Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tolstoy & The Kreutzer Sonata: Literature & Music

I’ve discovered that reading Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata on a gloomy morning is not the best way to start the day. 

Preparing the post about Janáček’s 1st String Quartet for the Market Square Concerts blog, I decided I should reread the novella. 

If you’re not familiar with it or haven’t read it yourself, you can check out this wikipedian summary, the eQuivalent of Cliffs Notes.

You can read the complete novella here.

(If you think musical terminology is vague or confusing, consider this: a novella, too short for a novel and too long for a short story, is considered to be about 17,500 words to 40,000 words, though National Novel Writing Month (coming up in six weeks) considers a novel to be at least 50,000 words. On the other hand, “in Russian, novella is ‘povest’ (повесть), while novel is ‘roman’ (роман); short story is ‘rasskaz’ (рассказ) and it is the extremely brief form that is called ‘novella’ (новелла).” Perhaps more to the point, a novel has more characters, subplots and development of ideas whereas a novella has more focus on one unified plot from a single point of view.)

Tolstoy’s novella “is an argument for the ideal of sexual abstinence and an in-depth first-person description of jealous rage. The main character, Pozdnyshev, relates the events leading up to his killing his wife; in his analysis, the root causes for the deed were the 'animal excesses' and 'swinish connection' governing the relation between the sexes."

In an essay entitled “The Lesson of The Kreutzer Sonata”, Tolstoy (photographed here in 1908) explains his view of the subject matter. Regarding carnal love and a spiritual, Christian life, he points out that not Christ, but the Church (which he despised and which in turn excommunicated him) instituted marriage. "The Christian's ideal is love of God and his neighbor, self-renunciation in order to serve God and his neighbor; carnal love – marriage – means serving oneself, and therefore is, in any case, a hindrance in the service of God and men".

Of course, his religious viewpoints evolved over several years and might stem from the summer he began reading Schopenhauer in the late-1870s, while in the midst of writing Anna Karenina, a conversion he then shared with the character Levin. In 1882, he published “A Confession” which documented many of his new-found ideas, rejecting many traditional religious and social viewpoints.

Tolstoy, completing The Kreutzer Sonata in 1889, found himself confronted by controversy when attempting to publish it. Mimeographed copies – and I was surprised to see that Edison had patented a mimeograph machine in 1876 – circulated in Russia until it was officially available in print (see photo, right).

However, the book also ran into problems in the United States in 1890 when the United States Post Office prohibited the mailing of newspapers containing serialized installments of The Kreutzer Sonata, a decision later confirmed by the U.S. Attorney General .  

The New York Times reported in August, 1890, that four street vendors were “captured” by a New York City 1st Precinct policeman with cartfuls of “mutilated paper-covered reprints” of Tolstoy’s banned novel, admitting they’d received them from a “Barclay Street publishing house” and hawking them with the sign “Suppressed” in order to attract potential buyers’ attention.

The judge at their hearing was told by the prosecuting attorney that this book “came within the category of indecent literature,” showing the judge a specially marked copy with specifically marked passages.

Justice White, in the Tombs Police Court, apparently found “nothing likely to affect public morals” and felt the peddlers’ offense (“if any had been committed”) was misleading the public by “parading the book as a suppressed publication.” The peddlers and the publishers were then summoned for a further appearance.

Apparently, the case went on to the Common Pleas Court No. 4 in Philadelphia where, on Sept. 24th, 1890, Judge M. Russell Thayer ruled that Tolstoy’s novel, The Kreutzer Sonata, was not obscene.

He was quoted in the New York Times that day as stating in his opinion “[t]he book is a novel, possessing very little dramatic interest or literary merit. There is nothing in this book which can by any possibility be said to commend licentiousness, or to make it in any respect attractive, or to tempt any one to its commission. On the contrary, all its teachings paint lewdness and immorality in the most revolting colors. Nor is there any obscenity or indecency in the language used or in the story told, however it may offend a refined taste. It undoubtedly teaches the doctrine… that celibacy is better than marriage and a higher and purer state of being. And that it is the idea of a perfect Christian life, to which all Christian men and women should aspire. This strikes us, of course, as being very absurd and ridiculous, and as being opposed alike to Christianity and to the best interests of society. It may even seem to us to be the product of a diseased mind, yet the doctrine is by no means new in the world. The same idea was prevalent among many of the early Christians, who looked upon marriage as one of the consequences of the fall, and regarded it as has been said by a writer upon this subject as a tolerated admission of an impure and sinful nature.”

