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The Proustian Solution

Joseph Epstein, concertgoer on the edge of his seat.

May 28, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 35 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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Five or six years ago I found the seats at classical music concerts becoming uncomfortable. I blame the seats, but in fact I had lost the Sitzfleisch—in German literally “seat meat,” in looser translation “bottom patience” —to sit through a concert. In concert halls my mind wandered, I counted the people around me who had fallen asleep, searched the audience for anyone under 40, frequently checked my watch. Time seemed to pass more slowly than in a laundromat.

Cartoon of a man looking bored at the opera

mark anderson

I used to go to from 12 to 20 concerts a year. With my loss of attention at concerts, and given the expense of concert tickets, it finally occurred to me that I was wasting time and money in dragging myself to these events. I love serious music; it was only at concerts that I couldn’t seem to enjoy it. My condition was not unlike that of the English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge, who once wrote that he couldn’t take his mind off thoughts of God, and it was only when he entered an Anglican church and the vicar began speaking that for him God was gone.

George Santayana late in life also found he could no longer bear to attend concerts. Going to hear serious music, he reports in one of his letters, had come to resemble an act of piety instead of one of pleasure. In Rome, where Santayana was living at the time, there was lots of good street music, and he achieved a useful compromise by listening to this music, out-of-doors and standing up. I listen to most of my music on CDs driving around the city in my car. 

I recently attempted a concert-hall comeback. An all-Mozart program was scheduled a few weeks ago by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, with Mitsuko Uchida, the foremost Mozart interpreter of our day, playing and conducting two Mozart concerti. Uchida was splendid, the CSO turned in its usual smooth performance, and as the program ended to a standing ovation for Uchida, I said to myself, “Please don’t let her play an encore.”  

Two weeks later, I went to a Dame Myra Hess Memorial Concert at the Chicago Cultural Center. The program, played by a youthful woodwinds quintet, was roughly 45 minutes long. The crowd, like most classical music audiences, was less than sprightly. The man seated to my left fell asleep just before the performers were introduced and woke—refreshed, I assume—only at their finish. I found myself rising to my feet to applaud, and went happily off to lunch with friends afterwards. Successful as this outing was, I feel no urge to return, at least not soon. 

No, the best arrangement for me is what I think of as the Proustian solution. Marcel Proust was a regular concertgoer, and his interest in music was intense and highly intelligent; his fictional composer Vinteuil of In Search of Lost Time attests to that. He was especially enamored of the music of Beethoven and César Franck, and in particular of Franck’s String Quartet in D as played by the Poulet Quartet. 

One night around 11 o’clock in the winter of 1916, wanting eagerly to hear the Franck quartet, Proust paid a call on Gaston Poulet, the leader of the Poulet Quartet. When Poulet came to the door in his pajamas, Proust informed him that he would like very much to hear his group play the Franck composition that very night in his apartment on the Boulevard Haussmann. Lured by the high fee Proust offered, Poulet agreed, and he and Proust in a cab rounded up the other members of the quartet. They arrived at Proust’s apartment near 1:00 a.m. 

As they began the César Franck quartet, Proust listened with his eyes closed. He enjoyed it so much that he asked the musicians to play it again, and then went to a small Chinese box from which he extracted a stack of notes redeemable for 45,000 ordinary francs, a sum grand enough for the Poulet Quartet to play the piece a second time without diminution of energy. In subsequent months, Proust called on the Poulet Quartet to play others of his favorite compositions in his apartment, Mozart, Ravel, and Schumann among them, each time one assumes for a similarly lucrative fee. 

I should mention that when Proust’s mother died, in 1905 at the age of 56, she left her son the equivalent of roughly $4.6 million in current dollars, a sum that allowed him to tip waiters at the Ritz 100 percent and more and to listen to live music in the ideal conditions of his own apartment. 

If only I could adopt Proust’s solution to my concert-hall problem. How I should like to have the Chicago Symphony perform for me alone in my living room! And perhaps someday I shall, once I figure out how to do so without dipping into capital.

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