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Tolstoy and music

"For Tolstoy music was not an amusement but an important business in life."

                                                                                                    (N.N. Gusev)

Two important sources of information on Tolstoy and music are the reminiscences of N. Gusev and A. Goldenveizer. These were brought together as two articles in a volume entitled Lev Tolstoi i muzyka: vospominaniia (Leo Tolstoy and music: reminiscences), Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe muzykal’noe izdatel’stvo, 1953. BL shelfmark: 7901.a.16.

Nikolai Nikolaevich Gusev was the personal secretary to Tolstoy, author of several works on his life and works, and director of the Tolstoy Museum in Moscow from 1925 to 1931. Aleksandr Borisovich Goldenveizer was a professor of music at the Moscow conservatory, an accomplished pianist and a frequent visitor to Tolstoy’s home for the last 15 years of Tolstoy’s life.

This volume is particularly useful in rendering a comparison of two different viewpoints on Tolstoy’s own musical ability, his ideas on musical aesthetics and his attitudes towards certain composers as reflected through performances of well-known musicians who visited him. All references below are to Lev Tolstoi i muzyka (TM).

Tolstoy’s musical ability

Tolstoy’s own musical ability is attested in both memoirs. Gusev states that Tolstoy was “a good musician and composer” (TM4). Goldenveizer notes that Tolstoy, as well as many members of his family, was musical by nature and that in his youth when he occupied himself for hours on the piano he even thought of becoming a musician (TM30-31). During this period Tolstoy composed a waltz for piano. Goldenveizer records how he and the composer Taneev wrote down the waltz when Tolstoy played it for them at Iasnaia Poliana in 1906 (TM31). A manuscript facsimile of the score of the waltz was included in Lev Tolstoy i muzyka. Tolstoy’s Waltz (Val’s) also appears in Henry Hardy’s Tunes: collected musical juvenilia (Oxford: Robert Dugdale, 2003. BL shelfmark: G.944.n.1). You can see an image of the score on page 2 of the Spring 1998 (no. 18) issue of Playback (pdf). In 1997 Tolstoy’s Waltz was recorded by Imogen Cooper for the British Library Sound Archive (BL shelfmark: 1CDR0000152 S1 BD1). To listen to Tolstoy's 'Waltz in F', his only known musical composition, please go to our page Classical music: sound recordings, and 'Play Audio' under the heading 'Unpublished recordings'.

Goldenveizer considered that Tolstoy remained a dilettante in music all his life, but was sensitive to it to a considerable extent (TM31).

Tolstoy’s ideas on musical aesthetics

Gusev observes the strong effect music had on Tolstoy and how he would go pale and often could not hold back tears in his eyes when hearing it. He comments, “For Tolstoy music was not an amusement but an important business in life” (TM4).

Goldenveizer notes how Tolstoy was always deeply interested in the question of what music was and what were the philosophical grounds of its inner existence. In the Kreutzer Sonata Tolstoy asks: What is music? What does it do? Why was it made? In conversations with Tolstoy, Goldenveizer discussed the essence of music: Why sounds of different pitch and degrees of strength, separate or simultaneously sounding together, following one after another in time and combining in a kind of rhythmical construction, are able to have such a powerful, infectious influence on man? Why on one occasion this sound combination appears as a senseless assortment of sounds, and on another as the symphonies of Beethoven? No satisfactory answer can be given to these questions (TM17). Goldenveizer continues to relate Tolstoy’s ideas on music and nature (i.e. concrete objects portrayed): how in literature and the fine arts some kind of nature is always reproduced (whether taken from actual life or from the artist’s fantasies), and how in music of instrumental, chamber and symphonic character (opera and programme music are excluded) there is the very absence of nature. The conclusion arrived at is that the contents of a musical work are more clearly and forcefully conveyed by the musical work itself and do not need any kind of literal translations (TM18).

Gusev quotes Tolstoy’s 1850 definition of music as “a means to arouse through sound familiar feelings or to convey them” (TM5) and later notes the observation in Tolstoy’s diary that “music is a stenograph of feelings”. Goldenveizer remembers from his conversations how Tolstoy developed an analogy between music and dreams where there is a discrepancy between responses and their causes. This leads to the conclusion that “music does not cause states such as love, joy, sadness but summons them up in us” (TM20).

