The Edge of Words

22 May 2015

Dr Benedict Taylor, University of Edinburgh

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The Promise of Happiness: Saint-Saëns's Violin Sonata No. 1 and Proust's "petite phrase"


Saint-Saëns's Violin Sonata in D minor (1885) was Proust's original source for the famous "petite phrase" of his fictional composer Vinteuil's Violin Sonata. This connection is no secret, though rarely has the value of the link been appreciated - a fact attributable both to the snobbery directed against this composer (which Proust himself subscribed to later in life) and to the fact that investigations of Proust and music have traditionally sought to identify exact musical correlates for the fictional works described - invariably a futile endeavour - rather than asking a more important question: how might what Proust actually heard in music be insightful for understanding its temporality more deeply? In fact a deeper analysis of Saint-Saëns's Sonata shows that Proust certainly heard more than just a little phrase of it. I argue that what is most distinctive about the Saint-Saëns Sonata is the way in which the F major second subject - Proust's original petite phrase - is heard in the first movement's recapitulation in such a manner as to make itself felt as paradoxically absent even while it is being stated. Unconvincingly reprised here in the flat supertonic E-flat, it is only in the latter stages of the finale that the theme is suddenly reencountered and at last tonally resolved into the sonata's home key of D. The subtlety of the music's suggestion of presence and absence, of expectations left unsatisfied and finally fulfilled when almost forgotten and no longer sought, is fully worthy of the Proustian context that it unknowingly helped create.