A Book of Answers XVII: Tolstoy And Beethoven


XVII Tolstoy And Beethoven

The obvious point for these two great masters to disagree, supposing them to have met, would be over the Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy was passionately fond of music, was an accomplished pianist and often played for several hours each day. He is known to have played the piano part in a performance of the Kreutzer Sonata at Yasnaya Polyana with a visiting violinist from the Moscow conservatorium, a brilliant young man of eighteen named Liassotta. This was in 1887. Sometime between this and 1889 he finished his Kreutzer Sonata, which was published in the following year. Tolstoy was then aged sixty-two. He may have sincerely held the views which that book, The Devil, and Resurrection preach so eloquently: that love between the sexes is a farce and an impossibility in our society and that sex itself is disgusting and corrupting, but he was far from putting these views into practice himself. He had a baker’s dozen of babies by his wife and was still vigorously cohabiting with her. Indeed, after The Kreutzer Sonata appeared and was the talk of Russia she wrote: “I am terribly afraid of becoming pregnant, because everyone will hear of the disgrace and gleefully repeat the recent Moscow witticism: Voilà le véritable post-scriptum de la Sonate de Kreutzer.” Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata, for all the power and force of its writing, is a very sick performance.

No less sick is his perverse theory of art here applied to music. It is clear from the story, though the author does not actually say so, that the “action” aroused by Beethoven’s music on the adulterous couple was animal sensuality. It acted as a bawd to the lust, between the violinist and Pozdnyshev’s wife. It is this use of his music to which Beethoven might justly have objected.

No one can tell how Beethoven would have reacted to Graf Lyov Nikolayevich’s morbid fantasy on his sonata. He would certainly have recognized Tolstoy’s genius as he recognized Goethe’s. The trespass on his music might have thrown him into one of his titanic rages, or the absurd theory of music might equally have dissolved him in Homeric laughter. I have chosen to represent him finding the whole thing monstrously absurd and poking fun at Tolstoy and his theories. Beethoven was fond of boisterous and comic musical jokes, and I have based his supposed answer not only on old nursery rhymes, snatches of opera, and the earliest recorded waltz, but on the words and music he sent to his good friend Nicolaus Zmeskall, whom he addresses as baron and count (Graf) though in fact he was neither.

[VIENNA, Autumn, 1802]


I hope that you have had a good rest, dearest and most charmant Count!—O most beloved and most unique Count!—Sweetest and most extraordinary Count!

[Letters, ed. Emily Anderson, vol. 1, p. 81]

Beethoven would almost certainly have repudiated the view of marriage and sexual relations which Tolstoy associated so gratuitously with the music of the Kreutzer Sonata. Though he never married, he was nearly always head over heels in love and his view of this human relation was as noble and romantic as Tolstoy’s at this stage of his career was perverse and pseudo-realistic. There can be no doubt that he shared the views of his neurotic hero Pozdnyshev and that the man who drew the magnificent pictures of human love in War and Peace and in Anna Karenina had come to convince himself, with Pozdnyshev, that love and sex were antagonists, and that the latter deserved only fear and disgust. And yet his sexual feelings were powerful enough. He appears in a curious way as a sort of Don Juan in reverse. Repudiating sex but insisting that it is the only serious element in the relation of the sexes. It is for this reason that I have chosen to represent the confrontation of Beethoven with Tolstoy in the form of what used to be called a “medley”, bringing in all the conventional tunes and attitudes, yet asserting the one clear and uncontrovertible truth that life must go on! The denial of this is what is perverse in Tolstoy. But this is what the music of Beethoven totally asserts.

So I have imagined Beethoven coming from the grave like the Commendatore in Mozart’s opera—or the Stone Guest in Pushkin’s play, a comic and yet a terrible avenger who carries off his victim in a hilarious parody of the fate of Don Giovanni. They dance to perdition to the tune of O, du lieber Augustin, the childish folk tune which is supposed to have been the origin of the waltz. This is Beethoven’s condign revenge.

Rasputin in Russian is not only a surname but means “a debauched person”. Actually the accent is on the second syllable. But Beethoven is unlikely to have known that and in a piece of nonsense of this kind it does not matter in any case.

Tolstoy On The Kreutzer Sonata

POZDNYSHEV: They played the Kreutzer Sonata of Beethoven. Do you know the first presto? You know it! … Ugh! It’s a terrible thing, that sonata and that part in particular. And Music in general is a dreadful thing. What exactly is it? I don’t understand. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does. They say that Music acts so as to elevate the soul: Rubbish! It’s not true.… Music takes me straight and directly into the state of mind in which the man who wrote it found himself. My spirit dissolves in his and I am borne from one state to another but I don’t know why I am doing this. Well, he who wrote the Kreutzer Sonata—Beethoven, he knew why he was in that state of mind—a state of mind that led him to act in a certain way because it meant something to him, but it has not the slightest meaning for me. That is why music agitates you but does not resolve anything. Of course, playing a military march causes the soldiers to march to it, and the music has achieved its purpose. A dance is played and I dance and again the music has achieved its purpose. When Mass is sung and I take communion, the music again has achieved its end. Otherwise it is simply something that stirs you up, but to no action arising from this agitation. And that is why music is so dreadful, so horrible in its effect. In China music is a state affair. And that’s as it should be. How can one allow anyone who pleases to hypnotize another person, or many other persons, and to do what he wishes with them; and especially when the hypnotist turns out to be any immoral person who turns up. It is a terrible means in the hands of any chance comer. For example, take the first presto of that Kreutzer Sonata, how can that presto possibly be played in a drawing room among ladies in low-cut dresses. To play it and then clap a bit and eat an ice and talk about the latest scandal.… An awakening of energy and emotion not suited to the time and the place, without any outlet provided for it, cannot but have a harmful effect.…

