Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata was composed in 1803, during the period he was working on the Eroica Symphony, and barely six months after his Heiligenstadt Testament. The Kreutzer revitalized the violin sonata: subtitled molto concertante, it demanded a new kind of virtuosity from the violin and piano, and anticipated the more expansive emotional landscape of Beethoven’s middle period. Its first performance was at the Vienna Augarten with Beethoven himself at the piano along with a young black violinist, George Bridgetower, for whom the sonata had been written. The story of Bridgetower, and his collaboration with Beethoven, is told by Rita Dove in Sonata Mullatica.
The modern perception of Beethoven’s sonata has been greatly influenced by Leo Tolstoy’s powerful The Kreutzer Sonata. Published in 1889, Tolstoy’s novella is about love, sex, marital discord and jealousy. In the critical scene, Pozdnyshev’s jealousy is fueled by an amateur performance of the Beethoven sonata in which his wife accompanies the violinist Trukhachevsky whom Pozdnyshev despises. He says:
They played Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. Do you know the first presto? Do you?! Ohh! . . . That sonata is a fearful thing. Precisely that part. And music generally is a fearful thing. What is it? I don’t understand. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does? . . . .
It, music, at once transports me directly into the inner state of the one who wrote the music. I merge with him in my soul and, together with him, am transported from one state to another, but why I do that I don’t know. The man who wrote, let’s say, the Kreutzer Sonata — Beethoven — knew why he was in such a state. That state led him to certain actions, and therefore that state had meaning for him, while for me it has none. And therefore music only provokes, it doesn’t conclude. Well, they play a military march, soldiers march to it, the music achieves its end; they play a dance tune, I dance, the music achieves its end; they sing a mass, I take communion, the music also achieves its end; while here there’s only provocation, but what’s to follow from that provocation isn’t there. And that’s why music sometimes has such a fearful, such a terrible effect. In China music is a state affair. And that’s how it should be. As if it can be allowed that anyone who likes should hypnotize another or many others and then do what he likes with them. And above all, that this hypnotist should be the first immoral man who comes along.
Take, for instance, this Kreutzer Sonata, the first presto. How can that presto be played in a drawing room among ladies in décolleté? It’s played, they applaud a little, and then eat ice cream and talk about the latest scandal. These things can be played only in certain important, significant circumstances, and when there’s a demand to accomplish certain important actions in accordance with that music. Play it and do what the music attunes you to. Otherwise the calling up of an energy, a feeling, that accords neither with the place, nor with the time, that is not manifest in anything, can only have a pernicious effect. On me, at least this thing had a terrible effect; it seemed to me as if completely new feelings, new possibilities, which I hadn’t known until then, were revealed to me.
Beethoven and Tolstoy bracket the 19th century — bracket romanticism — and in this sense there is an organic historical connection between them. Tolstoy’s main concern was with the spiritual poverty of modern culture; he savaged Wagner, for instance, and described the Ring as “counterfeit art.” But it seems to me that Tolstoy did not always understand Beethoven — in particular late Beethoven. In What is Art, which Tolstoy wrote in 1904, we find this odd assessment:
Among his innumerable hasty productions written to order, there are, notwithstanding their artificiality of form, works of true art. But he grows deaf, cannot hear, and begins to write invented, unfinished works, which are consequently often meaningless and musically unintelligible. I know that musicians can imagine sounds vividly enough, and can almost hear what they read, but imaginary sounds can never replace real ones, and every composer must hear his production in order to perfect it. Beethoven, however, could not hear, could not perfect his work, and consequently published productions which are. artistic ravings.
Tolstoy also referred to the “shapeless improvisations” of Beethoven’s Opus 101, and said that his Ninth Symphony was “not a good work of art.” Goldenveizer explained this as follows: “when Tolstoy heard Beethoven he admired him and was captivated by him, but when Tolstoy spoke or wrote about Beethoven he often responded negatively considering that Beethoven began the decline of musical art,” and he attributes Tolstoy’s ambivalence toward Beethoven to their “similar temperament.” I suspect that Goldenveizer is on the right track, and that Tolstoy’s struggle to understand Beethoven can also be detected in Pozdnyshev’s monologue. In any case, there is considerable irony in the fact that the greatest novelist of the 19th century, who loved music and was an avid pianist, had such difficulty getting the measure of the century’s greatest composer.
The twentieth century has witnessed many Kreutzer’s, the most notable, in my view, being Leoš Janáček’s wonderful String Quartet No. 1 “Kreutzer Sonata”. The Janáček quartet was inspired by Tolstoy’s novella but also pays musical tribute to Beethoven’s sonata. In a letter Janáček wrote, “I was imagining a poor woman, tormented and run down, just like the one the Russian writer Tolstoy describes in his Kreutzer Sonata.” Other modern versions include a Broadway play (adapted from the Yiddish), a ballet, several novels, a half-dozen movies, and the painting used in the Tabu perfume ads — all, to my knowledge, strongly colored by Tolstoy’s vision.
Underneath these cultural accretions is a musical masterpiece — the Kreutzer — that should be heard for itself. There are many great recordings of the Beethoven sonata. My favorite might be the 1973 recording by Itzhak Perlman and Vladimir Ashkenazy. But I am also fond of the following performance by Hannah and Kyu-Young Kim, from when they were young students at CIM:
Beethoven, Violin Sonata, Op. 47 “Kreutzer” — Kyu-Young Kim and Hannah Shields
Adagio sostenuto — Presto — Adagio (10:42)
Andante con variazioni (14:47)