(Reading this 121 years later, I am reminded of the on-going arguments for and against the equality of marriage issues being discussed in our nation’s courts and legislatures today, but I digress… If proponents for the acceptance of marriage – arguing certain historical, social and practical considerations of the time – had meekly acquiesced to the teaching of these early Church fathers, it is very likely there would no Christians alive today to continue the argument.)

The Judge continues, “[t]he hermits and anchorites of the early Christian times considered abstinence from marriage and from all sexual commerce as the triumph of sanctity and the proof and means of spiritual perfection. Modern Christianity, with cleaner and more sensible view of the subject, while it denounces licentiousness, looks upon marriage as a divine institution. Roman Catholics regard it with the veneration of a sacrament, and all Christian sects see in it an institution which lies at the foundation of all civilized society.” (He ignores certain sects, including the Shakers and the Ephrata Cloisters, where celibacy was a requirement of membership, not to mention the Catholic attitude towards its priests and its monasteries.)

The Judge continues, “Count Tolstoi’s ‘Kreutzer Sonata’ may contain very absurd and foolish views about marriage. It may shock our ideas of the sanctity and nobility of that important relation, but it cannot on that account be called an obscene libel. There is no obscenity in it. On the contrary, it denounces obscenity of every description on almost every page. Nor can the language in which he expresses his ideas be said to be in any proper sense obscene, lewd or indecent. It is not against the law to print or sell books which contain ideas and doctrines upon religious subjects which conflict with and are contrary to the orthodox teachings upon the subject. Every man has the right under such a government as ours to discuss such questions, either orally or in print, if he does so in a proper and becoming manner, and does not in doing so violate the decencies of life. He may call in question and argue against any received doctrine of the Christian faith, if he uses in doing so proper and becoming language but if one should introduce into such a discussion blasphemous language or ideas, or obscene, lewd, or indecent thoughts or words, or should make his description the occasion for reviling and scoffing at the most sacred things, or speaking of them in a profane, abusive, or indecent manner, he would unquestionably be liable to be indicted and punished therefor.

“But a careful and critical reading of the whole book has clearly convinced us that it is not liable to the charge of either obscenity or indecency. On the contrary, as we have already said, its whole purpose and scope is to denounce those vices in the severest manner. The fact that the author in discussing the question of marriage has come to some silly and very absurd conclusions, opposed alike to what is ordinarily conceived to be the Christian doctrine on the subject and the general opinion of civilized societies throughout the world, does not make its publication or sale a violation of the law. The work may be offensive to our opinions and convictions, just as others are which are daily sold in our book stores without objection or challenge from anybody, but it cannot be justly said to be of an obscene or lewd character; nor is it either in its sentiments or language in any degree calculated to minister to corrupt or licentious practices or to gratify lewd desires, or to encourage depravity in any form.”

I particularly like Judge Thayer’s concluding statement:

“The court was reminded upon the argument that the Czar of Russia and the Post Office officials of the United States have condemned this book as an unlawful publication; that the former has prohibited its sale within his dominions and the latter has forbidden its transmission through the mails. Without disparaging in any degree the respect due to these high officials within their respective spheres, I can only say that neither of them has ever been recognized in this country as a binding authority in questions of either law or literature.”

That did not stop Theodore Roosevelt, then a member of the United States Civil Service Commission, from calling Tolstoy a "sexual moral pervert."

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When I started rereading the novella (my 1957 Vintage edition, translated by Isai Kamen, is 115 pages long), I soon realized I had not bothered to finish it the first time around, back in the mid-1970s.

(See photo, right, taken in 1908, of Tolstoy in his study.)

Rather than finding the author’s arguments about marriage “obscene,” I think I simply found the form of the piece – the first 52 pages are like reading a lecture (sermon, perhaps “screed” would be better terms) – tedious. At the time, I was just more interested in (pardon the expression) a ripping good story.

