There is a natural tendency to think of musical compositions as autobiographical vehicles – that is, as expressions whose meanings can only be fully appreciated through an understanding of the composer him- or herself and of their lives. (My post last week about Chopin reflected this perspective.) Nowhere is this tendency more evident than with respect to the music of Ludwig van Beethoven; it is a common assumption that the drama and passion of his music can only be fully understood in the context of, say, his deafness, or his unrequited love for his “immortal beloved,” or even his never-ending financial woes.
Whether any composer’s work can only be fully understood in the context of the composer’s life is itself a debatable proposition. But one thing that is certainly true of Beethoven’s works is that many of his compositions have themselves become the subject of stories, stories that have taken on lives their own. That is certainly true of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, and the work’s original dedication to Napoleon Bonaparte, a gesture Beethoven reportedly later came to regret. There is also the well-known story of how, when Beethoven’s 9th Symphony premiered in 1824, the composer had to be turned around to see the audience cheering — due to his deafness, he could not hear the audience’s rapturous applause.
One work of Beethoven’s around which a host of stories have gathered is his Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major (Op. 47), the “Kreutzer Sonata” (1803). There are three stories about this piece that I find particularly interesting, and that I review below.
The first story has to do with the work’s creation, first performance, and original dedication. Beethoven composed the work after meeting the Polish-English violin virtuoso, George Bridgetower. Bridgetower was unusual among musical performers at the time and place; he was of mixed race, as his father was of African ancestry from the West Indies, and his mother was German. His parents were in the service of a Polish aristocrat, in whose house Bridgetower received his musical training. When Beethoven and Bridgetower met after Bridgetower’s arrival in Vienna in March 1803, the two became friends. Beethoven was very impressed by Bridgetower’s technical brilliance on the violin. He composed the Violin Sonata No. 9 for Bridgetower, and indeed the two premiered the piece together. Reports are that Bridgetower performed the famously difficult work by sight-reading, as he not only had no chance to rehearse the piece, but he had not even seen the score prior to the performance.
Beethoven originally dedicated the work to Bridgetower, writing on the manuscript in Italian “Sonata mulattica composta per Il mulatto Brischdauer, gran passo a compositore mulattico” (Mulatto Sonata composed for the mulatto Bridgetower, great madman mulatto composer). It is hard to be sure how Bridgetower felt about being referred to as a mulatto or as a madman, but it does seem as if the dedication reflected a kind of playfulness between friends (at least from Beethoven’s perspective). Whatever may have been the case with respect to their friendship or with respect to the dedication, neither were to last. The two men later had a falling out. It isn’t entirely clear why, although legend has it that the cause of their split involved large quantities of beer and differences about a woman of Beethoven’s acquaintance. In any event, the upshot was that Beethoven removed the work’s original dedication.
The second story about the Kreutzer Sonata has to do with the work’s ultimate dedication, which in turn has dictated how the work has come to be known. Around the time he composed the piece, Beethoven was working on a plan to try to move to Paris to try to advance his musical career. In order to lay the groundwork for this planned move, Beethoven hoped to try to ingratiate himself with some of the prominent people in the Parisian music scene. One person Beethoven wanted to develop a connection with was Rudolphe Kreutzer, who was a professor at the Paris conservatory and concertmaster at the opera and whose opinion was influential throughout Paris.
When the musical score for the Violin Sonata No. 9 was published in 1805, Beethoven re-dedicated it to Kreutzer. Whether Beethoven’s ploy to establish a connection with Kreutzer was successful seems uncertain at best. As the Belgian musician and author Jan Caeyers put it in his recent biography of Beethoven, Beethoven: A Life, “what we do know is that Kreutzer never publicly performed the sonata that bore his name. Some say it was because the sonata’s technical demands … exceeded Kreutzer’s ability; others claim that he was simply averse to Beethoven’s music in general, describing it as ‘outrageously unintelligible.’” What is ironic here is that, though Kreutzer apparently disdained the dedication, the fact that one of Beethoven’s most well-known works is dedicated to him is just about the only reason most people would remember Kreutzer today.
The third story about the work has to do with a life the piece took on long after Beethoven’s death. The music became the centerpiece of Leo Tolstoy’s very strange novella entitled The Kreutzer Sonata. The novella is written in the form of a monologue by a narrator – Pozdnyshev –who has murdered his wife. In the monologue, Pozdnyshev, seeking to justify himself, explains how his marriage deteriorated through discord, jealousy, and rage.
Pozdnyshev describes a scene in which he watched his wife, a musician, performing the Kreutzer Sonata with a younger man, for a small audience in a salon. Pozdnyshev was scandalized by the performance. He observes in his monologue, “How can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies in low-necked dresses? To hear that played, to clap a little, and then to eat ices and talk of the latest scandal? Such things should only be played on certain important significant occasions, and then only when certain actions answering to such music are wanted.”
Pozdnyshev adds that “to incite an energy of feeling which corresponds to neither the time nor the place, and is expended in nothing, cannot fail to act dangerously.” He describes watching his wife’s performance, observing, “As for my wife, never had I seen her as she was that night. Those brilliant eyes, that severity and majestic expression while she was playing, and then that utter languor, that weak, pitiable, and happy smile after she had finished …” This by the way all in service of Pozdnyshev’s explanation of how he later came to murder his wife in a fit of jealous rage.
Tolstoy’s portrayal of the music as the spark for inflamed emotions and even passion would itself take on a life of its own, as, for example, was captured in the 1901 painting (pictured at the top of the post) entitled La Sonate à Kreutzer by the French artist René François Xavier Prinet. In the painting, Prinet seems to depict the worst suspicions and fears of the jealous narrator in Tolstoy’s novella. At a minimum, Prinet captures the sense of passion and drama that Tolstoy depicts.
With all of the stories surrounding the piece, there is still the music itself. It is an important piece of music, not merely a prop for stories. As one musicologist has written, for Beethoven, “the Kreutzer was a personal watershed, marking Beethoven’s leap from a gifted, occasionally edgy, often innovative composer to the revolutionary activist who rewrote the essential rules of musical art.” It is without a doubt characterized by a playful interchange of themes and motifs, a veritable dance full of sound and feeling.
The Kreutzer Sonata is, in terms of the musical form in which it was written, a long piece of music, lasting nearly 40 minutes in performance. So instead of linking to the full piece, I have linked below to a YouTube video of the piece’s Presto, the section that the narrator in Tolstoy’s novella described.
Please see the additional brief text following the video.
I hope readers have enjoyed the first two installments in the Sunday Arts series. I am interested in readers’ reactions to this new feature and welcome comments, observations, and suggestions. I also want to remind everyone that the original idea of the Sunday Arts series is that the column is open to readers, for their contributions to the weekly feature. If there is an Arts topic you would like to write about, I hope you will jot down your thoughts and please send them along to me for possible inclusion in a future Sunday Arts column.