The Kreutzer Sonata

Written for the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chamber Music Series. Not to be reprinted without permission.

The violinist Rodolphe Kreutzer never played the sonata Ludwig van Beethoven dedicated to him, but his name has stuck, even magnified by later literary and musical works inspired by it. The link between Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for violin and Leoš Janáček’s Kreutzer Sonata for string quartet runs through Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910). His 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata took its title from Beethoven, and Janáček’s quartet is a musical interpretation of Tolstoy’s story. So Beethoven inspired Tolstoy, who inspired Janáček.

Tolstoy tells of an overnight train journey shared with a man, Pozdnyshev, who killed his wife. In a dazzling monologue, he offers frightening insights into love, marriage, sexuality, abstinence, parenthood, the purpose of life, and the ultimate fate of humanity. Then he explains in detail how he stabbed his wife to death after suspecting she was having an affair with a violinist with whom she played the famous Beethoven sonata.

Music was important to Tolstoy, who found its power both marvelous and troubling. “What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does?” Pozdnyshev asks in the novella. “Music carries me immediately and directly into the mental condition in which the man was who composed it. My soul merges with his and together with him I pass from one condition into another. Why this happens I don’t know.”

Alongside the Beethoven and Janáček, we hear the D-minor Chaconne by Johann Sebastian Bach and a recent work by Anna Clyne inspired by Tolstoyan thinking. The three older works are each slightly transformed from the originals: the Bach is transcribed for two cellos (by Claudio Jaffe and Johanne Perron), the Janáček is expanded for nine players (by cellist Michelle Wood), and the Kreutzer Sonata is played in an unusual arrangement for quintet that may have been prepared by Beethoven himself.

Johann Sebastian Bach: Chaconne from Partita No. 2 in D Minor for Solo Violin, BWV 1004

This movement stands so far beyond all others of its kind that it is often known simply as “the” Chaconne. The term first referred to a 16th-century Spanish dance, perhaps with roots in the Americas, built on a kind of mantric repetition. By Bach’s day, it was understood as a variation form built on a repeated ground bass. In the strictest sense, this is impossible to convey on a solo violin, as it can’t play a bassline or sustain two independent voices on its own. But shrewd writing with chords and arpeggios can create the illusion of multiple things happening at once, making the violin sound like an ensemble unto itself.

Unlike Tolstoy, Bach had no apparent qualms about family life, happily marrying twice and fathering 20 children. But one story ties the Chaconne to the unexpected death of Bach’s first wife, Maria Barbara, in 1720 (from natural causes). Returning to his home in Köthen after a lengthy trip abroad, Bach found his wife “dead and buried, though he had left her hale and hearty on his departure,” their son Carl Philipp Emanuel recalled years later. “The news that she had been ill and died reached him only when he entered his own house.”

The story resonates with the grief many people sense in the Chaconne, though only the thinnest evidence actually connects the piece with Bach’s sudden loss. It is true he copied out and finalized the Sonatas and Partitas the same year Maria Barbara died, but most of the music probably originated years earlier.

In either case, consider the form of the Chaconne: elaborate variations over a repeated chord progression, sometimes present, sometimes only implied. At its heart is tension between uniformity and variety, between staying and going, between confinement and release. You might hear it as exploratory orbits around a central idea, or as a mournful dance trying to shed an unbearable weight.

Leoš Janáček: Kreutzer Sonata for String Nonet (String Quartet No. 1)

Janáček’s music is hugely distinctive—it’s Romantic, it’s modern, but most of all it sounds like Janáček—bold, dramatic, and surprising.

He was something of a Russophile, and began to adapt The Kreutzer Sonata in 1909 as a piano trio (now lost) for a Tolstoy evening at an artists’ club in Brno. He rewrote it for string quartet over a few weeks in the fall of 1923. In between, the middle-aged and long-married Janáček had fallen in love with Kamila Stösslová, the 26-year-old wife of an antiques dealer—something that must have reminded him of Tolstoy’s story. In the following years, Janáček and Stösslová corresponded frequently, which inspired a second string quartet called Intimate Letters. In August of 1928, he went on vacation with her, and died shortly thereafter from pneumonia.

