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Tolstoy's Kreutzer Sonata

In April 2010, The British Library acquired a copy of the 1889 clandestine edition of The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy (BL shelfmark RB.23.b.6954) to supplement its holdings on The Kreutzer Sonata. This is an important acquisition made possible thanks to the generosity of The Friends of the British Library.

 In 1879, Leo Tolstoy, the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina, set to work on a fairly short, but important work called Confession that manifested his spiritual crisis. Tolstoy felt that his beliefs were in contradiction with his life style and one of the consequences of this anxiety was his decision to renounce his copyright and potential royalties for anything written thereafter. In 1882, this essay was to be published in the fifth issue of the journal Russkaia mysl’ (BL shelfmark P.P.4842.dc). However, church censorship did not allow this to happen and Tolstoy’s tract was cut out from almost all copies of the journal. A separate brochure was first published in Geneva in 1884, and then in 1888 (the British Library holds the 2nd edition at shelfmark 012330.h.26(3)).

In the 1880s Leo Tolstoy mainly focused on writing non-fiction, and his story The Kreutzer Sonata was one of the few works of fiction written at that time. The British Library has two audio recordings of the English adaptation of Tolstoy’s novella at shelfmark 1LP0090794 (another copy at 2LP0086021) and the Naxos audio version (read by Jonathan Oliver) at shelfmark 1CD0310519, which may be heard in our reading rooms.

In February 1876 a woman, who signed her letter as Slavyanka, shared with Tolstoy her thoughts on the appalling situation in which women found themselves in contemporary Russian society. Another source of ideas for the novella was a story told to him by a friend who had heard a fellow traveller talking on the train about his wife’s infidelity. When the first drafts had been written, a family friend, who taught music to the younger children, performed Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata (Sonata No. 9 in A Major for piano and violin, Op. 47) at Tolstoy’s place in Moscow. The British Library holds various editions of the score, e.g. ed. by F. Kreisler and published by Augener (Schott) in 1911 at shelfmark W87/2939 (incomplete), as well as numerous audio recordings of this piece by Beethoven performed by various musicians, including fairly early recordings, e.g. of 1911 at shelfmark 1CD0028332 and 1CD0290075, and a Russian recording of ca. 1939/40 at shelfmark 1CD0273258). Immediately after the performance, Tolstoy suggested that the actor Andreev-Burlak and the artist Ilya Repin, who were present, could help him express feelings evoked by this music. According to Tolstoy’s original plan, his piece should have been performed in public with Repin’s visual response to the music in the background. Apparently this performance never took place, as Andreev-Burlak had died before the novella was finished.

 Tolstoy continuously worked on the plot of the story and it went through a lot of transformations. In the final version, as the protagonist becomes involved in a conversation on a train concerning marriage, divorce and love, he tells his story. Although he loved his wife at first, he very soon became unhappy with her when she was preoccupied by motherhood. He was also displeased with her appearance and behaviour when she started to prevent pregnancies. Having noticed that his wife admired a violinist, the man clearly became consumed with jealousy which led to the killing of his wife. Beethoven’s Kreutzer Sonata triggers all the emotions in the story, as this is what unites the protagonist’s wife with the violinist, since they play it together, and fills the protagonist with rage and misery. He blames the conventions, which prescribe that people should stay together even after the initial love had passed away and turned into hatred. He further states that women will never enjoy equal rights with men as long as men view them as objects of desire, and yet describes their situation as a form of power over men, mentioning how much of society is geared towards women’s pleasure and well-being and how much sway they have over men's actions. The message is confusing, but it is usually interpreted as questioning the institution of marriage and celebrating the ideals of chastity and sexual abstinence.

