Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Lenin and Beethoven: Beyond the "Appassionata" Affair

Academic journal article The Beethoven Journal

Lenin and Beethoven: Beyond the "Appassionata" Affair

Article excerpt

I. introduction

FOR THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE LITERATURE ON THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION AND EARLY SOVIET HISTORY, Vladimir Lenin's reverence for the "Appassionata" Sonata, Opus 57, is well known. A reminiscence penned by the Soviet writer Maxim Gorky recalled an evening in Moscow, date unknown, when Lenin was listening to Beethoven sonatas performed by the pianist Isai Dobrovein.2 Turning to his hostess, E. P. Peshkovaia, he declared his love for the "Appassionata" Sonata in the words cited above. However, though Soviet sources remained forever silent on the point, this is not all that he had to say. Gorky quotes Lenin further:

But I cannot listen to music too often, it affects one's nerves, makes one want to say kind, stupid things and stroke the heads of those who, living in such a foul hell, can create such beauty. Nowadays if one strokes someone's head, he'll get his hand bitten offl Better to beat the person unmercifully over the head, although ideally we oppose the use of force in human relations. Hm, hm, our task is infernally hard!3

It was assuredly not in the interest of Soviet authorities to portray Lenin's darker side. And so throughout Soviet history the anecdote remained at the level of benign praise and heartfelt affection, a nice way to portray both Lenin and Beethoven.4

Beyond this single, truncated reference, the literature on Lenin and indeed on Soviet history in general conveys no larger sense of the degree to which the architect of the Russian Revolution and the first Soviet head of state had bent his knee to the master from Bonn. Tucked away in the more specialized literature, however, are a number of references to Lenin's deep love for Beethoven's music. The following discussion examines this fascinating footnote to the biographical literature on Lenin and sheds some light on the larger question of Beethoven reception in Soviet Russia.

II. Home and School

Lenin's persona is so closely associated with the Russian Revolution that other aspects of his personality, such as his broad range of cultural interests, are often ignored. A few words on his upbringing and educational experiences are therefore in order. Lenin was born in the Volga River town of Simbirsk in 1870, the second son of a cultivated family that held literature and the arts in high esteem. His father, Ilia Nikolaevich Ulianov, was a respected school inspector in die central Volga region who had been elevated to die ranks of the nobility for his exemplary service to the state. He owned a large library diat testified to his love of die French classics, especially die works of Hugo, Molière, and Balzac. Lenins mother, Maria Aleksandrovna Ulianova, née Blank, came from a Germanic family and was a highly educated, though self-taught, woman. Her literary interests focused more on German literature, particularly die poetry of Heine, Goedie, and Schiller, but she also owned an English edition of the complete Shakespeare and Thiers's massive history of the French Revolution in the original French. Maria Aleksandrovna inculcated a love of music in her children by teaching them to play the piano. She often performed for them on die old-fashioned grand that still stands in die Ulianov parlor with a copy of a four-hand transcription of Bellini's I Puritamon the music stand.

Lenin showed an interest in music at an early age, playing four-hand piano pieces with his sister Olga and later escorting her to the opera in Kazan and St. Petersburg during their university days. Younger brodier Dmitri recalled Lenin singing die songs of Heine and Valentins second act aria "Avant de quitter ces lieux" from Gounod's Faust. Lenin was also an avid reader of literature, not only that of his parents but of the ancient Greeks and Romans (Homer, Xenephon, Cicero, Ovid, and Suetonius above all), which he read in die original, and of course the great Russian classics, especially the poetry of Pushkin and the novels of Goncharov, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. …

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