He wrote the Kreutzer Sonata for the Czech Quartet and dedicated it to Stösslová. Many critics have suggested that, in contrast with Tolstoy’s thoroughly masculine narrative, Janáček’s music inhabits the murdered woman’s point of view. (It is now known that Tolstoy’s wife, Sophia Tolstaya, was deeply bothered by the novella and wrote her own rebuttal called Whose Fault?) The quartet doesn’t directly narrate events of the book, but it feels like the same story—intense, conflicted, discursive, and argumentative. It doesn’t sound anything like Beethoven, but musicians have identified subtle allusions to the original sonata, particularly in the opening theme of the third movement.

In largescale form, the quartet is cyclical, with the last movement returning to rework the first movement’s declamatory opening. Perhaps this is the murder itself, which Pozdnyshev plays back in his memory. “For an instant, only an instant, before the action I had a terrible consciousness that I was killing, had killed, a defenseless woman, my wife! . . . Having plunged the dagger in, I pulled it out immediately, trying to remedy what had been done and to stop it . . . But the blood rushed from under her corset. Only then did I understand that it could not be remedied.” Rarely has a literary idea been so effectively and chillingly translated into chamber music.

Anna Clyne: Shorthand

Born in London, Anna Clyne has served as composer in residence for the Philharmonia Orchestra, Trondheim Symphony, Baltimore Symphony, Chicago Symphony, and Scottish Chamber Orchestra. In 2015 she was nominated for a Grammy Award for best contemporary classical composition.

Shorthand, for cello and strings, was premiered by Karen Ouzounian and The Knights in July 2020. The title refers to a comment by Tolstoy: “Music is the shorthand of emotion. Emotions, which let themselves be described in words with such difficulty, are directly conveyed to man in music, and in that is its power and significance.” He explored similar ideas in The Kreutzer Sonata and other writings.

Clyne writes: “The piece references two themes from Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata for violin and piano: the opening theme, as well as a second theme that Janáček also incorporated in his own String Quartet No. 1, Kreutzer Sonata. That second Beethoven theme inspires the opening material for Shorthand.” The piece is dedicated to the composer’s husband, Jody Elff.

Ludwig van Beethoven: Violin Sonata No. 9 in A Major, Op. 47, Kreutzer (Arranged for String Quintet)

Finally we arrive at the piece that started it all. “Ugh! It’s a terrible thing, that sonata,” Pozdnyshev says in Tolstoy’s story. “It was as if new feelings, new possibilities, of which I had till then been unaware, had been revealed to me.”

Beethoven wrote most of the sonata in the spring of 1803 and premiered it with George Bridgetower, a 24-year-old English violinist of African-Caribbean ancestry. With the premiere going ahead just hours after Beethoven finished writing the piece, there was no time to rehearse, let alone copy out the entire violin part, so Bridgetower sightread over Beethoven’s shoulder at the keyboard. Their performance must have had quite the improvisational, fly-by-night energy, nothing like the polish we now expect in classical concerts (many 19th-century premieres were probably something like that). Beethoven was thrilled. He affectionately scrawled a dedication to “the mulatto Brischdauer, a complete lunatic.”

Sometime later, the two friends had a falling out, apparently after Bridgetower made a crude comment about a woman Beethoven admired. Just like he would scratch out the Eroica Symphony’s dedication to Napoleon, he retracted the sonata’s dedication to Bridgetower. Both men, in different ways, betrayed Beethoven’s moral ideals. Upon publication, the sonata’s dedication went to a different violinist, Rodolphe Kreutzer. Suddenly prim, Beethoven wrote to his publisher: “I prefer his modesty and natural behavior.” But Kreutzer found it confusing and unplayable.

Beethoven described the piece’s style as “like that of a concerto.” And it is—not only in virtuosity, but also in its slightly unhinged energy and expressive intensity. Tolstoy did not hit on it at random. “How can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies in low-necked dresses?” Pozdnyshev demands to know. In his estimation, the following movements are inferior to the first: “the beautiful, but common and unoriginal andante with trite variations, and the very weak finale.” Most listeners will be kinder in their appraisal, but perhaps the astute Tolstoy sensed that Beethoven had written the finale a year earlier for a different sonata, and appended it here in a hurry.

The string quintet arrangement heard on this concert was published by Nikolaus Simrock in 1832, five years after Beethoven’s death. The arranger is unknown, but it might have been completed at some point by Beethoven himself. Perhaps he wanted to find a new outlet for the piece after the fight with Bridgetower and rejection by Kreutzer, or perhaps he had wanted a larger canvass for this music all along.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer. He serves on the staff of the San Francisco Symphony and also contributes program notes for the Philadelphia Orchestra and Melbourne Symphony.