 A draft fragment from the manuscript of the story is held at the British Library at shelfmark MSS. Zweig 191. Stefan Zweig, in whose papers this manuscript is located, wrote about this story in his book Drei Dichter ihres Lebens (1928):

"<…> woman and music were instinct with evil because, by awakening sensuality, they tended to turn men away “from the inborn qualities of courage, resolution, reasonableness, justice”; because, as Father Tolstoy preached in later days, they provoked us “to the sin of fleshliness”. They, too, “wanted something of him”, something which he could not give; they, too, tended to stir something which he did not wish to awakened. What this was can be discovered without any elaborate search. It was his own excessive sensuality, which, after years of struggle, he had at length succeeded in subduing. <…> Music was a charm which lulled the master’s will, and the “beast” thereupon was ready to seize its opportunity. Let a woman appear, and the whole pack of the bloodthirsty passions began to bay, to rage against the iron bars of their prison." (quoted from the English translation: Stefan Zweig. Adepts in Self-portraiture: Casanova, Stendhal, Tolstoy. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1929. p. 227; shelfmark 11865.h.28).

 It soon became apparent that censorship would not allow the story to be published. In November 1889, the story was recited for the public in the publishing house owned by Tolstoy’s friend V. Chertkov. It made such an impression that against the author’s will the manuscript was copied on the same night. By the third day after the recital 300 lithograph copies were in private circulation in St. Petersburg and many more were created on hectograph machines. In December 1889, the rumours that the story would be forbidden were confirmed, but Tolstoy felt relieved that he did not have to deal with a moral dilemma: to allow his wife to earn money to support the family by publishing his work commercially or to publish it gratis according to his own principles.

The beginning of The Kreutzer Sonata

Clandestine edition of The Kreutzer Sonata, 1889. BL shelfmark: RB.23.b.6954. Copyright ©The British Library Board

    In April 2010, The British Library acquired a copy of this clandestine edition of The Kreutzer Sonata (shelfmark RB.23.b.6954) to supplement its holdings on The Kreutzer Sonata. This is an important acquisition which was made possible by generous help from The Friends of the British Library.

Clandestine edition of The Kreutzer Sonata

The last two pages of The Kreutzer Sonata. Copyright ©The British Library Board

In 1890, when it became obvious in Europe that The Kreutzer Sonata would not be published in Russia, the Bibliographic Office in Berlin published the story in four languages – Russian, German, French and English simultaneously. The British Library holds:

  • the 1st Russian edition, at shelfmark 12472.k.18, with manuscript annotations by a former owner and the ownership stamp;
  • the 2nd Russian edition with an afterword by Tolstoy, at shelfmark 012589.h.19);
  • an English edition at shelfmark 1608/5228. The British Library copy contains a former owner’s inscriptions in German stating that this book, translated into English by one “uncle Leuis”, was a present given to their niece by “ante Amalia”. On the titles page, there is an inscription in English: “Translated from the German by L. […]dinberger”.
Kreutzer Sonata Berlin edition

The Berlin edition of The Kreutzer Sonata, 1890. BL shelfmark 1608-5228. Copyright ©The British Library Board

    At least two other different English translations were published in 1890 simultaneously in England and America: by H. Sutherland Edwards (London: Eden, Remington & Co Publishers; BL shelfmark 012589.e.34), and by Beni R. Tucker (the British Library holds the 4th edition – Boston, Mass., shelfmark 012589.e.40).

The Kreutzer Sonata's English translation, 1890

An English translation of The Kreutzer Sonata. BL shelfmark 012589.e.34. Copyright ©The British Library Board

At the same time, the United States Post Office Department prohibited the mailing of newspapers containing serialised instalments of The Kreutzer Sonata. Straight after the first publication, Tolstoy’s novella was published in many other European languages.

    In 1891, Tolstoy’s wife Sofia Andreevna was granted a personal permission for publication from Tsar Alexander III at the audience that she had with him. She did so to prove to herself and others that she had not been really hurt by this story, although she admitted in her diaries that it was aimed at her life with Tolstoy, which certainly made her feel uneasy about this book (see the diaries of Sofia Tolstaia and the most recent biography: Popoff, Alexandra. Sophia Tolstoy: a biography. New York: Free Press, 2010; ISBN 9781416597599; BL shelfmark m10/.18612 and The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, translated by Cathy Porter. London: Alma, 2010, ISBN 9781846881022; not yet received by the Library, although an earlier (1985) edition is available at  85/24964). Sofia Andreevna even wrote her “reply” to Tolstoy, a novella Ch’ia vina? (Whose was the blame?), which was not published until 1994, when it appeared in the journal Oktiabr’ (1994, issue 10; shelfmark 0127.433000).

