A Tale of Two Kreutzer Sonatas
by Andrew Swensen
I read “The Kreutzer Sonata” before I ever heard it, and that fact changed my experience of music for the rest of my life.
“The Kreutzer Sonata” is a novella by Tolstoy, one of his masterpieces. It is also one of Beethoven’s masterpieces, a sonata for violin and piano. While it is difficult to compare a narrative form with a musical composition, we can at least say that both involve a powerful duet of surging emotion.
Tolstoy’s novella plumbs the depths of character psychology and a character’s struggle with what appears to be an unanswerable moral conundrum. His protagonist, Pozdnyshev, narrates the tale to strangers on a train, recounting the story of his marriage. He tells of his wife, an accomplished pianist, and her deepening attachment to a violinist with whom she performs Beethoven’s masterpiece. The violinist plays the work with a fiery passion that Pozdnyshev interprets as lascivious seduction of his wife, and his wife’s animated performance, her musical reciprocation, awakens a jealous rage.
Why then would this story change the experience of all music for one person over a century later?
It is not so much that these two works are related to each other in theme and content. Perhaps they are. Perhaps you might see Tolstoy’s story as a reading, an interpretation of Beethoven’s work. Yet what most strikes me in contemplating music through the literature of Tolstoy is the intimacy of the musical experience, the personality of the composition channeled through their performance – the fact that two people bind themselves to one another through their shared artistic expression. You see, once upon a time chamber music was not a spectator sport. It was something that people lived and breathed every day. It was a very personal expression. In this regard the world of music differed from many other art forms because in the case of music two artists are required to bring it to life – one to compose it and one to perform it – and very often that latter artist was a person like you or me, playing in their own home.
Moreover, because chamber music involves so few performers, sometimes only one, its relationship to the individual is poignantly apparent. So it is that with “Kreutzer Sonata,” both Beethoven’s and Tolstoy’s versions, the performance of this piece becomes a torrid give and take, a meeting if not necessarily of the minds then certainly of the passions. As the piano and the violin play off of one another, Tolstoy’s narrative sees this as a love affair in expression. Let’s hope that our musical experiences do not involve the dark turns of Tolstoy’s tale, but the point here more speaks to the notion of genuinely living out a work of art as opposed to merely being a watcher or a listener.
As we think about an art or the arts generally, so often we regard them from this place of remove. We walk into a museum, theater, or performance hall, we sit down in a chair or on a bench, and we watch. We are lookers. Spectators. The nature of reception may vary tremendously as one experience differs dramatically from another. Yet the truth remains that the aesthetic experience is one of receiving and not making.
This is not the nature of music, especially not chamber music, which was composed to be lived and channeled. It was supposed to inspire creative flights for flesh-and-blood people living the music. I suppose that is why I love chamber music and love going to chamber music performances to this day. I attended an incredible performance just this week at the School of Music at Carnegie Mellon University, and the commitment in something like this is palpable and undeniable. There is so much investment in it. It can only be a labor of love, for heaven knows there aren’t too many people making a living at chamber music. Yes, the superior performers that I saw differ from the amateurs like the rest of us. Still, the personal investing of the self into a musical work extends from the finest performers to simple amateurs banging away on the piano down the street. Personality expressed.
Let’s bring it back to personality. Think about all the people plunging into these works, from our children taking flute and violin lessons to amateur pianists and clarinetists – and all the rest. There are just not too many art forms where you have the chance to bring a master to life. It is not as if Cezanne created paint-by-numbers masterpieces waiting for us to fill in the spaces. Yet that is the case with music. Even intermediate pianists can take on a couple of Chopin preludes and get tremendous fulfillment from them.
Music is a place where your effort can represent the expressive artistry that animates works of immortal greatness. (There might be exceptions if your family stages home performances of a Tennessee Williams play or stages a poetry reading, which I also heartily encourage.) This dynamic does not shape only chamber music, though that is the subject of the moment; it further encompasses everything from front-porch blues to bluegrass fiddling. So whether it is Chopin and Dvorak or Muddy Waters and Allison Kraus, I believe that we should take an opportunity to share in great art by performing it ourselves.
Today I commend to you two works: Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata” and Beethoven’s “Kreutzer Sonata.” As Beethoven’s work requires some level of virtuosic talent to perform, I am not going to pretend that the weekend violinist and pianist can pick that one up. Nonetheless, many other works are accessible, and with this thought in mind I commend to you an entire world of music for you to perform. Make it your own. Bring your own creative spark to a world of masterpieces composed through the ages.
Postscript: For an excellent commentary on the Kreutzer Sonata — Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, that is — visit the NPR piece recently done on the work. (click here)
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