One work Proust was eager to hear again in the late winter of 1916 was César Franck’s Quartet in D as performed by the Poulet Quartet. One evening at a concert by this ensemble, Proust approached the viola player Amable Massis during the intermission and asked him whether the group would be willing to come and play for him in a private concert. Massis agreed in principle and thought no more about it.
One night around eleven Gaston Poulet, the leader of the quartet, heard his doorbell ring. Poulet, already in his pajamas, opened the door to find himself face to face with a thin, pale man with a moustache, who said, “I am Marcel Proust.” The caller made an unusual request: he wanted to hear Franck’s Quartet that very night. There was a cab waiting that could round up the other members of the quartet. Poulet agreed. Once in the cab Poulet directed the driver to the homes of Louis Ruyssen, cellist, Victor Gentil, second violin, and Amable Massis, viola. When Massis entered the taxi, he saw Proust wrapped in a huge eiderdown; there was a bowl of mashed potatoes sitting on the folding seat. Massis, suddenly disconcerted by the oddity of the situation, received a reassuring smile and gesture from the driver, signaling that his employer was somewhat bizarre, but harmless. By the time Proust had collected all the musicians and their instruments and arrived back at boulevard Haussmann, it was nearly one in the morning.
Céleste opened the door and greeted the group. Massis, like everyone who saw her the first time, noted that she was tall for a woman, svelte, and very pretty. The men removed their overcoats, opened their cases, and took out their instruments. Massis remembered playing in a bedroom lighted solely by candles. Just beyond a circle of light a divan covered in green velvet had been placed in the semidarkness; near the bed stood a mountain of manuscripts. The opening of the chimney had been covered, as Poulet had recommended, to prevent any of the sound from escaping. While Céleste assisted the musicians in setting up makeshift music stands, Proust stretched out on the divan.
During the playing Proust lay with his eyes closed, without making the slightest movement. So solemnly eerie was this concert deep in the night that the musicians dared not speak to each other between movements. When the last notes of the Franck piece were no longer audible, Proust opened his eyes and asked the musicians to begin again. The stricken instrumentalists looked at each other. The Franck quartet took forty- five minutes to perform. It was now around two in the morning, and the musicians felt dead with fatigue. Sensing their distress, Proust asked Massis to bring him a small Chinese box from a nearby shelf. The novelist opened it and removed a stack of fifty- franc bank bills redeemable for gold. He handed each musician three of the bills. According to Massis’s recollection, 150 of these gold francs were worth 45,000 ordinary francs. Their energy restored at the sight of so much money, the musicians immediately began again to play the entire quartet. The room filled once more with the strains of the Pater Angelus.
Afterward, Proust thanked the musicians warmly and told them that he would like to have them back again under similar conditions. Céleste came in with champagne and fried potatoes. Shortly before dawn the musicians stepped out onto the boulevard Haussmann to find four taxis waiting to take them home.