The Salon of Princesse Edmond de Polignac

Music of Today, Echoes of the Past1

   "The Past"... It must be said that it would be impossible, it would be sacrilege to divorce it completely from today. I would like to say that before anything else the princesse de Polignac would wish us to say a word about the prince. Horatio called prince Hamlet "sweet prince" in Shakespeare's tragedy. "Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."2 Alas! it has been two years now since prince de Polignac entered the eternal sleep, and no doubt angels sing him to his rest with the ineffable liturgic songs that he loved most of all.
   He was a sweet prince, a great intellect and a masterful musician. His religious music and his melodies are today consecrated by the admiration of the most refined people. His music is not well known, but that is because it is so difficult to perform... Concert halls filled him with horror. The open air suits it best. To him music in the woods seemed most beautiful.

... An invisible flute
Sighs in the orchards.
The most peaceful song
Is the song of the shepherd,

said Victor Hugo. Similarly prince de Polignac said: "My motto in music is "Open fields", but he didn't write it in "plain chant"4. Friends of comtesse Greffulhe recollect an evening party that she chose to give in the woods of Varangeville so that the prince's music could be heard

Beneath the trees lit blue by the serene moon,5


The melody lingers a few moments more.

   For those who recall how many of the prince de Poligac's ideas - not only in literature and art, but even in politics - were very advanced, more advanced even than those of the most advanced young minds, it is quite miraculous to think that he was the son of the reactionary minister under Charles X, who signed the famous Ordinances, and who was imprisoned in Ham in 1830. It was while he was in Ham that prince Edmond was born. Nature, which promotes continuity of blood and does not forecast individuals, had given him the slim figure and the fine energetic countenance of a military man and a courtier. Little by little the spiritual flame that inhabited prince Edmond de Polignac sculpted his appearance to the shape of his mind. But his physiognomy had remained that of his lineage, anterior to his own individual essence. His figure and his face were like a disused keep that has been rebuilt as a library. I remember how on that grievous day of his funeral in the church great black palls carried in proud scarlet, within an enclosed coronet, a single letter P. His individuality had been effaced, he had returned to his family.
   He was no longer anything but a Polignac.
   His descendants will discover that he bore a likeness to their ancestors and their brothers, and yet some among them, of a spirit more allied to his own, will stop for longer before his portrait than before those of others, as though before that of a brother who by anticipation bore a likeness to him, of old. Nevertheless, he did not disregard the nobility, but held nobility of the spirit above all else. And one evening when Swinburne (at Lady Brooke's if I remember correctly) told him: "I do believe that my family is distantly related to yours, which is very flattering for me", and it was with great sincerity of heart that the prince replied: "Believe me, of the two of us it is I who am most honoured by our kinship!"
   This man whose life was perpetually spent in pursuit of the most lofty, and one could say the most religious goals, had his periods of relaxation so to speak for childishness and playfulness, and fastidious persons, "those unfortunates"6, would find rather crude the drolleries that this great fastidious man would indulge in. Yet he was extremely funny when he improvised, words and music at the same time, a caricature of a soirée. Beneath his fingers the waltzes never stopped, and all the while each visitor would be announced by the door-man.
   "Your name, sir?"
   "Monsieur Cucheval."
   "Oh no, sir, I asked you your name?"
   "Don't be insolent! Monsieur Cucheval."
   And the door-man felt obliged to consult the host:
   "Monsieur le baron, this gentleman says his name is Monsieur Horse Buttocks7, should he be announced all the same?"
   "Ah! dash it, let's see, what's to be done? Just wait a second and I'll go and consult Madame la baronne."
   Then great commotion: Dr Ricord had just been announced.
   "Oh! It's you doctor, with your permission, won't take a moment..."
   "No, no, my friend, not here, it's impossible, you must see that..."
   "We could retire to the small parlour for a moment."
   "No, no. No spirits, no tobacco, no..."
   And the waltzes continued more beautifully, making it difficult to make out the dialogue of a couple arguing between themselves: "You wretch, I waited an hour for you yesterday in the Jardin des Plantes, by the monkeys." We no longer laugh at these follies that must appear rather cold quoted like this, dead... as is he.
   He spent his summers, sometimes at Amphion at the princesse de Brancovan's, sometimes at Bonnétable at the duc de Doudeauville's, a few times at Chaumont at princesse Amédée de Broglie's. He had a pretty estate at Fontainebleu whose wooded countryside inspired several of his melodies. And when they were performed in his home a sort of immense luminous projection of photographs taken in the forest was shown behind the orchestra. Because all today's innovations, combining music with light projections, accompanying music with spoken recitations, were first promoted by him. And whatever advancements may have happened that are imitated later, the decoration of the town house in the rue Cortambert, even if not always particularly harmonious, has endured as entirely "new". In his final years he liked most of all to spend his time in Amsterdam and Venice, two cities in which his painter's eye and his musician's ear recognized the dual relationship of light and silence. In the end he purchased a beautiful palace in Venice, the only city, he said, where you can talk through an open window without having to raise your voice.
   Some ten yeas ago the prince married Mlle Singer whose annual exhibitions of painting would regularly receive and recompense some remarkable entries. He was a musician, she was a musician, and both of them sensitive to all forms of intelligence. Only she was always too hot, and he was extremely susceptible to the cold. And how was he to know what would become of him in the incessant and deliberate currents of air in the studio at rue Cortambert. He protected himself as best he could, forever wrapping himself up in blankets and travelling rugs.
   "What do you expect?" he would say to anybody who poked fun at his garb. "As Anaxagoras said, life is a voyage!"
   Through her marriage, Mlle Singer, whose sister had married the duc Decazes, and who already lived in very artistic and elegant surroundings, allied herself directly to the La Rochefoucauld, Croy, Luynes and Gontaut-Biron families. Prince Polignac's sister had been the first wife of the duc de Doudeauville which made the princesse de Polignac aunt to the duchesse de Luynes, née La Rochefoucauld, great-aunt to the duchesse de Luynes, née Uzès, and to the duchesse de Noailles. Through the Mailly-Nesles, the prince de Polignac was even more directly related still to the comtesse Aymery de La Rochefoucauld and to the comtesse de Kersaint. That is to say that the musical performances in the hall at rue Cortambert, always wonderful from a musical point of view, where one could sometimes hear perfect renditions of early music, such as performances from Dardanus8, sometimes original and fervent interpretations of the latest melodies by Fauré, Fauré's sonata, dances by Brahms, these performances were also, as they say in the language of society commentators, "of supreme elegance". Often held during the daytime, these entertainments glittered from the thousand lights that bathed the studio with beams of sunlight captured in the prism of the windows, and it was a charming spectacle seeing the prince conducting that fine judge and fervent supporter to her place, that sovereign beauty, the comtesse Greffulhe, splendid and laughing. On the arm of the prince, agile and courteous she crossed the room in the murmuring and charmed wake that her appearance excited behind her and, as soon as the music started up, listening attentively, with an air at the same time both imperious and submissive, her beautiful eyes fixed upon the melody heard, like

