Press ESC or click the X to close this window

Susan’s Bookshelves: The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

Of course, as an amateur violinist, I’ve always been interested in violin repertoire and have known – at least as a listener – Beethoven’s 1803 “Kreutzer” sonata since I was a teenager. It was dedicated to violinist Rudolphe Kreutzer who said it was too difficult to play. In recent years I have also developed a fond respect for Leos Janàĉek’s first string quartet (1923) which he called “After The Kreutzer Sonata” although it’s way beyond my abilities as a player.

Written 120 years apart, these two works are hooked together by a longish Tolstoy short story which was published in 1889. The sonata features in the story and Janàĉek’s  piece is inspired by Tolstoy’s novella. It occurred to me recently that I knew this history but had never read the missing link so now I’ve put that right. And it was quite a revelation.

We’re on a train embarked on a long Russian journey. Goodness, how Tolstoy loved trains. They symbolise all sorts of horrors in Anna Karenina and he even managed to die (1910) in a railway station. The narrator, Trukhachevsky describes the other passengers and then gradually it thins out to leave him alone with a disconcertingly forthcoming and haunted looking man named Pozdnyshev who expresses forthright views about sex and marriage before settling down to recount his own experience. Yes, this is one of those works in which the main story teller is not the framework narrator – in the tradition of The Ancient Mariner, Heart of Darkness or even Wuthering Heights.

 Pozdnyshev, clamining it’s standard behaviour, for a man of his nobleman class, led a “debauched” (brothels etc) youth before somewhat reluctantly embarking on a more-or-less arranged marriage. He bitterly regards marriage as a form of licensed prostitution and seems to view his wife, who is never graced with a name, with a cynical blend of revulsion and obsessive jealousy. They quarrel and then use sex (“love”) as a reconciliatory tool over and over again. She produces five children most of whom she breast feeds as her husband thinks she should. His contention is that love – in the sense of sustained, affectionate commitment – seems to work for peasants who live simple lives but doesn’t exist among the privileged classes. Unsurprisingly The Kreutzer Sonata was banned for obscenity by the Russian authorities as soon as it was published.

Eventually Pozdnyshev’s marriage plunges into Othello territory with a hint of Browning’s My Last Duchess which doesn’t come as a surprise because he begins his story by announcing that he killed his wife. The catalyst for his final outburst of violent revenge is music. A talented violinist arrives in their social circle and Pozdnyshev’s wife welcomes him as someone she, a pianist, can play duets with and they do some soirees together. No prizes for guessing what, among other things they play: Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata, of course.  Pozdnyshev convinces himself that there’s more between them than music. And as a female reader in 2024 I find myself looking past Pozdnyshev and empathising with his poor wife. He must have been appalling to live with.

It wasn’t only the Russian authorities who condemned Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata. It caused tensions between him and his own wife. Sonia. Theirs was not the happiest of unions and she was convinced – probably rightly –  that there were a lot of autobiographical elements and opinions in the narrative.

And as for Janàĉek, well he wasn’t happily married either and seems to have poured much of his angst into his first string quartet – hence the name he chose for it. Interestingly, though, it was written late in life when the composer was 67 years old.

Next week on Susan’s Bookshelves: Old Babes in the Wood by Margaret Atwood

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
More posts by Susan Elkin