Centre for Research in Opera and Music Theatre (CROMT)

The Kreutzer Sonata

The Kreutzer Sonata: A Performative Reading of Tolstoy's Novella

Proposal for a creative research project.
Published in 1891, Tolstoy's story The Kreutzer Sonata is a tale of sexual obsession and jealousy. A provincial businessman (Pozdnyshev) becomes obsessed with his wife's relationship with a violinist, with whom she plays duos. The climax of his jealousy comes during a performance by his wife and her violinist partner of Beethoven's Violin Sonata no.9 in A major, known as the 'Kreutzer' sonata, after which Pozdnyshev murders his wife.

Tolstoy's story is a coda to the analysis of marriage and adultery that he explored in Anna Karenina. It is also representative of his later moral and aesthetic values, in which he became preoccupied with sexual and artistic indulgence. But the specific thematising of music and sexuality in the story is indicative of some much broader concerns about music and sexuality in western culture, and offers grounds for more extensive enquiry.

There is evidence that the novella was originally intended as part of a performance event. In her biography of her father Alexandra Tolstoy describes how the idea for The Kreutzer Sonata arose after a powerful performance of the Beethoven sonata in Tolstoy's home in Moscow, at which the painter Ilya Repin and the actor V. Andreyev-Burlak were also present: 'They spoke of how fine it would be if Tolstoy wrote a story on the theme of the Kreutzer Sonata, and Repin illustrated it and Andreyev-Burlak acted it'. Alexandra Tolstoy's account is ambiguous as to what precisely was proposed, but the reference to Andreyev-Burlak 'acting' the story implies a dramatic presentation that would surely have included a performance of the Beethoven violin sonata. Another account of the proposed event by Tolstoy's biographer Ernest Simmons mentions Andreyev-Burlak reading the story 'in the presence of a canvas of Repin inspired by the music'. Tolstoy wrote his story, but the planned performance never took place because Andreyev-Burlak died shortly afterwards.

In Tolstoy's story the Beethoven sonata can only be described verbally. This project attempts a modern interpretation of the original idea for a 'multi-media' presentation of The Kreutzer Sonata, placing a performance of Beethoven's sonata within a dramatised reading of Tolstoy's story, with accompanying visual material, so that story, visuals and music illuminate each other directly. The object is not to create a historical reconstruction of the originally proposed event, nor a simple dramatisation of the story, but a contemporary re-reading, bringing to bear upon the literary and musical texts in question the understanding of contemporary historical, cultural and critical approaches.

The project aims are

To reconstruct the original plan for a performative version of The Kreutzer Sonata, with accompanying music and visuals, from a contemporary perspective.

To create a discursive context for both Beethoven's violin sonata and Tolstoy's story that reads these works across and against each other, and across and against wider understandings of the cultural meanings of Beethoven's music and Tolstoy's story.To gain better understanding of the likely form of the original proposal in the context of domestic theatrical events in the nineteenth-century.

Research Questions

How might a performative reading of The Kreutzer Sonata illuminate the themes of Tolstoy's narrative?How might a performance of Beethoven's Kreutzer Violin Sonata in the context of Tolstoy's story illuminate the cultural meanings of Beethoven's work?Why did Tolstoy choose Beethoven's Kreutzer Sonata as the fulcrum of his story: what were its meanings in the nineteenth-century, and what did it mean to Tolstoy?What is the relationship between Tolstoy's moral, sexual and aesthetic theories and the broader moral, sexual and aesthetic attitudes of nineteenth-century western culture, in particular in relation to music?

Research Contexts

Tolstoy's late works, informed by his puritan morality and aesthetics, puts in fictional form the animus against the music of Beethoven and Wagner that is also outlined in his book on aesthetic theory entitled What is Art? (1896). The immediate research context is therefore Tolstoy's own fiction, and his moral and aesthetic theories, for which Rimvydas Ŝilbajoris Tolstoy's Aesthetics and His Art (1990) provides an invaluable starting point.

In Adultery in the Novel (1979), Tony Tanner suggested that for Tolstoy the transference of subjectivity that takes place in musical performance effects a transgression of conventional social relations that is comparable to that of adultery. The most interesting recent analyses of The Kreutzer Sonata have been undertaken by interdisciplanary cultural historians who have focussed on this nexus of music and sexuality in the story. Richard Leppert (The Sight of Sound: Representations and the History of the Body, 1993) notes the homoerotic nature of the story, in which the violinist is depicted as a man with a woman's or "hottentot"'s posterior, in what is therefore also a clear gendering and racialising of music as 'Other'. In a more extended analysis, Lawrence Kramer takes the story as one of four key nineteenth-century texts on music and sexuality, offering a reading of both Beethoven's sonata and Tolstoy's story in the light of nineteenth-century attitudes to gender and sexuality (After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture, 1997).

Tolstoy finds the first movement of Beethoven's sonata to be troublingly powerful, and its transgression of the normal manners of the classical violin sonata is noted by Charles Rosen in The Classical Style (1970). Kramer suggests that for Tolstoy, Beethoven himself is the culprit, the 'murderer' in the story, a premonition of feminist musicologist Susan McClary's more notorious characterisation of Beethoven as a 'rapist' (Feminine Endings, 1992). The research will consider the reception of Beethoven's music, and in particular the Kreutzer Sonata, during the course of the nineteenth-century, drawing on key texts in the history Beethoven reception such as Alessandra Comini's The Changing Image of Beethoven (1987) and Scott Burnham's Beethoven Hero (2000), but also undertaking more specific research into the reception of Beethoven in Russia, drawing on work presented in the 'Rezeption der Wiener Schule im Östlichen' conferences at the University of Leipzig.

The research will also investigate domestic theatrical events that are comparable to that envisaged by Tolstoy, tracing the history of nineteenth-century entertainments such as the tableaux vivants described by Goethe or George Eliot to the magic lantern slide-shows that were popular in Tolstoy's day. Further research into the original accounts of the proposed event will be undertaken in an effort to clarify the intentions of those involved in the original project.

Ilya Repin was the most significant Russian painter of the late nineteenth century, painting historical and contemporary subject matter in a realist mode. His moral concerns chimed with those of Tolstoy, and he and Tolstoy had a number of significant encounters. The most important modern monograph on Repin in English, Elizabeth Valkenier's Ilya Repin and the World of Russian Art (1990), makes no mention of the Kreutzer Sonata project, and further research will be necessary to ascertain the likely form of Repin's contribution, examining in particular his illustrations of literary texts.

The project will also research the career and acting methods of the actor V. Andreyev-Burlak in the context of developments in Russian theatre in the 1880s (in particular the development of the naturalistic production styles that led to the foundation of the Moscow Art Theatre).

Finally, Tolstoy's story mentions that after the performance of the Beethoven sonata, a second piece, 'Ernst's Elegy' (identified as Elégie, op.10, 1840, by Heinrich Wilhelm Ernst), and 'a few small pieces' (unidentified), were performed. Further research into the Ernst Elégie, and into the kinds of lesser works that would have been performed (in particular those known to Tolstoy), will be undertaken, and such works will be incorporated into the finished performance piece.