Berlioz’s Programme and Proust’s Sonate: Parallel Quests to Bridge the Gaps in Musico-Literary Expression

  • Candace K. Skorupa
Part of the Analecta Husserliana book series (ANHU, volume 61)


Working within the increasingly ambiguous boundaries of disciplines addressed by the field of Comparative Literature, I have become quite interested in bridging the interdisciplinary gap between music and literature, particularly in France in the nineteenth century, and in understanding the role of voice and narrative as expressive elements of both literature and music. In this paper I would like to examine examples of musico-literary expression from two artists who, in my mind, are hard to “categorize” as either simply artist or musician — specifically because of their chosen, quite interdisciplinary, forms of artistic expression. These two artists are Hector Berlioz, primarily known today for his Symphonie fantastique, and Marcel Proust, primarily known for his cup of tea and madeleine cookies; both represent noteworthy examples of musico-literary experimentation that highlight and problematize the very distinctive boundaries traditionally constructed between the fields of music and literature.


Story Line Musical Piece Artistic Expression Musical Work Instrumental Music 
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  1. 1.
    Both the original programme from the concert of 5 December 1830 and its definitive form later published with the 1845 score include this title. The entire original program is reprinted in Edward T. Cone, “The Symphony and the Program,” in Symphonie Fantastique (Norton Critical Score), ed. Edward Cone (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., 1971), 20-25.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    François Lesure, La Musique à Paris en 1830-1831 (Paris: Bibliothèque Nationale, 1983), 38.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    In his own correspondence and memoirs, Berlioz recounts the thunderously favorable public response to his symphony [Mémoires (Paris: Michel Lévy Frères, 1881), 169; Correspondance générale I (1830-1832) (Paris: Flammarion, 1972), 384, 387]. Yet, judging from the paucity of immediate reviews in the press, the occasion appears somewhat less momentous for the Parisian musical world of 1830; the Symphonie only became the focus of much critical attention in 1834, upon the publication of the piano transcription by Franz Liszt.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Through the titles of his compositions, Berlioz often evokes specific works of literature as informative narratives for his music: e.g. Harold en Italie, Roméo et Juliette, and La Damnation de Faust.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Edward T. Cone, “The Symphony and the Program,” 28–29.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    For a detailed historical overview of this history, cf. Carl Dahlhaus, The Idea of Absolute Music, transi. Roger Lustig (Chicago: UP Chicago, 1989).Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Cone, “The Symphony and the Program,” 31.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    “Here is how I wove my novel, or rather my story, of which it is not difficult to recognize the hero” (Berlioz, Correspondance générale I, 319).Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    A representative example of literary praise for Proust’s interdisciplinary “translation” is that of Julia Kristeva in Le Temps sensible: Proust et l’expérience littéraire (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), where she speaks of his musical genius as the “organisateur privilégié du monde sensible” (260). An early musicological assessment can be found in Florence Hier, La Musique dans l’oeuvre de Marcel Proust (New York: Institute of French Studies, Columbia University, 1933), especially chapter VI, “Le Rôle de la musique dans la théorie artistique de Proust” (110-132).Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Such opinions were apparent even in the criticism of Berlioz’s contemporaries, such as Schumann, who scorned all Frenchmen’s seeming inability to understand music without the aid of a program, which he asserted only hinders the interpretative faculties and judgmental musical perception of the typical German listener (Cf. Robert Schumann, On Music and Musicians, trans. Paul Rosenfeld (New York: Pantheon Books, 1946), 179). Despite his praise for Berlioz’s visionary music, Richard Wagner later similarly assesses the composer’s reliance on the program: “… he falls into that devilishly confused musical idiom, striking in its novelty, with which he stuns and wins over the gaping mob, while he scares off those who could have understood his meaning from within, but who scorn to take the trouble of feeling their way from without” (Cf. Wagner, “On Berlioz and the Fantastic Symphony,” Dresdener Abendzeitung, 5 May 1841).Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Walter Pater, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, ed. Donald Hill (Berkeley: U of California Press, 1980): “All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music” (106).Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1995), 542.Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    For a more detailed study of plot structure and the narrative impulse, cf. Peter Brooks, Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1984), 3-36.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    In his review of the concert in the Revue musicale, the critic Fétis seemingly overlooks the radical implications of Berlioz’s predictable tendency toward narrative and, instead, seems rather annoyed by the presence of the program: “Attached to the symphony is a program explaining the subject of each of its five movements. I have already observed several times that such programs derive from the narrowest possible interpretation of music, for the full power of this art to affect our feelings is due to its essential vagueness and indeterminacy. I shall therefore not inquire whether each section agrees with the outline of the composer’s program, because I know that music cannot express what he has demanded of it, and because I see in this demand one of the causes of the poor results he has obtained” (François-Joseph Fétis, Revue musicale, 1 February 1835, 219).Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    “The plan of the instrumental drama, deprived of the help of speech, needs to be explained in advance. The following program must thus be considered as the spoken text of an opera, serving to present pieces of music, of which it justifies the character and expression.” Reprinted in French in Cone, “The Symphony and the Program,” 20-25.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Mostly interested in the possible autobiographical links apparent in the work, many critics were generally less disturbed by the Symphonie fantastique’s programmatic nature than by the strange effects of the piece on the listener; for example, Joseph d’Ortigue proclaims of Berlioz, “Mais le démon musical le possédait déjà” (Revue de Paris, 3 Dec. 1832, 283).Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, trans. E. F. J. Payne (New York: Dover Publications, 1966).Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    Pierre Meylan, Les Ecrivains et la musique (Lausanne: Editions La Concorde, 1944), 63.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    All Proust references from A la recherche du temps perdu, 10 volumes (Paris: Flammarion, 1987).Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    “The beautiful dialogue that he heard between the piano and violin.… At first the solitary piano cried out, like a bird abandoned by its partner; the violin heard it, responded to it like a neighboring tree.… Is it a bird, is it still the incomplete soul of the little phrase, is it a fairy.…”Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    For inspiration about the idea of the “interval,” I am indebted to a lecture given by Evelyne Ender, “The Art of Bridging Intervals: Virginia Woolf and Marcel Proust,” Harkness Hall, Yale University, 1 April 1996.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    “It was to the slight interval between the five notes that composed it [the little phrase] and to the constant recall of two among them to which this impression of sweetness was due.”Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    While Marcel glimpses the possibility of achieving the clarity of reality and truth, the obsessed hero of Berlioz’s narrative dreamily wallows in an opium-induced dream-state, temporally marked by the tolling of the Dies irae.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Susan McClary, Feminine Endings: Music, Gender, Sexuality (Minneapolis: Minnesota UP, 1991).Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Carolyn Abbate, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991).Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    Edward T. Cone, The Composer’s Voice (California UP, 1974).Google Scholar
  27. 27.
    Ernst Robert Curtius, Marcel Proust (Paris: La Revue nouvelle, 1928), 27.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2000

Authors and Affiliations

  • Candace K. Skorupa
    • 1
  1. 1.Yale UniversityUSA

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