Posted by: Lizzie Ross | January 7, 2011

If Vaughn Williams had composed with words…

Within a Budding Grove, pp. 416-487

Botticelli's Magnificat

… he might have written the last few pages of “Madame Swann at Home”. Such lyrical beauty, with all those flowers and colors, as Mme. Swann walks along a Parisian avenue on a sunny May afternoon, surrounded by a crowd of men. Marcel practically drools over her.

It’s a fitting end to this episode, 150 pages of Marcel agonizing over Gilberte Swann, who, his readers can immediately see, barely tolerates him. He doesn’t hide the painful scenes.

Mme Swann's samovar was "metallic red"

Finally, Marcel gets the message (Gilberte lets her boredom show), and he goes all noble. He stays away from her, hoping that this will make her realize how much she loves him, but also reasoning that the longer he stays away from her, the less he’ll love her. It’s a very complicated sort of logic: He knows she doesn’t love him, yet can’t help hoping that perhaps she does. He stays away, to cure his obsession, but also in hopes that the separation will end in a happy reconciliation.

There are hints of future loves with others, specifically to Albertine. But he hints that his affair with Albertine will be just as unhappy as his current one with Gilberte. You can’t help feeling that Marcel tends to love in all the wrong places. Also, his fascination with Mme. Swann is a bit suspect, but I have to let that go; he’s so honestly confessional that, if he’d been infatuated with her, he’d have written about it.

Luini's Adoration of the Magi

Some great quotes in these pages:

… there is nothing that so much alters the material qualities of the voice as the presence of thought behind what one is saying. (p. 419)

It is what I should have said then and there to Bergotte, for one does not invent all one’s speeches, especially when one is acting merely as a card in the social pack. (p. 435)

We imagine always when we speak that it is our own ears, our own mind that are listening…. The truth which one puts into one’s words does not make a direct path for itself, is not supported by irresistible evidence. A considerable time must elapse before a truth of the same order can take shape in the words themselves. (p. 465)

Guelder rose

During those periods in which our bitterness of spirit, though steadily diminishing, still persists, a distinction must be drawn between the bitterness which comes to us from our constantly thinking of the person herself and that which is revived by certain memories, some cutting speech, some word in a letter that we have had from her. (p. 476)

And this, from a Marcel in the depths of despair about Gilberte:

We construct our house of life to suit another person, and when at length it is ready to receive her that person does not come; presently she is dead to us, and we live on, a prisoner within the walls which were intended only for her.

Victoria carriage

Wipe away the tears, before Marcel gives us that paean to Mme. Swann, in her spring attire, shaded by a parasol the color of Parma violets. She has left the victoria at home and is walking gaily, creating a memory that Marcel will treasure, “Mme. Swann beneath her parasol, as though in the coloured shade of a wistaria bower.”


  1. Ahhh. . . such romantic ideas! I relish Proust’s elegiac prose, even though it is at a remove from his own personal experience most of the time. His imagining of the world as he would have it be appears boundless. Indeed, his view that ‘we construct our house of life. . .’ underlines this process of imagining/representing in words/constructing the context/remembering every detail.

    It is because Proust has to construct and remember his world that he differs essentially and inspirationally from Vaughn Williams, whose romanticism flowed from experience of the outer world into musical expression. What could be more immediate than
    Your hands lie open on the long, fresh grass
    The fingerpoints look through like rosy blooms
    Your eyes smile peace.
    The pasture gleams and gloams
    ‘Neath billowing skies that scatter and amass.

  2. All round our nest, far as the eye can pass,
    Are golden king-cup fields with silver edge,
    Where the cow-parsley skirts the hawthorn hedge
    ‘Tis visible silence, still as the hourglass

    Deep in the sun-searche’d growths the dragonfly hangs
    Like a blue thread loosen’d from the sky:
    So this wing’d hour is dropt to us from above

    Oh! clasp we to our hearts, for deathless dower,
    This close-companion’d inarticulate hour,
    When two-fold silence was the song
    The song of love.

    This words to this sonnet are by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the Pre-Raphaelite poets. Vaughn Williams set this to music in keeping with Rossetti’s wish to capture the immediacy of the experience and its essential momentary nature.

  3. I don’t get that feeling about Proust. I get the sense of endless time unfolding, punctured by a sequence of narratives heightened by the emotions accompanying his role as their translator/narrator. He does not believe we could possibly imagine his imaginings; whereas VW’s music–from his songs to his symphonic and choral works–has that particularly English clarity of vision which is open to all.

  4. I’m not sure about “that particularly English clarity of vision”, but I’ll let that go. After posting this, I considered replacing VW with Debussey, but my point was about the romantic wash of colors and images that Proust used to close the book, so to speak, on Gilberte. Marcel loves his emotional life so much that he never actually gets out to live a real one–it’s all dreams of meeting so-and-so, only to be disappointed when he finally does (Berma, Bergotte) and then to test his disappointment against others’ opinions; all fears and hopes about his one true love, clashing with each other to his continued pain and amusement. Marcel writes that the neurasthenic feeds his own illness, completely unaware that he’s that person! None are so blind as those who will not see!

  5. You’re so right about Proust being so in love with his emotions he doesn’t quite know how to interact with real people. He just invents his ideal scenarios and embellishes them. Like you, I love his writing: in particular, I love becoming involved in his prose.

    I’m not sure how to describe English music of the past 125 years. It conveys light, lightness and depth in what appears to me a majestic sweep of clearly expressed ideas. It’s as if VW, Holst and Elgar are saying, ‘Here it is, this is how life is now, it’s ours to live. Just listen!’ Their work has an honesty about it, and that’s what I find compelling and seductive about it. It’s immediate and redolent of the classical era in the balance all three composers achieve between dissonance and its resolution. Who knows what it is that touches your heart? I wouldn’t like to go too far along that path because I cherish my surprises.

    I suppose we can make a link between the spine-tingling affect brought about by hearing certain music and our pre-verbal infant state, where the sounds of our earliest environment later become triggers for submerged memories of bliss at the breast. But, then, I’m a musician, and I’ve been trained to listen and communicate through this medium.

    Getting back to your original point about VW, however, how you hear VW and what his music means to you doesn’t have to follow a particular script; my professional training conjures up certain accepted perspectives. When I read your blog, I responded viscerally precisely because Vaughn Williams is one of my favourite composers and I hear in his music this quality of clarity. Now, having re-read what I’ve written, I feel there is a certain conceit in my critique which I regret. It’s been exhilarating to think about you wrote and to exchange ideas. As it always is!

  6. Never regret a comment contributed to the exploration of an idea! It goes back to what Marcel was writing about “truth” (and so many linguistic philosophers have arm-wrestled over this as well) — we do the best we can to put our ideas into words, to shape what we’re thinking, and we just have to hope that the critical part of the message gets through. The only way to learn if it has is to listen to the response, and then to shape more words as we try to clarify our meanings (to ourselves as well as to our listeners). I can’t imagine a better way to use my mind! And I so enjoy doing this with you on the other side of the conversation!

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