About the Project

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Welcome to the website of Bringing Proust’s Imaginary Music to Life, a collaborative interdisciplinary project supported by the John Fell OUP Fund, which took place in the academic year 2016-17. Although the project is now complete, we invite you to browse these pages to find out what happened, and to read and listen to our work.

Proust writes beautifully about music in A la recherche du temps perdu. Much of what he writes is not, however, about real music, though he loves pieces as varied as Beethoven’s late string quartets and Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande.

Rather, the music in Proust’s novel is most often imaginary, the work of a fictional composer named Vinteuil, about whom we know very little. Of his compositions two are particularly noted in the novel: a sonata and a septet. This project addresses the passages from Proust’s novel which deal with Vinteuil’s sonata for piano and violin.

The project was carried out in two stages. The first part saw the translation into English of selected extracts from Proust undertaken by pairs of undergraduate students in French at the University of Oxford. You can read these passages in the original French and in English here.

These passages were then given to two undergraduate students in Music who each composed responses to these descriptions. The culminating event was a concert of these two new Proust-inspired commissions. 

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These were some of our questions:

  • Can these passages serve as material for musical compositions? In what ways?
  • Do composers read these passages differently from students of literature?
  • What happens when French and Music students sit down together to read and listen to these passages?

This project was not simply about bringing students from two different disciplines together, although this was already an exciting experiment! Rather, it also capitalised on the many and varied talents within each discipline, namely the musical abilities of French students and the attentiveness to language of music students.

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