Donald Justice’s “Little Elegy for Cello and Piano”.
By JOHN MATTHIAS.
EVERYBODY WHO HAS read Proust, along with many people who haven’t, knows all about how the madeleine, the sensation of uneven paving stones, and the stiffness of a napkin brought to the lips of the narrator, suddenly opens an involuntary memory that comes upon him like a vision of another world. The other world, however, is this world – radiant with past emotion suddenly made present long after an event or experience or place has been left behind by the conscious memory or distorted by intellectual falsifications. After some nine hundred pages, Proust’s narrator finally generalizes about this mysterious and unwilled vision to which the reader has been permitted to attain vicarious access. These bursts of vision triggered by some physical sensation associated with an original experience as it actually transpired, along with the original emotion motivated and felt, are among the reasons we return to Proust.
Perhaps the most mysterious among these triggers is the “little phrase” by Vinteuil. By the end of Swann’s Way, Proust seems even more interested in the five notes by Vinteuil than he is in the relationship between Swann and Odette. There has been endless speculation about an actual musical source for the sequence of notes that appear in Vinteuil’s Sonata for Piano and Violin that becomes the phrase that will evoke Swann’s feeling for Odette at various stages of In Search of Lost Time.
Was it Saint-Saëns? Debussy? Franck? Fauré? Or perhaps it was the nearly unknown Gabriel Pierné, the candidate put forward by Maria and Natalia Milstein, who also performed his Sonata for Violin in D-minor, Opus 36, along with music by other contenders, on a recent CD. It doesn’t really matter, of course, though Vinteuil’s little phrase matters profoundly. Having worked its magic in the early days of Swann’s courtship of Odette, it returns at the end of the Recherche to contrast what Swann thought he remembered and felt with what the trigger of hearing the “little phrase” long after the relationship had soured actually made manifest for him as a kind of extended epiphany. As Proust writes toward the end of his novel,
Remembering with what relative indifference Swann years ago had been able to speak of the days when he had been loved, because what he saw beneath the words was not in fact those days but something else, and on the other hand the sudden pain which he had been caused by the little phrase of Vinteuil when it gave him back the days themselves, just as they were when he had felt them in the past, I understood clearly that what the sensation of the uneven paving-stones, the stiffness of the napkin, the taste of the madeleine had reawakened in me had no connection with what I frequently tried to recall to myself . . . . If, owing to the work of oblivion, the returning memory can throw no bridge, form no connecting link between itself and the present minute, if it remains in the context of its own place and date, if it keeps its distance, its isolation in the hollow of a valley or upon the highest peak of a mountain summit, for this very reason it causes us suddenly to breath a new air, an air which is new precisely because we have breathed it in the past, that purer air which the poets have vainly tried to situate in paradise and which could induce so profound a sensation of renewal only if it had been breathed before, since the true paradises are the paradises that we have lost.
There, at the end of a very long novel is an explanation of its very raison d’etre. But I have written and quoted at some length really to introduce a very short story that has deep and moving affinities with Proust, Donald Justice’s “Little Elegy for Cello and Piano.”1
One might exaggerate the virtues of Justice’s restraint by claiming that he gets most of Proust’s great theme into six notes discussed in five pages of prose. Or five words in both cases: “The little phrase by Vinteuil”; “The six notes by Bestor.”
Eugene Bestor is Justice’s composer, and the music that haunts the narrator is Bestor’s Little Elegy for Cello and Piano. The composer’s wife and narrator’s sister is the cellist who will play with an unnamed pianist in a gallery of the Phillips Collection one December evening in Washington, D.C. Her name is Florence, and she has been married to Eugene “for more than thirty years, and it is clear that they had weathered out whatever storms had come their way” – unlike, we might add, Swann and Odette. Before the performance, the three have tea and cakes at an outdoor café. Someone strolls by “whistling an odd little tune none of us could identify.” This is a nice detail given that the music about to be performed will, by the end of the story, have been forgotten by everyone except the narrator.
Before the premier of Bestor’s “Little Elegy,” there is a piece performed by Fauré during which the narrator’s mind drifts and his associations become entangled with Bonnard’s painting, La Grande Terrasse, which is in the gallery. The narrator is struck by the resemblance of a couple in the painting to Florence and Eugene, “but translated now into a sort of paradise made up all of flowers and light.” When Bestor’s “Little Elegy” is performed, the narrator thinks of it as “a sort of fantasia in one long movement, and also “a perfect consonance with the Bonnard painting.” But at last this short piece – about twelve minutes long we are told – breaks free of all associations, even achieving “an existence apart” from the exact sounds the composer imagined. “They momentarily had a life of their own, beyond us all.” At one point,
Breaking the elegiac solemnity of the elegy, the composer sneezes.
In spite of one “obliterated little passage” caused by the sneeze, the narrator decides that the “Little Elegy” is Bestor’s masterpiece, and it is only now that we are given some sense of the composer’s background – “the hard early years of study and practice here and abroad, the thousands of mornings of seclusion in his studio, the remarkable ear, the near-photographic memory and recall . . .” and otherwise a rather anonymous life, conventionally happy in his marriage, but otherwise not unlike Vinteuil’s anonymous life as a piano teacher in Proust’s
Combray. We are to understand that Vinteuil’s sonata, like the “Little Elegy,” is also a masterpiece, though it will be remembered while Bestor’s Elegy will not. Indeed Vinteuil’s success is entirely posthumous.