After that allegro they played the beautiful but commonplace and unoriginal andante with its insipid variations and the quite feeble finale.… I had never seen my wife the way she appeared that evening. Those shining eyes, that severe significant expression while she was playing and her melting languor and feeble, pathetic and blissful smile after she finished playing.…

The Kreutzer Sonata, ch. XXIII

Beethoven’s Revenge (A Medley)

As the scene opens, TOLSTOY is seen sitting in his study writing the lines just quoted and the first presto of the Kreutzer Sonata is heard as if coming from another room. TOLSTOY stops writing, raises his head and listens. The music slowly fades and the sound of heavy footsteps is heard through it and then, growing in volume, the music that heralds the approach of the statue in Mozart’s Don Giovanni; the door bursts open and BEETHOVEN appears rather larger than life and sings in the voice of the Commendatore:

BEETHOVEN: Don Raspa parlar teco
m’invitasti! e son venuto.
[TOLSTOY rises and faces his guest in confusion.]

TOLSTOY: Who are you? What do you want?
[BEETHOVEN bursts into roars of laughter which disconcert TOLSTOY even more. The unseen orchestra breaks into the opening chords of “Graf—Graf—Graf!”]

BEETHOVEN [sings]: Graf!
Graf! [etc.]
Liebstes Schaf!
Liebster Graf! [etc.]
Bester Graf, bestes Schaf, Schaf, Schaf! [etc.]
O what a dirty mind you haf!
[He utters another roar of stentorian laughter, pointing his finger at TOLSTOY.]

TOLSTOY: But who then are you? Surely you are Beethoven?
[While he speaks the andante of the Kreutzer Sonata is heard in the background and continues through Beethoven’s reply.]

BEETHOVEN [serious]: Moi je suis Bacchus qui pressure

Pour les hommes le nectar délicieux.
I am the music of the universe
Aeolian harp to energy and joy
You are the Geist der stets verneint, and worse,
That spirit who, what he loves most, must destroy.
I come to tell you something. Count Tolstoy:
You bring upon yourself the primal curse.

But that, friend, is your business after all;
My business is to ask what right you had
To smear my music with moralistic slime
So that, from now on to the end of time,
The prostituted title will recall
Not fire and grace and tenderness but mad
Theories of art, lust and insensate crime.
[advancing into the room]
You have made me dance to your lubricity;
My turn has come: now you must dance with me.

TOLSTOY [backing away]: But I—wait.…
[There is a roll of thunder and the demon chorus from the last
act of Don Giovanni is heard.]

DEMONS: Tutto a tue colpe è poco!
Vieni! c’è un mal peggior.

TOLSTOY [taking up the part]: Ho fermo il core in petto,
non ho timor—verr

BEETHOVEN: Dammi la mano in pegno!
[repeating] Reich mir die Hand zum Zeichen!
Dai ruku, Graf, dai ruku!
Give me your hand in token

[BEETHOVEN chuckles and breaks into the duet of Là ci darem
with the orchestra.]

BEETHOVEN: Là ci darem la mano
Là mi dirai di si.
Vedi, non è lontano
partiam ben mio da qui.

TOLSTOY [against his will as Zerlina, falsetto]: Vorrei, e non vorrei.

BEETHOVEN: Vieni! vieni!
Là ci darem la mano!

TOLSTOY: Vorrei, e non vorrei.
[As he sings, BEETHOVEN embraces TOLSTOY and they begin to
waltz at first slowly and then faster and faster to the music of O
du lieber Augustin.]

BEETHOVEN [singing]: Now!
One two three,
One two three,
Come, Graf and
Dance with me.
Ach du lieber Rásputin
Alles ist hin!
[The orchestra changes to the tune of Taffy was a Welshman.]

Graffy was a Russian count,
Graffy was a thief.
Graffy came to my grave
and stole my work-in-chief.
Graffy has a dirty mind
And wears
a fig
Griff, graff, gruff!
Have you had enough?
[The orchestra strikes up the tune of Sing a Song of Sixpence.]

Sing a song of sexpence
A prophet full of pry:
Four and twenty Backfisch
Baked in Leo’s pie
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
Thirteen Tolstoy babies
Dancing in a ring
Griff, graff, gruff
Have you had enough?

[The orchestra returns to the tune of O du lieber Augustin.]

BEETHOVEN [with ferocious emphasis, sings]: Ach, du lieber Rásputin,
Ach, du lieber Rásputin
Alles ist hin!
Fotze’st weg;
Beutel ist weg,
Muzik liegt
Auch im Dreck;
Ach, du lieber Rásputin,
Alles ist hin!
[The two grotesque waltzers recede into the distance accompanied by BEETHOVEN’s Gargantuan laughter which merges with the Demon Chorus.]

DEMONS: Tutto a tue colpe è poco!
Vieni! c’è un mal peggior.
[As the dancers vanish the Demon Chorus fades out and is replaced by the finale of the Kreutzer Sonata.]

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