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The Music of Tolstoy's Beethoven

Updated: Feb 15, 2021

Beethoven and Tolstoy: Melodic Pursuits and Moralistic Purpose

The Kreutzer Sonata by Beethoven deconstructed the musical form of allegro con brio and created a new form of allegro unlike any other sonata preceding it. Tolstoy’s treatise, “What is Art?” evaluates artistic pursuits by creating standar

ds that artists must adhere to in order for the art to have value. The main standard Tolstoy created was that art must have moralistic virtue. Tolstoy’s novella, The Kreutzer Sonata, re-appropriates Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata by giving it moralistic virtue yet also under revolutionary circumstances. Tolstoy uses the unfamiliar structure of the Kreutzer Sonata to display his revolutionary moral: marriage is a social convention and is a fraudulent idea of human relations. Through the narration of The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy is able to voice revolutionary ideas of social convention whilst resembling the musical structure of Beethoven’s sonata. Moreover, Tolstoy gives Beethoven’s sonata morale through the construction of his novella.

The Kreutzer Sonata’s narratology is comprised of what is happening during the time of narration and the background/inherit the history of the period it is written in. This framework is defined by the soundscape and the landscape of the story that in turn parallels the structure of Beethoven’s sonata: disorder. The narrator boards a train that exists in a world purely of external noises: “—a lawyer as I later found out—and his neighbor, the smoking lady with the mannish coat, went to the refreshment room to drink tea… I could hear snatches of their conversation when nobody was passing between us” (135). The inherent history of each person's social class is assigned according to their physicality and dress, while the people themselves serve as external noises at the time of the narration. The reader does not know where the train is going, only that people are smoking, walking about, and drinking a lot of tea. The introduction of the train’s scenery through the perspective of our narrator gives the story a unique frame, a frame that is akin to the uneasy framework of Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata. The violin solo that initiates the sonata is physically unplayable by even the swiftest of fingers that in turn leaves the musician with an ample amount of space for interpretation and creativity. Alike the framework of Tolstoy’s novella, the story exists in a scene of commotion and disorder where the possibility that anything could happen—or that anything could be said—could in fact happen. The narrator, once introduced to Pozdnyshev is at once transported into a world where the narration is in the hands of the character telling his story—yet, the narration exists in this world of constant change and irritation by caffeinating. Therefore, the narrator and the storyteller are constantly shifting from one world to the other, experiencing many melodies at once. The same effect is happening to the reader, as well as experiencing two different realms of place and setting, the reader is also responsible for determining the content and morale of the story. This is a technique that Beethoven used in his music as well, chromaticism: the playing of keys outside and inside the scale simultaneously. To play diatonically is to only play the keys within the scale. “Chroma” is the Greek word for “intensity” or “the shade of a color,” therefore when Beethoven diverges from the allegro form and plays keys outside of the scale, he is adding intensity or color to the music; forcing the audience to occupy two schools of music, much like Tolstoy’s use of narratology.

Allegro con brio is the classic architecture for creating a sonata. Throughout time, composers preceding Beethoven had used this as a platform typical to rebound ideas off of before the symphony would orchestrate the music. Beethoven used allegro imperfectly to create an emotional response rather than a logical one, and so he expanded the form. His act of revolutionizing this formula can be seen as the emotional display of his increasing deafness. Pozdnyshev alludes to this as he expresses his detest for the music: “Beethoven—knew of course why he was in that condition; that condition caused him to do certain things and therefore that condition had meaning for him, but for me—none” (180). Although Pozdnyshev too suffers from a mental condition, morbid jealousy, Tolstoy characterizes him with a psychological disorder rather than deafness. Tolstoy’s treatise, “What is Art?” conveys a message about his personal reception of Beethoven’s sonata and his closeness with the music and its lack of virtuous content. “It is upon this capacity of man to receive another man's expression of feeling and experience those feelings himself, that the activity of art is based” (“What is Art?” Tolstoy).

Tolstoy’s belief that adopting one mans creation of art as ones own experience is seen in his novella when Pozdnyshev explains how “music carries me immediately and directly into the mental condition which the man who composed it. My soul merges with his and together with him I pass from one condition into another” (180). The consciousness of Pozdnyshev is reflected in the melodic pursuits of the sonata. Yet, because the music depicts Beethoven’s feelings and strife and, according to Tolstoy, music is meant to have the moral intention and not solely an expression of emotion, Pozdnyshev must act and speak in molto con brio (with vigor) while remaining firm in his convictions. Pozdnyshev in turn dances with the style and cadence of the sonata’s music while he also re-appropriates the content of the musical narrative.

Tolstoy, as seen in The Kreutzer Sonata, uses Pozdnyshev as the representation of a man of firm morals. Although he has committed acts of that of an imperfect human, he nevertheless has a firm internal radar as to what is right and what is wrong. When he approaches his wife and the amateur violinist, Trukhachevsky, they are deliberating over what music they will play together for the following Sunday. The two were in a disagreement as to what to play, a difficult piece by Beethoven, or a few little and easier pieces (176). At this point, Pozdnyshev is experiencing emotional turmoil. He equates the act of the two playing music with one another as a form of sensuality. To Pozdnyshev, the connection between them playing the Kreutzer sonata is a form of deceit for the music’s existence is in itself, deceitful. Not only does his wife’s behavior in social dynamics with Trukhachevsky exemplify deception, as well as the kind of music they intend on playing together. The music sets an expectation but takes the listener to a place of unfamiliarity. Allegros are meant to be upbeat, but the Kreutzer sonata is not upbeat and it opens with two themes running alongside each other with the consistent changing of keys that leaves the receiver constantly questioning the form of musical content. This unease and unrest the music creates are discomforting for the Nineteenth Century audience and Pozdnyshev stands in as the physical representation of the reception of Beethoven’s sonata.

