling virtuosic performance saturated with dramatic emotion. Proust held the music from Tristan in high esteem, both for its style and its association with the psychological link between love and death.
Fauré returns at the end, lending the program both a sense of symmetry and a tastefully light ending to the day’s festivities. His Berceuse for violin and piano was immensely popular as salon fare during his lifetime, due in part, no doubt, to his simple yet exquisite lyrical writing for violin in the piece. The composer would later go on to arrange the work for violin and orchestra, but here we have the pleasure of hearing the work in its original, “stripped-back” form—ideally suited to the intimate emotional environment created within Proust’s salon. After the July evening at the Ritz, wrote to his partner, the pianist-composer Reynaldo Hahn, that the event had been “perfect.”
© Emily Masincup (with Jason Stell), 2023