a great golden bird that looks far away to its prey9

with a correct and charming politeness towards all his guests, we see the figure of the prince (the finest we have ever known) come alive with paternal joy and tenderness on the entry of the two incomparable young women whom we wish merely to name today, so that we can talk about them at length later, before whose magnificent and nascent genius he was already marvelling: comtesse Mathieu de Noailles and princesse Caraman-Chimay. Those two names that take first place in the admiration of every thinking person of today, rich with the double prestige of literary glory and physical beauty. Such enchanting times! The sun alights fully on the most beautiful painting by Claude Monet I know: Field of tulips near Harlem. Before his marriage, the prince had coveted it at a sale. "But", he said, "how infuriating! that painting was snatched from my grasp by an American woman whose name I cursed to the devil. A few years later I married the American woman and came into possession of the painting!" These happy hours, these celebrations of elegance and the arts will return again. And in their audience nothing will be changed. The families of La Rochefoucauld, Luynes, Ligne, Croy, Polignac, Mailly-Nesle, Noailles, Olliamson gather round the princesse de Polignac with an affection that the death of the prince has not changed in any way, which has grown, if we may say so, out of profound gratitude for the happy years she gave the prince, the man she understood so well, for whom, so affectionately in his life, so piously since his death, she had realized his artistic dreams. It may be even that the gay parties of the past will reverberate once more through the great hall with music that bears no resemblance to the Bach sonatas or the Beethoven quartets that it was accustomed to hearing. And the princesse, in order to encourage her grandnephews to dance, will force some of the friends of comte Édouard de La Rochefoucauld to join in the cotillion, because the hall in rue Cortambert has known those very same dancers, from M. Verdé-Delisle to the comte Bertrand d'Aramon and the marquis d'Albufera (who we will soon no longer be able to call a dancer, because he is preparing along with a volume of Recollections of his travels in Tunisia, a thrilling collection of the unpublished Memoirs of an eminent marshall of the First Empire, memoirs that M. Thiers alone had access to and that he was not sparing in making use of when he wrote Le Consulat et l'Empire). But however much delight, dedicated to art or to pleasure, serious or frivolous, these unforgettable hours reawaken, something irreplaceable will have changed. We shall no more see the figure of the thinker, the figure of the artist, the exquisitely spiritual figure of the man, loving and kind, who was prince Edmond de Polignac. Yes, most certainly a "sweet prince" as Horatio said. And as did he, let us say once again to the late prince who so loved the songs of angels and who no doubt is listening to them from his eternal sleep: "Good night, sweet prince. And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest."


First published in Le Figaro, 6 September 1903.

1. Winnaretta Singer, daughter of the sewing-machine manufacturer, married prince Edmond de Polignac, son of the minister under Charles X. The prince died at the beginning of August 1901.

2. Hamlet, Act 5, scene II. Shakespeare gives this speech to Horatio, friend of Hamlet. Proust signed several articles under the name of Horatio, and this one in particular.

3. Victor Hugo, Les Contemplations.

4. Untranslatable play on words, "Pleins champs", "plain chant".

5. Victor Hugo, Eviradmus (La Légende des siècles). In the poem the two lines quoted by Proust appear in reverse order.

6. Reference to La Fontaine, Fables, II, I.

7. Untranslatable joke at the expense of M. Cucheval, Proust's Latin and Rhetoric professor at the Lycée Condorcet. "Cul" = buttocks.

8. Lyric tragedy by Rameau (1739).

9. Heredia, Le Cydnus.



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