Back then, I was also reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and I practically glossed over (with glazed eyes) the “boring” bits that form the secondary plot of the novel, the bits that are eliminated from any staged or filmed version of the story of a woman who gives up her happily married family life to live with the man she loves. Tolstoy’s theories on agrarian reform and the other philosophical musings as expressed by the character Levin might pale by comparison, like space-filling interludes between the meat of the matter, but they are an important part of the novel's overall scope. (Maybe it’s time to re-read this one, too, since I’d added the Pevear-Volokhonsky translation to my library a few years ago.)

This is no different than his novel, War and Peace which I’ve read at three different stages in my life and found different reactions to it each time. The first time, as a kid, I remember skipping over much of the theorizing on the nature of history to get to the “good parts” with their thrilling battle scenes.

The second time, now in my 20s and in the midst of the Viet-Nam War, I realized how much those “good parts” were effectively and strikingly “anti-war” despite being considered great writing about heroic war-time events.

The third time, more recently, I tended to focus on the philosophizing more than the personal romance of the story which is usually what seems to attract film-makers and what most people tend to remember about the book. Though I was familiar with the story, I still found myself discovering new insights into the characters and their relationships.

(You can read my previous post about the impact of reading War and Peace this last time, during another period of modern warfare.)

So, this time, I persevered through Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and while I still find the philosophical hectoring annoying, I also still find myself wishing somehow Tolstoy had followed the frequent writer’s advice, “don’t tell – show.”

Still, the story – depressing as it is – is a powerful one, particularly once it turns more to the “story” itself, the dramatic conflict between Pozdnyshev and his unnamed wife. And guess what: the building rage in the husband’s narrative is psychologically more compelling than if we were observing it second-hand through an omniscient narrator.

No doubt, had Tolstoy been forced to submit his work to a focus group, it would have ended up being about 60 pages long, if that, all the philosophizing about morality and society and the institution of marriage left on the cutting room floor. Even the violent scene about the murder would be considered tame compared to what one sees on TV these days (been there/done that, in a manner of speaking).

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With the intensity of such a dramatic situation, it’s not surprising it was adapted to the stage. In 1906, it ran on Broadway (see photos, right and below left). An article in the British newspaper, the Guardian – “The Kreutzer Sonata: Three Degrees of Separation” by Emerson Quartet violinist, Eugene Drucker, a novelist himself – included a photograph from a stage adaptation from 2009.  There were several film adaptations as well, three of them between 1911-1915. And of course, there is Prinet’s famous painting, “The Kreutzer Sonata” from 1901 (see header illustration) depicting an event that actually is never described (only imagined) in Tolstoy’s original: a passionate kiss between the violinist and the wife, one hand still connecting to the piano, carried away by the music’s passion.

Keep in mind that the husband in Tolstoy’s narrative is telling the story and much of what he mentions may or may not have happened – like that kiss – implied only in the way jealous minds imagine possibilities, then accept them as likelihoods before believing they are realities.

As I mentioned in the Market Square Concerts blog post, Janáček in his string quartet came to this not as a literal representation of its dramatic potential but as a psychological portrait seen from the vantage point of the wife.  

Curiously, in his later years, Tolstoy’s new-found religious attitudes created severe difficulties between himself and his long-suffering wife, Sofia (or Sonya). Their early years may have been marked by “sexual passion and emotional insensitivity,” a comment which makes The Kreutzer Sonata sound a bit autobiographical. She bore him 13 children, five of whom died in childhood (see family photo, below right, taken two years before he finished The Kreutzer Sonata). He died in 1910 at the age of 82, running off during the winter following a bitter argument with his wife, only to die in a nearby train station.

Though Janáček first began working on a string quartet – and then a piano trio – inspired by Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata in 1908, it wasn’t until 1923 that he actually composed the quartet we know by that name. Between those years, his own marriage deteriorated and they had already agreed to a mutual “in-house” separation before the composer met Kamila Stösslová in 1917.

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Tolstoy was considered a “Christian anarchist” but also had very strong views about other matters, not just religion and society. In addition to ideas about property and agrarian reform, he also was very clear about his views on art. For instance, he thought Shakespeare lacked any merit: reading the Bard’s most famous plays, he wrote, “not only did I feel no delight, but I felt an irresistible repulsion and tedium...".

