Passion ~ Music ~ Murder
Laura Wade on Kreutzer vs Kreutzer

Did she or didn’t she?  Only you can decide.

Tolstoy’s 1889 novella The Kreutzer Sonata, which takes its title from the Beethoven violin sonata played during the story, itself inspired Janáček’s 1923 string quartet of the same name.  Kreutzer vs Kreutzer links together these three great works: a quartet surrounding a (love) trio, a duo at the centre.

The Tolstoy is provocative: a single, uncontested voice, the murderer Pozdnyshev, meets the book’s nameless narrator on a train.  He discusses with him the dangers of women, music and sex; he has killed his wife, he says, because she was unfaithful to him with a violinist.  Moreover, the sexual flame between them was ignited by the demonic force of the Kreutzer Sonata, music which, Pozdnyshev believes, is too powerful to be played in polite society.

Pozdnyshev’s wife and her supposed lover, the violinist Trukhachevsky, are never given the chance to defend themselves; we barely hear their voices in the novella.  For a dramatist, unheard voices are irresistible, an invitation.  Pozdnyshev has a whole book in which to put his case, so it seemed fair for him to shut up here, and for his wife and the violinist to speak instead.  Women are less quiet nowadays, and this 21st century writer found plenty for a 19th century woman to say.

Two characters, then – a woman and a man – and a world of possibilities.

Did she or didn’t she?  Did the infidelity take place, or is everything the product of a husband’s jealous imagination?  Some may think Pozdnyshev is right to trust his instincts, that there’s no smoke without fire.  Others might be incensed that he can’t tell the difference between a musical partnership and a sexual one.  We may sympathise when he is excluded from the tight circle the musicians create around themselves, but hasn’t he just mistaken the glow of a triumphant performance for the flush of forbidden love?

What did Janáček think?  He was a man in the grip of an obsessive and never-consummated passion for a married woman, Kamila Stösslová.  We know from his letters (he wrote to Stösslová more than 700 times) that he sympathised with Pozdnyshev’s wife, whom he called ‘a poor woman, tormented and run down’.  Perhaps he saw himself in the character of the violinist and considered both players victims of circumstance.  He may, too, have disliked Mrs Pozdnyshev being held to blame for a man’s attraction to her, a situation with which modern audiences are unfortunately still familiar.

The beauty of theatre is that we can explore both paths.  These scenes propose two different versions of what happened – one, as imagined by Pozdnyshev/Tolstoy while listening to the Beethoven, the other, as seen through Janáček’s eyes and underscored by his jagged, psychological quartet.  Two parallel universes, the product of different choices made by the same characters.  The truth may lie at either pole – or at any point between.

Laura Wade
July 2015

Kreutzer vs Kreutzer

Starring Samuel West and Jemima Rooper, and featuring members of Aurora Orchestra, is live at St George’s Bristol on Sunday 2 October at 7pm. Read more.

Tickets £25, £20, £15, £10, £5 Students/U18s (limited availability) (plus fees)




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