According to Tolstoy in chapter five of his treatise, “What is Art?”—“art, in the limited sense of the word, we do not mean all human activity transmitting feelings, but only that part which we for some reason select from it and to which we attach special importance.” Through this story, Tolstoy is capable of disfiguring the music of the sonata and attaching significance to it in order to meet the content of the stories moral: the refutation of marriage. Through Pozdnyshev, Tolstoy conveys that the education of women “corresponds directly to what men think of them” (159) and that women are being fashioned to behave a certain way in order to attract a suitor regardless of their true nature. This is negatively associated with the perception of women and art: “And the troika-drives, shows, and symphonies… Lily is mad about music’” (149). This negative relationship between deception and art sets the framework to support the story’s moral purpose, “We didn’t understand that this love and animosity were one and the same animal feeling, only opposite poles…Thus we lived in perpetual fog, not seeing the condition we were in… I should not have realized the abyss of misery and the horrible falsehood in which I wallowed” (167). To Pozdnyshev, people should refute marriage in order to get the greatest fulfillment of life and be the purest moral human.

The choice in having Trukhachevsky and Pozdnyshev’s wife play the Kreutzer Sonata is directly linked to the digression of the narrative. Yet, as soon as the music begins, Pozdnyshev’s mental condition is triggered. As he is telling his story, he digresses and repeats himself, “‘started to play…the music began…’ Pozdnyshev paused and produced his strange sound several times in succession. He tried to speak, but sniffed, and stopped” (180). Pozdnyshev narrates the frame of the sonata by repeating the act of starting to play, and in turn, digresses from the story, pauses, and repeats his bodily act of clearing his throat. His performed pausing in narration resembles a break or pause in musical theory that is akin to the Kreutzer Sonata’s abrupt and unexpected disruption from harmonic language and musical content. The pizzicato acts as a tool for transitioning the movements with the theme being played on the piano, but these transitions are turbulent, much like the transitions in Pozdnyshev’s narrative storytelling. The reader and listener are at once in a world of music, language, and content, but then is thrust into the present world of where the story is being told, on a train with lots of smoking, tea drinking, and coughing. To Pozdnyshev, this music doesn’t have any meaningful qualities, it doesn’t “lead to any conclusions” (180). This is, technically speaking and according to the musical analysis of the song, true. Beethoven’s use of cadence is unexpected and isn’t the typical sound of a joyful sonata, but it is because of this irregularity that the reader is capable of seeing Pozdnyshev outside of the story, after the fact that he has murdered his wife. These breaks or pauses in narration are moments where Pozdnyshev displays his irritation as a person telling a story but also as a person who exists in a world of disorder.

Pozdnyshev’s inability to react meaningfully at the moment after the sonata is finished by his wife and Trukhachevsky is seen as Tolstoy attempting to place his focal character in the shoes of the composer. Both of who are suffering from mental conditions: disillusionment and jealousy, and the other from encroaching deafness and hypocrisy. Through The Kreutzer Sonata, Tolstoy attempts to “evoke that feeling (quite distinct from all other feelings) of joy and of spiritual union with another (the author) and with others (those who are also infected by it)” (“What is Art?” Tolstoy). This suggests that by drawing similarities between content and its authors, art can be redesigned into a form that isn’t hypocritical and can have moralistic virtue. When Beethoven first debuted his sonata, it created a new type of musical form. Beethoven quickly went from an innovative composer to a revolutionary activist changing the interface and the design of musical art. Yet, when Tolstoy’s Pozdnyshev first initially receives the music he, in dialogue with himself remarks, “How can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies in low-necked dresses? To hear that played, to applaud, and then to eat sweets and talk about the latest scandal? Such things should only be played on certain important occasions, and then only when certain actions answering to such music are wanted” (181). The music has an immoral effect on Pozdnyshev. Since Tolstoy believed that music should have a moralist purpose, he uses the music and his characters to mediate our response to the content of the story. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata is unfamiliar in its structure and content and Tolstoy, according to The Kreutzer Sonata, is in turn contextualizing the cultural response from the Nineteenth Century viewpoint. He presents the emotional experience of the characters that in turn alters the reception and experience of stories moralist purpose.

According to Tolstoy in “What is Art?” art has to have a moralistic intention, a specific aim to achieve for the betterment of mankind. Pozdnyshev can be seen as the personification of the sonata through his consciousness, his narration, his bodily actions, his heightened speech, and by his radical morality, equally as radical as Beethoven’s Allegro con brio. Tolstoy’s novella occupies a world of agitation and irregularity. In terms of irregularity, The Kreutzer Sonata parallels Beethoven’s melodic style. It also parallels his Kreutzer Sonata in the effect that it had on his audience. Both did not meet the expectation of their contemporary audiences and both received plenty of criticism for their revolutionary ideas, whether it’s form or content. Tolstoy applied his knowledge of music, art, and theory in order to create a “union” with Beethoven, to give Beethoven’s melodic pursuits moralist purpose.

Tolstoy. Count Lyof. “What is Art?” Aylmer Maude. Thomas Y. Crowell & Co.

New York. 1899.

Tolstoy. Leo. The Kreutzer Sonata. Michael R. Katz. W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Second Edition. New York.

Beethoven. Ludwig. Violin Sonata Von L.V. Beethoven. Op. 12. No. 1. 1802-1804.

Arthur Seybold. London.

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