His attitude about music is also obvious in this excerpt from Chapter 23 of The Kreutzer Sonata, when Tolstoy’s character describes the affect listening to music has on him. He had invited certain musically inclined friends to a dinner party and a little musicale with his wife playing the piano for this violinist named Trukhashevsky, a man he is already jealous of.

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“They played Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata,” he continued. “Do you know the first presto? You do?” he cried. “Ugh! Ugh! It is a terrible thing, that sonata. And especially that part. And in general music is a dreadful thing! What is it? I don’t understand it. What is music? What does it do? And why does it do what it does? They say music exalts the soul. Nonsense, it is not true! It has an effect, an awful effect – I am speaking of myself – but not of an exalting kind. It has neither an exalting nor a debasing effect but it produces agitation. How can I put it? Music makes me forget myself, my real position; it transports me to some other position, not my own. Under the influence of music it seems to me that I feel what I do not really feel, that I understand what I do not understand, that I can do what I cannot do. I explain it by the fact that music acts like yawning, like laughter: I am not sleepy but I yawn when I see someone yawning; there is nothing for me to laugh at, but I laugh when I hear people laughing.

“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, but why this happens I don’t know. You see, he who wrote, let’s say, the Kreutzer Sonata – Beethoven – knew of course why he was in that condition; that condition caused him to do certain actions and therefore that condition had a meaning for him, but for me – none at all. That is why music only agitates and doesn’t lead to a conclusion. Well, when a military march is played the soldiers march to the music and the music has achieved its object. A dance is played, I dance and the music has achieved its object. Mass has been sung, I receive Communion, and that music too has reached a conclusion. Otherwise it is only agitating, and what ought to be done in that agitation is lacking. That is why music sometimes acts so dreadfully, so terribly. In China, music is a State affair. And that is as it should be. How can one allow anyone who pleases to hypnotize another, or many others, and do what he likes with them? And especially that this hypnotist should be the first immoral man who turns up?

“It is a terrible instrument in the hands of any chance user! Take that Kreutzer Sonata, for instance, how can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies wearing 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; play it then and do what the music has moved you to. Otherwise an awakening of energy and feeling unsuited both to the time and the place, to which no outlet is given, cannot but act harmfully. At any rate that piece had a terrible effect on me; it was as if quite new feelings, new possibilities, of which I had till then been unaware, had been revealed to me. ‘That’s how it is: not at all as I used to think and live, but that way,’ something seemed to say within me. What this new thing was that had been revealed to me I could not explain to myself, but the consciousness of this new condition was very joyous. All those same people, including my wife and him, appeared in a new light.

“After that allegro they played the beautiful but common and unoriginal andante with trite variations and the very weak finale. Then, at the request of the visitors, they played Ernst’s Elegy and a few small pieces. They were all good, but they did not produce on me a one-hundredth part of the impression the first piece had. The effect of the first piece formed the background for them all.”

( Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata – translated by Aylmer Maude. Signet Classic edition, New American Library, New York 1960.)
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I’ll close with an anecdote about Tolstoy’s musical taste.

In January, 1900, Sergei Rachmaninoff and the great bass, Fyodor Chaliapin, were invited to Tolstoy’s home, Yasnaya Polyana (see photograph of birches along the main entrance to the estate).

Rachmaninoff played one of his own compositions, then accompanied Chaliapin in his song “Fate,” which is partly based on the famous opening of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony.

After the performance, Tolstoy spoke to Rachmaninoff (who was still smarting from the disastrous premiere of his first symphony almost three years earlier), asking him, “Is such music needed by anyone? I must tell you how I dislike it all. Beethoven is nonsense.”

Later, as his guests were leaving, Tolstoy obliquely apologized to the young composer.

“Forgive me if I’ve hurt you by my comments.”

Rachmaninoff, so the story goes, responded, “How could I be hurt on my own account if I was not hurt on Beethoven’s?”

One wonders what he would have thought about the intense and often neurotic music Janáček wrote inspired by one of his most intense and neurotic stories?

- Dick Strawser

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