Tolstoy and composers

On the question of what sort of music Tolstoy liked Goldenveizer notes that Tolstoy liked music with definitely expressed rhythm, melodically distinct, lively or full of passionate excitement (TM32). Both Goldenveizer and Gusev note that Tolstoy’s favourite composer was Chopin. Gusev quotes an entry in Tolstoy’s diary that revealed how stirred he was by Goldenveizer’s performance of Chopin at Iasnaia Poliana in 1909 (TM9). Goldenveizer relates how sometimes Tolstoy overflowed with tears after hearing Chopin and once exclaimed “That is music” (TM32), and that when listening to Chopin Tolstoy experienced (in his own words) the feeling of “complete artistic satisfaction”(TM 34). Goldenveizer confirms that Tolstoy particularly liked the preludes and mazurkas, and pieces full of energy like the polonaises and certain of the ballades (TM32,34).

Gusev observes that Tolstoy also liked Mozart, Haydn and Weber. Goldenveizer remarks on Tolstoy’s particular liking for Don Giovanni. He continues that together with its melodic richness Tolstoy placed particularly highly the remarkable reflection in the music of characters and situations (TM22). However Goldenveizer adds the interesting comment here that Tolstoy’s liking for Don Giovanni was remarkable as he did not like opera in general and considered it a false kind of art (TM 23). Goldenveizer reports that Tolstoy seldom went to the opera but remembers his going to a performance of Wagner’s Siegfried, which later received a destructive account  from him in Chto takoe iskusstvo? (What is Art?, 1897. BL shelfmark of 1898 edition: (TM28).

Goldenveizer relates how he and his wife would play piano duet arrangements of Haydn symphonies to Tolstoy and notes that in general Tolstoy liked his music, finding in the happy themes of Haydn more of a Slavic than German element (TM24). Goldenveizer observes that the opposite was the case in Tolstoy’s opinion of Schumann, much of whose music he found diffuse and unclear, the German national character of which was somewhat alien to him (TM23). On the other hand Tolstoy was known to have liked major works such as Carnival, which he heard in performances by Taneev and Goldenveizer.

Tolstoy also showed an ambivalent attitude towards the music of Beethoven. Goldenveizer makes the observation that when Tolstoy heard Beethoven he admired him and was captivated by him, but when Tolstoy spoke or wrote about Beethoven he often responded negatively considering that Beethoven began the decline of musical art (TM25). Goldenveizer relates how, when he played Beethoven’s sonatas to Tolstoy, there was never a time when he was not gladdened by them. He also reports that Tolstoy after a performance of The Kreutzer Sonata said: “I don’t see in this sonata what I attributed to it in my story” (TM26). Gusev mentions the amazing descriptions of Beethoven sonatas found in Tolstoy’s other works, for example in Semeinoe schast’e (Family happiness, 1859. BL shelfmark 12589.o) where the mournful majestic sounds of the sonata “Quasi una fantasia” make the heroine confess “Beethoven lifts me to a radiant height” (TM10). Gusev also describes how, when he saw Tolstoy himself playing the Kreutzer Sonata on the piano, his face was radiantly serious. He too finds it difficult to explain the discrepancy between the strong effect Beethoven’s works had on Tolstoy and the negative attitude he expressed towards his late period works in What is Art? (TM11).

Goldenveizer notes that Tolstoy also had a negative response to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony – he adds the comment here that Tolstoy only heard this in a duet version and, as with so many other symphonic works, never managed to hear the orchestral versions (TM 26). In the end Goldenveizer explains Tolstoy’s wavering in his evaluation of Beethoven as down to the fact that Beethoven and Tolstoy were very similar in temperament: Tolstoy instinctively opposed all kinds of authority - Beethoven thrilled Tolstoy with his powerful individuality and this made him angry as he did not like to submit (TM 27).

Tolstoy’s attitude towards folk music was always positive. Goldenveizer observes that he unreservedly liked Russian folk music – singing, dancing and the balalaika (TM 26). He also liked gypsy singing, descriptions of which Gusev points out can be found in works like Dva gusara (Two Hussars, 1857. BL shelfmark 12589.o) (TM15). On the relative merits of folk and classical music Gusev quotes Tolstoy when hearing a performance of folk songs: “This simple music has a far stronger effect. There are composers I must make an effort to understand, but this music enters the soul” (TM13).