    An almost immediate response to Tolstoy’s ideas on marriage and sexuality came from the German author Dagobert von Gerhardt, known under his pen-name Gerhardt von Amyntor. In 1891 in Leipzig, he published his story Die Cis-moll-Sonate. [Against Tolstoy’s “Kreutzer Sonata”] (held at shelfmark 8410.g.38 and in Russian translation under the title Za pravdu i za chest’ zhenshchiny [For the truth and women’s honour], 2nd edition at shelfmark 8410.ff.18). In this story, fellow travellers on a train discuss Tolstoy and his Kreutzer Sonata, and one of them tells a story of how Tolstoy’s ideas influenced his life in the most negative way.

Title page of: Against The Kreutzer Sonata, by G. von Amyntor

Against The Kreutzer Sonata, by G. von Amyntor. BL shelfmark 8410.ff.18. Copyright ©The British Library Board

 Tolstoy’s son, Lev L’vovich, also argued with his famous father in his novella Preliudiia Shopena (the British Library has it in several German editions, at shelfmarks: 012591.f.95 ; 012591.f.95 ; 012591.g.50).

 Leonard Terry under the pseudonym of Margrave Kenyon published a play entitled Madansema, Slave of Love; re Tolstoi, a counter-song to anti-marriage (London, 1890, shelfmark On the inside cover of the BL copy there is an inscription: “Tolstoi thinks – marriage is a sin (essay in “Universal Review”, 1890)”. Apart from the title, the play has very loose connection with Tolstoy’s story, both in plot (the action takes place in India in the early part of the Christian era) and ideas. Mrs James Gregor’s novella Whose was the blame? (exactly the same title as the story by Tolstoy’s wife) was published in London in 1894 (shelfmark The book has a subtitle A woman’s version of the Kreutzer Sonata, and a prologue to it was written by Prince Galitzen (sic! – in the book) and translated from Russian. And these are just some examples of responses to the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata.

 Inspired by Tolstoy’s story the Czech composer L. Janaček wrote his String quartet  No. 1, “Kreutzer Sonata”  (the British Library has over ten editions of the score and over forty audio recordings of this piece; a review from the Guardian of the recent performance may also be of interest). This music piece was created in 1923, when the composer’s private life was tense and difficult. By that time he had already informally divorced his wife, and was passionately in love with Kamila Stösslová, who neither sought nor rejected his devotion. An image of a “tormented and run down” poor young woman from Tolstoy’s novel was very close to Janáček’s heart at that time.

 The Kreutzer Sonata remains one of the most popular of Tolstoy’s works and attracts new translations and adaptations. For example, the British Library has an audio recording (1978) of a play based on Tolstoy’s novella and performed by the Royal Court Theatre English Stage Company. The production was directed by Peter Farago, with David Suchet starring (available through our Listening service – reference T1816BW BD 1).

The British Library holds many secondary sources material and here is a very select list of the most recent publications held at the British Library:

  • Kramer, Lawrence. “Tolstoy’s Beethoven, Beethoven’s Tolstoy : the Kreutzer Sonata” in his collection of essays Critical musicology and the responsibility of response : selected essays (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006; at shelfmarks YC.2008.a.856 and m07/.33039);
  • Europäisches Ereignis "Kreutzersonate" : Beethoven - Tolstoj – Janáček, Ulrich Steltner … et al., Jena:  Collegium Europaeum Jenense, 2004, at shelfmark YF.2006.a.12001);
  • Sova, Dawn B. Literature suppressed on sexual grounds (New York: Fact on File, 2006, at shelfmark YC.2007.a.2777).


Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
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Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7587


Peter W. Hellyer, Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
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Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7582