Truly meaningful writing about music is nearly impossible. Those of us who try may come close on occasion, but a frustrating gap always remains between such utterly disparate media. Indeed, apart from the artists themselves, I often deem those who most appreciate music not the gifted few who can produce a cogent review or a detailed analysis, but rather those who emerge from a concert in a state of inarticulate rapture.
Leo Tolstoy was criticized by none other than Anton Chekhov for the audacity of writing about matters he knew nothing about. Yet, despite his formal ignorance of musical matters, Tolstoy produced a work of stunning insight in his 1889 novel The Kreutzer Sonata. It’s highly ironic that the pen of a non-musician produced such an accomplished intuitive grasp of the soul of Beethoven.
The narrator, having murdered his wife, details how his vapid marriage deteriorated through lust, hypocrisy, discord, humiliation, jealousy and rage. His sardonic and jaded view of the widening gulf between the flesh and spirit of human relationships has an internal logic and perverse allure. At a dinner party, his wife plays the Beethoven sonata of the title with an amateur violinist, kindling complex and conflicting passions. Although aware of a bond of pleasure between the performers, he personally feels it as mere agitation – being mystically and hypnotically drawn into the composer’s mental condition but being powerless to fully understand it, revealing and arousing new feelings and possibilities but being unable to react meaningfully.
His description of the sonata itself is justly famous:
How can that first presto be played in a drawing-room among ladies in 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.
By seizing upon this particular work, Tolstoy intuitively sensed not only its intrinsic essence but its significance as a key work in Western art. Indeed, the Kreutzer launched a new kind of music that lies at the heart of Beethoven’s genius. Past masters were of a different breed. With Bach we can bask in his faith in the logic and intelligence of the universal design. With Mozart, we marvel at the sublimity of his conceptions and the efficiency of his execution. The music of their eras provides comfort and inspiration, fully consistent with those idiotic promos in which WGMS proclaims the highest calling of art to be soothing relaxation. But Beethoven, for the first time, transcends comfort and validation of social patterns to challenge us to peer deeply into the core of the human condition.
Above all his other works, the Kreutzer was Beethoven’s leap from a gifted, occasionally edgy, often innovative composer to the revolutionary who rewrote the essential rules of musical art. There had been ample prior hints. His piano sonatas began with the stylized drama of Mozart but added a new sense of architectural space, thickening texture, deepening gravity. The mood, too, pushes the bounds of convention – the 1798 “Pathetique” is broody and stormy, and his 1801 “Moonlight” is contemplative but ends in a burst of energy. Among his eight prior violin sonatas, the fourth is rather grim and acerbic and the eighth rumbles with an undercurrent of nervous energy. But all these solo or duet works were intended for personal gratification or private pleasure. The Kreutzer is the very first work for such reduced forces that bursts the accustomed bounds of chamber music with the large emotional gestures formerly the province of opera, oratorio, concerti and symphonies. Beethoven was about to lift chamber music out of the homes of royalty into the public arena.
Suitably, such a momentous work had an odd genesis and a curious aftermath. George Bridgetower was one of the very few men of color to have broken into European art circles, billed as an African prince, although his mother was Polish and his father West Indian. Beethoven met and was drawn to the violinist shortly after his arrival in Vienna in March 1803. For his Vienna debut of May xx, Bridgetower commissioned a new sonata from Beethoven, who would play the piano part.
While we can speculate that Beethoven seized upon his partner’s curiosity value to craft a suitably exotic piece, sketches for the first movement are found in his earlier notebooks and the finale had been written a year before, but then rejected as too brilliant, for his sixth sonata. The rest barely made it – the violin part of the first movement was copied just in time for the concert, and Bridgetower read the andante from Beethoven’s own messy manuscript. Beethoven largely extemporized all but the finale from sketches.
Beethoven initially dedicated the sonata to Bridgetower, but apparently they had a falling out over a girl (although it’s not clear whether the cause was rivalry or a crude remark to which the composer took offence). In any event, prior to publication in 1805 Beethoven switched the dedication to Adolphe Kreutzer, a Parisian violinist who had just published a “method” of 42 exercises to expand left-hand technique and whom Beethoven admired for an objectivity rare among virtuosi. Alas, although the work would become the sole basis for his modern fame, Kreutzer ignored the work and never deemed it worthy of being played.
