The Kreutzer sonata is literally one of the most storied works in the entire Classical repertoire. Perhaps it had something of a reputation before Leo Tolstoy’s insanely misogynistic and wildly popular novella entitled “The Kreutzer Sonata,” but since Tolstoy’s literary canonization of it, its name has been cemented in popular concert lore. Why this piece came to Tolstoy’s attention is not absolutely clear. But it is clear enough that, to begin with, Ludwig van Beethoven had a (deserved) reputation as an unkempt disturber of musical propriety. This certainly contributed to the possibility of listeners hearing dangerousness in it, and gave Tolstoy traction for his story’s lines.
Perhaps it is the sheer excessiveness of it: it is too long, too fast, too obsessive, too much piano, and too much violin. Historically speaking, it is relevant to note that what is now known as the “violin sonata” was until Brahms’ time called a “sonata for piano and violin” — indicating, importantly, that the violin was necessary but mostly secondary. An amateur lady, who had time at home to prac- tice, would play piano, and a man, who must have used his time to work rather than to practice, would play the violin part as a sort of frosting. But the Kreutzer sonata, more even than Beethoven’s previous works for piano and violin, couldn’t be forced into that mold. The violin part requires professional, or at least serious, attention, and the piano part is far from ladylike. It is perhaps this element – a kind of impropriety, even if merely musical – which lit a fire in Tolstoy’s mind.
The Kreutzer Sonata gives no rest. The first movement, marked Presto after its slow introduction, is overflowing with force, to which Tolstoy’s (admittedly deranged) narrator responds: “How can that first presto be played in a drawing- room among ladies in low-necked dresses?” Following this, there is no real ‘slow’ movement — or at least no seriously reflective one. The theme of the second movement is simple and lilting enough (if a little bit tense), but the variations upon it are willfully strange. The first and second variations, with their inces- sant repetitions in the violin, must surely be some of the most annoying excellent music in the world. The last movement is Presto again.
The arrangement for today’s concert dates from soon after the work was com- posed; its author is unknown. The expansion of this extraordinary piece into a quintet is quite apt: the piece itself has grown into something more than the sum of its parts. One plus one may equal five in this case. It seems to work nicely.