Although, according to Goldenveizer, Tolstoy did not know many of the significant operatic and symphonic works of Russian composers, Tchaikovsky’s Quartet No.1 did make a deep impression on him (Goldenveizer remembers that when listening to the Andante Tolstoy broke into sobs) (TM29). As for other Russian composers, according to Goldenveizer, he liked the songs of Glinka, the piano music of Scriabin and some of that of Rachmaninov and Arensky, but the songs of Mussorgsky made no impression on him (TM29-30).

Tolstoy’s musical visitors and their performances

Tolstoy’s attitude to certain composers and types of music seemed to be influenced by the performances he witnessed or by the performers who visited him. In his report on conversations with Tolstoy, Gusev remarks on the importance to Tolstoy of the performer, without whom music is not heard and musical works do not live (TM19). Goldenveizer observes that much of what seemed of great musical value to himself, left Tolstoy indifferent or even caused a negative reaction, and that he was sure, with better performances and repeated hearings Tolstoy’s attitude could have changed completely (TM 31). He adds that if Tolstoy liked the performance or performer then he would be very much excited by the music (TM32).

In general Tolstoy had a rather negative attitude towards art song. Gusev suggests that [instrumental] music made a stronger impression on Tolstoy than singing, and quotes Tolstoy as saying about singing: “This union of the two arts has never had an effect on me. You always only listen to the music, but don’t pay attention to the words” (TM13). Gusev suggests this is why the singing of Fyodor Shaliapin did not make a big impression on Tolstoy. It may also have been because, when he sang to Tolstoy, Shaliapin chose to perform mainly those romances in which the words had a more substantial meaning (Goldenveizer quotes Tolstoy as saying he did not like the concert repertoire of Shaliapin - The Flea etc.). Goldenveizer confirms Tolstoy’s reaction to Shaliapin’s repertoire remembering the time when Shaliapin once sung Rachmaninov’s “Wedding”, the words of which Tolstoy perceived as anti-artistic (though Tolstoy did have domestic problems that day and he did eventually like Shaliapin’s performance of a couple of Russian songs) (TM39). Tolstoy had a similar reaction to Schubert, in whom he found a high degree of ability in the correspondence between poetic content and the character of the music. However this gave rise to much imitation of the poetic content in the music, which to him was abominable (TM24). Goldenveizer in fact suggested earlier that in poetry Tolstoy searched for the themes, contents etc., and to the sound and rhythm he remained indifferent (TM20).

Another visitor to Iasnaia Poliana was Wanda Landowska, who performed for Tolstoy once in 1907 and twice in 1909. Goldenveizer reports how Tolstoy very much liked the works of ancient composers that she performed on piano and harpsichord (TM39). Gusev confirms that Tolstoy particularly liked the old French folk dances and oriental songs she played on the harpsichord (TM12), but comments that Tolstoy was not entirely satisfied with her performance in January 1909, about which he wrote “Landowska plays nicely, agreeably, but does not turn the soul inside out” (TM8).

Anton Rubinshtein, the pianist, composer and conductor, who also visited and performed for Tolstoy, had a different effect on him. Goldenveizer reports Tolstoy’s recollection of Rubinshtein saying to him that if he himself, when playing, became excited by what he was playing, he was already not having an effect on the listener and that artistic creation is only possible when the experience settles down in the soul of the artist (TM37).

The pianist and composer Taneev also visited Tolstoy several times over a number of years and according to Goldenveizer played for him on many occasions, though Tolstoy did not much like his compositions (TM38). Goldenveizer also mentions Scriabin and Rachmaninov playing for Tolstoy on single occasions. He also recollects a visit from Rimsky-Korsakov, who had been extremely negative about the ideas contained in Tolstoy’s What is Art?, but held back from expressing this at the time.

Gusev finishes his article by quoting Tolstoy in a letter to Tchaikovsky as calling music the “highest art in the world” and comments that Tolstoy remained true to this assertion throughout his long life (TM15). Likewise, Goldenveizer confirms that music played a significant role in Tolstoy’s life right to his death and, as Tolstoy himself acknowledged, spurred him on to artistic creation (TM41).


Peter W. Hellyer, Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7582


Katya Rogatchevskaia, Lead Curator, Russian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7587


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