The quick (for Beethoven) pace of composition is itself significant, as it suggests not a typically polished work of art in which fleeting emotion is refined into moderation, but rather an unusually accurate snapshot of his volatile state of mind. Indeed, Beethoven’s personal life was in crisis. Following his death in 1827, among his private papers was found an extraordinary document now known as the “Heilgestadt Testament,” a frighteningly candid and intense plea, confession and suicide note. Dated October 2 and 6, 1802 and addressed to his two brothers (but apparently never sent), he begs forgiveness for his ill-tempered and anti-social behavior and reveals the “secret cause” – his deafness, the cruelest fate for a rising master musician, which he had tried to hide but after six years of medical treatment now has given up all hope for a cure. He yearns for freedom from his suffering, provides for the division of his meager assets and asks his doctor to explain his condition after his death.
Despite the power of his Heilgestadt Testament, Beethoven was not a man of letters. Rather, it was in the Kreutzer that the turbulence of his suppressed feelings erupted with full artistic force. Not only is this astounding work the musical means to depict his pain and confusion, but the vehicle by which he resolved his inner turmoil by signaling to the world, and, more importantly, to himself, how he planned to deal with it – by sublimating his distress to produce the greatest body of music in all of Western culture.
In contrast to all eight of his previous violin sonatas that began with the piano’s plain statement of the melody, key and tempo, here the soloist seems naked and lost. The tempo indication, adagio sostenuto, stands still and presents an immediate challenge – how to play the opening figures of four- and three-note chords that the violinist, faced with sounding only two strings at a time, must break. Upon the piano’s sudden entrance, the key shifts abruptly from A major to a-minor, from which it never recovers. Conventional wisdom is that Beethoven, a concert pianist, made his instrument dominant, but that’s really not true – he was an accomplished violinist and in any event had to provide display opportunities for guest artists at his concerts. Indeed, the trick in writing duo-sonatas is to find themes that not only sound equally expressive, but assume different and valid character while suggesting accompaniment possibilities, on both instruments. Here, during the slow extended introduction, something else happens – violin and piano don’t merely complement each other but coalesce for a common purpose, which then erupts into an astoundingly stormy movement, which Beethoven accurately described on his score as “quasi come d’un concerto” (“almost like a concerto”) that heaves between gentle respite and exhausting, violent attacks, with furious slashing figures at a delirious pace (labeled “presto” and generally taken anywhere between 300 to 500 beats per minute).
Tolstoy pronounced the second movement “common and unoriginal” and the finale “very weak.” That’s a bit unfair, yet emotionally valid – nothing really could be worthy of following the scope and fervency of the first. The andante is a throwback that would fit in any of Beethoven’s prior works –: a placid theme with four variations of escalating complexity – first with piano figuration, then the violin, then a plunge into f-minor, and then ornate combinations. It’s as if, having depicted his rebellious angst, Beethoven assures us that he knows how to meet social expectations and that his inner soul remains loving and seeped in common values.
The finale is also conventional – a rondo in which techniques of the first movement emerge in a brighter light – the suspensions now playful, the accents joyous, the galloping theme invigorating, the interplay of major and minor modes vitalizing. Thus, having laid his soul bare, the deeply conflicted composer vows to endure and resolves to redirect his torment toward a more positive end.
Did the premiere audience on that May afternoon grasp any of this? Not a bit – Bridgetower reported that their enthusiasm was directed toward the andante variations (the most conservative of the three), of which they demanded an encore. But in all fairness, the atmosphere of the concert may not have been conducive to profound aesthetic reflection. In a note left in his original score, Bridgetower claimed that after Beethoven played a piano run (at measure 37), he departed from the score to mimic it, prompting Beethoven to leap from his seat and embrace his partner. Indeed, concerts of the time often lacked the sobriety of purpose we now attribute to them – at the 1806 premiere of Beethoven’s only violin concerto, the soloist entertained the crowd between movements by playing his fiddle upside down. Bridgetower also left a curious reminiscence that the andante’s appeal was boosted by Beethoven’s “chaste” playing. Frankly, it’s hard to imagine just what he meant, other than to suggest that the audience was vastly relieved in comparison to the shocking opening movement, or perhaps in lieu of the carnival atmosphere of other concerts.
