Sunday, July 14, 2013

Beethoven and Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata

'They played Beethoven's "Kreutzer Sonata". Do you know its first movement, the presto? You know it?' he burst out. 'Ah! It's a fearful thing, that sonata. Especially that movement. And music in general's a fearful thing. What is it? I don't know. What is music? What does it do to us? And why does it do to us what it does? People say that music has an uplifting effect on the soul: what rot! It isn't true. It's true that it has an effect, it has a terrible effect on me, at any rate, but it has nothing to do with any uplifting of the soul. Its effect on the soul is neither uplifting nor degrading - it merely irritates me. How can I put it? Music makes me forget myself, my true condition, it carries me off into another state of being, one that isn't my own: under the influence of music I have the illusion of feeling things I don't really feel, of understanding things I don't understand, being able to do things I'm not able to do. I explain this by the circumstance that the effect produced by music is similar to that produced by yawning or laughter: I may not be sleepy, but I yawn if I see someone else yawning; I may have no reason for laughing, but I laugh if I see someone else laughing.
'Music carries me instantly and directly into the state of consciousness that was experienced by its composer. My soul merges with his, and together with him I'm transported from one state of consciousness into another; yet why this should be, I've no idea. I mean, take the man who wrote the "Kreutzer Sonata", Beethoven: he knew why he was in that state of mind. It was that state of mind which led him to perform certain actions, and so it acquired a special significance for him, but none whatever for me. And that's why that kind of music's just an irritant - because it doesn't lead anywhere. A military band plays a march, say: the soldiers march in step, and the music's done its work. An orchestra plays a dance tune, I dance, and the music's done its work. A Mass is sung, I take communion, and once again the music's done its work. But that other kind of music's just an irritation, an excitement, and the action the excitement's supposed to lead to simply isn't there! That's why it's such a fearful thing, why it sometimes has such a horrible effect. In China, music's an affair of state. And that's the way it ought to be. Can it really be allowable for anyone who feels like it to hypnotize another person, or many other persons, and then do what he likes with them? Particularly if the hypnotist is just the first unscrupulous individual who happens to come along?
Tet this fearful medium is available to anyone who cares to make use of it. Take that "Kreutzer Sonata", for example, take its first movement, the presto: can one really allow it to be played in a drawing-room full of women in low-cut dresses? To be played, and then followed by a little light applause, and the eating of ice-cream, and talk about the latest society gossip? Such pieces should only be played on certain special, solemn, significant occasions when certain solemn actions have to be performed, actions that correspond to the nature of the music. It should be played, and as it's played those actions which it's inspired with its significance should be performed. Otherwise the generation of all that feeling and energy, which are quite inappropriate to either the place or the occasion, and which aren't allowed any outlet, can't have anything but a harmful effect. On me, at any rate, that piece had the most shattering effect; I had the illusion that I was discovering entirely new emotions, new possibilities I'd known nothing of before then. "Yes, that's it, it's got absolutely nothing to do with the way I've been used to living and seeing the world, that's how it ought to be," I seemed to hear a voice saying inside me. What this new reality I'd discovered was, I really didn't know, but my awareness of this new state of conscious¬ness filled me with joy. Everyone in the room, including Trukhachevsky and my wife, appeared to me in an entirely new light.
'After the presto they played the attractive but unoriginal andante with its rather trite variations, and then the finale, which is really weak. Then, at the request of members of the audience, they played things like Ernst's "Elegie", and various other brief encores. These were all quite pleasant, but none of them made one tenth of the impression on me that the presto had done. They all came filtering through the impression the presto had made on me. I felt cheerful and buoyant all evening. As for my wife, I'd never seen her looking as she did that evening. Her radiant eyes, her serenity, the gravity of her expression as she played, and that utterly melting quality, the weak, pathetic, yet blissful smile on her lips after they'd finished - I saw all this, but I didn't attach any particular significance to it, beyond supposing that she had experienced the same feelings as I had, and that she, like myself, had discovered, or perhaps rather remembered, emotions that were new and unfamiliar. The evening ended satisfactorily, and everyone went home.

Tolstoy, The Kreutzer Sonata, translated by 
David Mcduff, Penguin Boooks

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