2020 was to have been the Beethoven year, the 250th anniversary of the composer’s birth in 1770. But of course the plans for operas, plays or concerts collided with the restrictions imposed by the pandemic.
Thank goodness Toronto Summer Music Festival are now offering a mix of live & virtual programming, permitting them to belatedly celebrate Ludwig van Beethoven in 2021, as we all enjoy the first live concerts many of us have seen in well over a year (observing the current COVID protocols: masked, distanced, venue capacity carefully monitored).
One of the concerts this week features the so-called Kreutzer Sonata for violin, a piece with an intriguing history plus an afterlife as an influence upon other artists.
First there is the story of the dedication, originally to George Bridgetower, but later withdrawn after a disagreement between the composer and the dedicatee.
Or was it a fight? Beethoven was known to have strong opinions and a certain volatility to his expression, perhaps due to his impaired hearing. But how can one be subtle if they cannot shade the voice between a whisper and a shout? between pp, and ff?
Rodolphe Kreutzer? He was just another violinist, the replacement for Bridgetower. It’s a great irony that the violinist whose name did get immortalized supposedly never much liked Beethoven’s composition. It’s not as though Beethoven had any sort of relationship with Kreutzer.
So much for the piece in its own time.
But there has been much more since Beethoven’s time, a novella, a string quartet and the realm of film adaptations & explorations.
Leon Tolstoy wrote The Kreutzer Sonata, a novella that uses the Beethoven piece to focus a marital triangle of suspected infidelity, coming to a head when the husband sees his wife and the supposed lover performing the Beethoven piece. Does she deserve to die? surely not.
Leos Janacek wrote a string quartet with a subtitle “Tolstoy’s ‘Kreutzer sonata”. What’s the connection? Where the husband in Tolstoy’s novella angrily kills his wife, Janacek is more of a feminist in his outlook, seeking something more sympathetic. Of course it’s a piece of music not a lecture or even a novel, so it is completely ambiguous. Perhaps there are inter-textual references, quotes from Beethoven? but as far as I know Janacek meant the title to refer to Tolstoy’s novella not Beethoven.
Does the sonata itself tell a story? After all this is music that inspires the husband to imagine infidelity, seeing the passionate connection between violinist & pianist, that inspired Tolstoy to use the sonata as a site for something more than music.
The music inspired others to project their own fantasy story upon it. Among those we can include Bernard Rose who had undertaken the story in 1994 with his film Immortal Beloved, a film that he wrote & directed purporting to be a biography of Beethoven, but largely fictionalized. A scene in Rose’s film uses the sonata to reinforce the thesis of the film, concerning the identity of the “immortal beloved”, Beethoven’s true love. It’s a fascinating, wonderful idea, that has alas been debunked for me by a Beethoven scholar. That shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying the film.
Because videos sometimes are withdrawn, and become unavailable, I’ve made a transcription of Rose’s wonderful dialogue, in the scene in the film where we’re first told of the mystery of the sonata.
Schindler: It was that damned sonata, the “Kreutzer”.
At the time I entertained ambitions of a musical career.
I’d gone to Vienna to study and was fortunate enough to be
taken by Schuppanzigh as a pupil.
He and George Bridgetower, the famous virtuoso from Africa were about
to premiere this new Beethoven sonata at Count Razumovsky’s that evening,
and I was allowed to attend the rehearsal.
[Let me jump in to point out that this account clashes with what we know for certain, that it was in fact Beethoven who played the sonata through with Bridgetower, not Schupppanzigh. But don’t let that stop you ]
Schindler: It was there that the seed of a mystery was planted that
haunts me to this day.
[Beethoven walks in and taps Schindler on the shoulder]
Beethoven: Do you like it?
Beethoven: I cannot hear them. But I know they are making a hash of it.
[What we’re hearing in the film is a perfect performance so maybe Beethoven
is simply being harsh? even so Bridgetower was a last minute substitute in the performance,
arriving at the last minute, so he was more or less sight-reading the sonata. I’ve read that Beethoven was supposedly wildly enthusiastic about the quality of his friend Bridgetower’s playing. Yes Bridgetower was for a time Beethoven’s friend.]
Beethoven: what do you think?
Music is a dreadful thing. What is it?
I don’t understand it. What does it do?
Schindler (writing on a tablet for Beethoven to read, and then speaking aloud)
It exalts the soul.
Beethoven: Utter nonsense.
If you hear a marching band is your soul exalted? No you march.
If you hear a waltz, you dance.
If you hear a mass you take communion.
It is the power of music to carry one directly into the mental state of the composer.
The listener has no choice. It is like hypnotism.
So now… what was in my mind when I wrote this? Hm…?
A man is trying to reach his lover.
His carriage has broken down in the rain.
The wheels stuck in the mud.
She will only wait so long.
This… is the sound of his agitation.
“This is how it is” the music is saying.
“Not how you are used to being.
Not how you are used to thinking. But like this.”
Schindler (now thinking to himself)
Who was the woman? He never told me.
I knew better than to ask.
He made me see the world in an entirely new light.“
The mystery, of course, is the mystery of the Immortal Beloved, whose identity has not been confirmed with certainty. The film presents a theory that I’m told is impossible even if it makes for a terrific film.
Rose came back to the Beethoven composition, in a film adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata in 2009. Confused? The title keeps coming up, but means something different every time.
I’m looking forward to hearing Jonathan Crow play the sonata this week at a Toronto Summer Music concert with pianist Philip Chiu.