Justice tells us that Bestor died shortly after the premier of his piece, and that he may have considered it an elegy for himself. His manuscripts have come down to the narrator, who will eventually deposit them in a Vermont college archive. The “Little Elegy” was never performed again. A second performance was scheduled, but Florence became ill and the concert had to be cancelled. Eventually she too died, leaving her brother to remember the music which he assumes he is the last living person to hear in his memory a certain phrase – six notes actually reproduced in musical notation – “a little upward rush and subsiding of notes that has come to represent some nameless feeling which otherwise has no voice or expression. It is not exactly that I hear it. It is just there, and I do not of course know what it means.”
What the narrator does know, as Justice’s story concludes, is that it “had all come down to this, this one ghostly phrase. And soon there will be no one at all to remember how even these six notes sounded.”
In Swann’s Way, Proust writes many pages about Vinteuil’s little phrase, about what it means for Swann, and what, we might say, it means in itself. We know what it meant for Swann early on – the little phrase was “their song”, his and Odette’s, and there is even a time when Swann insisted that Odette play it again and again on the piano while also kissing him. But the little phrase grows in meaning and depth and independence. The more haunted Swann becomes by the phrase the more he begins to think of Vinteuil more than Odette. “And for the first time Swann’s thoughts turned with a stab of pity and tenderness to Vinteuil, to that unknown, sublime brother who must also have suffered so; what must his life have been like?”
But, while finally sympathizing with Vinteuil’s suffering, Swann sees the little phrase in its own terms, the music uncovered rather than invented by the composer: “The composer had merely unveiled it, made it visible, with his musical instruments . . . . Never had spoken language been such an inflexible necessity, never had it known such pertinent questions, such irrefutable answers.” When Swann manages to have a final chance to hear Vinteuil’s work, it appears as “made of [a] dais, where a soul had thus been summoned, one of the noblest altars on which a supernatural ceremony could be performed.”
Although Proust does not provide, as Justice does, an actual score, his analysis of the little phrase is quite specific. “He had realized that it was to the closeness of the intervals between the five notes that composed it, and to the constant repetition of two of them, that was due this impression of a frigid and withdrawn sweetness.” He knew that in the past he had reasoned in his mind not about the phrase itself, but about simple values substituted for the convenience of his intelligence.” But now the “mysterious entity” stands forth to be perceived as a thing in the world, like some real object.” By this point, Odette hardly matters at all. “We will perish, but we have for hostages these divine captives who will follow us and share our fate. And death in their company is less bitter, less inglorious, perhaps less probable.”
Is this what Donald Justice’s narrator feels as he approaches death? We have more of a sense of Bestor’s music being left behind with no one to hear it rather than functioning as a “divine captive which will follow us and share our fate.” But whether such numinous forms follow us or stay behind, Justice and Proust, when thinking of their particular composer’s musical phrase understand, as Swann discovers, that such things “exist latent in the mind in the same way as certain other notions without equivalents, like the notion of light, of sound, of perspective . . . We can no more eliminate our experience of them than we can our experience of some real object, than we can for example doubt the light of the lamp illuminating the metamorphosed objects in our room when even the memory of darkness has vanished.”
One could move on from Justice’s exquisite short story to his poem on the very same subject called “The Sunset Maker” or his affectionate accounts, in verse and in prose, of his childhood piano teachers. But I’ll end this with a quote that appears as a kind of epigraph to A Donald Justice Reader identified only as “from the draft of a story.” It must have been an alternative ending to “Little Elegy for Cello and Piano.” I rather wish he had retained it.
Yet I do not doubt the existence somewhere – in the atmosphere, let us say – of a sort of eternity of sounds. I am told there are scientific grounds to believe this. And in this eternity of sounds Eugene’s rich, exact notes persevere. They continue, they repeat themselves, they endure – a form of energy, pure energy of the pure spirit. I cannot hear them, or many of them, but I believe they are there, like the laughter on old radio shows or the conversations of Goethe, like the sword-sounds of dim medieval battles or the dark surf Homer himself heard without seeing.
John Matthias, a contributing editor of The Fortnightly Review, is also editor emeritus of Notre Dame Review, emeritus professor of English at Notre Dame and the author of some thirty books of poetry, translation, criticism, and scholarship. Shearsman Books published his three volumes of Collected Poems, as well as the uncollected long poem, Trigons, two more volumes of poetry, Complayntes for Doctor Neuro and Acoustic Shadows and a novel, Different Kinds of Music. Tales Tall & Short— Fictional, Factual and In Between was published by Dos Madres in 2020 and The New Yorker recently published his widely read memoir, “Living with a Visionary.” His Fortnightly archive is here.
- The North American Review, Vol. 269, No. 2 (Jun., 1984), pp. 53-55. It may be accessed on JSTOR, without charge via this link.