Instead of focussing on the musicians, the Italian painter Lionello Balestrieri’s enormous canvas, titled Beethoven, zooms in on the Kreutzer Sonata’s impact on the audience.
RADAR

Ultimate Breakup Music

On 20 December 2017, you can enjoy a performance of Beethoven’s almost mythical Kreutzer Sonata - a piece of music which became the soundtrack of what is perhaps the most famous case of adultery in world literature.

The Kreutzer Sonata is Beethoven’s Violin Sonata No. 9 for violin and piano, and of all his sonatas it’s probably the longest (just under 40 minutes) and most difficult (especially the demanding violin part). He composed it around the same time as his third symphony, “Eroica”, and Beethoven’s over-ambitious approach to the sonata bemused critics. They believed the sonata was evidence of an originality that bordered on the grotesque, qualifying it as “aesthetic terrorism”. Nowadays it is regarded as one of the great masterpieces in chamber music, and its mystique has fascinated audiences around the world for over two centuries.

Left: Rodolphe Kreutzer, Right: George Bridgetower.
Left: Rodolphe Kreutzer, Right: George Bridgetower.

Rodolphe Kreutzer, a Frenchman who was considered the most famous violinist of his day, was not hugely impressed by the sonata that had been dedicated to him either. He judged the work to be “unplayable”, and so he… didn’t play it. Possibly he was slightly irritated by the idea that he was Beethoven’s second choice. Originally the composer had dedicated his sonata to George Bridgetower, a violinist with African and European roots, which is why the dedication originally inscribed on the score of the manuscript read “Sonata mulattica composta per il mulatto Brischdauer, gran pazzo e compositore mulattico”, earning it the nickname “mulatto sonata”. As was so often the case in Beethoven’s life however, the friendship turned sour. They fell out while drinking, after Bridgewater made insulting comments about a woman who happened to be one of Beethoven’s friends. Beethoven therefore removed the dedication of the piece, dedicating it to Kreutzer instead.

Tolstoy with the pianist Wanda Landowska in 1907.
Tolstoy with the pianist Wanda Landowska in 1907.

Leo Tolstoy’s eponymous novella from 1889 sealed the reputation of the Kreutzer Sonata as one of Beethoven’s best-known compositions. A woman is trapped in a loveless marriage and plays the sonata with her violin teacher. She does this with such passion and emotion that her husband soon becomes convinced that the two are having an affair. When he returns early from a business trip, and finds his wife and her teacher together, well after midnight, he kills his wife with a dagger. Because Tolstoy narrates the story from the viewpoint of the husband, who is blinded by jealously, the reader is never really sure whether the affair is real or imaginary.

The passionate version of the Kreutzer Sonata, by the French painter René-Xavier Prinet (1901).
The passionate version of the Kreutzer Sonata, by the French painter René-Xavier Prinet (1901).

Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata was censured in Russia and the USA among others. It would however be adapted into various plays, films and other artworks. In 1923, Leoš Janáček named his first string quartet Kreutzer Sonata, after Tolstoy’s novella. Janáček was a great defender of women’s rights and interpreted the novella as a condemnation of women’s struggle in a society dominated by and tailored to men.

By then, the novella had already been adapted into Yiddish (1902) and English (1906) stage versions and it’s very first film adaptation, in Russian (1911).

The director Eric Rohmer was also inspired by Tolstoy’s novella and Beethoven’s music for his short film La sonate à Kreutzer (1956).
The director Eric Rohmer was also inspired by Tolstoy’s novella and Beethoven’s music for his short film La sonate à Kreutzer (1956).

See also