A surprising number of Kreutzer recordings are musically correct but emotionally vapid. Such an approach can function as a deliberate sacrifice in order to better integrate the remainder into a more uniform, if deficient, whole by avoiding the inevitable letdown after the torrid disquiet of the opening. Yet, the undercurrent of anxiety is woven so deeply into Beethoven’s fabric that it can’t be wholly suppressed, and a slick surface seems perversely cavalier and shallow. These include the downright saccharine Kulenkampff/Kempff (1935), the workmanlike but slightly labored Yehudi and Hephzibah Menuhin (1935), the violin-dominated Heifetz/Moiseiwitsch (1951) and Szigeti/Arrau (194x), the monumental 41 minute Menuhin/Kempff (1970) and 42-minute Schneiderhan/Kempff (1952), the elegant Francescatti/Casadesus (19xx) and the nicely nuanced and patrician Szeryng/Haebler (19xx) and Szeryng/Rubinstein (1958).
Others achieve a superficial degree of excitement through sheer speed, bringing the work home in well under a half-hour – the vehement energy of Busch/Serkin (1941), the buoyant but precisely chiselled Milstein/Balsam (1957) and the rugged yet surprisingly subtle Groschl/Spierer (1991). Timings, though, can be deceptive – many recordings seem to outpace their tempos by omitting the repeats of three of the four andante variations, as well as the expositions of the first and last movements, that Beethoven clearly indicated in the score. All but a few recordings omit the latter, which perhaps is justified nowadays as outdated now that we can simply play replay a favorite passage, rather than have to await the next concert to hear it again.
While most recent versions sound too easy and seem frustratingly shallow (excepting the virile, emphatic 19xx Perlman/Ashkenazi on Decca and even more focused 19xx Perlman/Argerich live on EMI), records have preserved historical readings that revel in the Kreutzer’s power and bristle with personality and invoke the power of Beethoven’s startling conception and the depth of his struggle, even for a modern audience whose notion of musical thrills is light-years beyond that of the composer’s era.
Interestingly, two of the first Kreutzer recordings were by women, whose representation on disc was relatively rare at the time. Marjorie Haywood and Una Bourne cut a thoroughly stylish and convincing set for HMV in 1918, although it was heavily abridged to fit onto four 78 rpm sides (about 16 minutes), with huge sections pruned from the outer movements (including the entire development of the opening) and only the variations largely intact. The first Kreutzer using the electrical process was made in November 1925 by Isolde Menges and Arthur de Greef, this time complete on eight HMV sides, boasting a fine combination of fire and elegance, impulse and resolve.
Fritz Kreisler and Franz Rupp (1936) remain fundamentally within the sweet and elegant bounds of classical restraint, yet yearn for freedom through an array of tonal color and subtle tempo gradation. The opening is a marvel of tense anticipation, as Kreisler invests each note with a different and unexpected rhythmic value, a hugely effective portrayal of the composer on the cusp of two eras.
Although Jacques Thibaud was renowned as suave and stylish, in his 1929 pairing with his poetic French compatriot Alfred Cortot he digs into his instrument to produce a crude tone and rhythmic vagaries, the distortions suggesting the labor of a huge recreative effort.
In the most gripping studio reading, Bronislaw Huberman and Ignaz Freidman (1930) each urge the other on with hugely assertive phrasing, bold dynamic outbursts, roiling swells of volume, sudden extreme tempo shifts from suspenseful hesitation to firmly decisive, and daring changes in texture from cloyingly sweet to harshly abrasive. The entire first movement bristles with edgy tension, as violin and piano deliberately fall in and out of synch, the second zips by, including all repeats in the same time others take without them, and the finale blends eloquence with weight. (The current Naxos release includes an equally compelling alternate take.)
Most extraordinary of all is an April 13, 1940 concert by Joseph Szigeti and Bela Bartok that quivers with musical and cultural significance. Their style springs from the performing tradition of their beloved Hungary, in which intonation, rhythm, dynamics and texture all yield for unbridled emotional impact. Vehement anti-fascists, yet burdened with dread that the world they cherished appeared on the brink of extinction, this was their first concert in the New World, a mere two days after Bartok’s arrival, at the Library of Congress, the symbolic shrine of artistic freedom. This extraordinary confluence of overwhelmingly vital events created a unique channeling of Beethoven’s own despair, aspirations and resolve that no other performance on record can ever approach.
But no writing can ever fully convey the splendor of such a performance; fortunately for posterity, recordings have overcome that insoluble problem and let the music speak for itself.
Copyright 2005 by Peter Gutmann
For a note about the illustrations, please click here.
copyright © 1998-2005 Peter Gutmann. All rights reserved.