What Art Isn’t – Tolstoy Disses Beethoven and Wagner

Leo Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana, May 1908. Color photograph by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky.

I spent a considerable chunk of last week reading Leo Tolstoy’s lengthy post-conversion essay What Is Art?

In the essay, Tolstoy pontificates on aesthetic questions that are still being wrestled over in the modern blogosphere.  What defines “art”?  What is the value of art criticism?  Can graduates of art schools (or, in this day and age, the MFA program) create real art?

(Tolstoy’s answer to this last question is a resounding NO! – “In these schools art is taught! But art is the transmission to others of a special feeling  experienced by the artist. How can this be taught in schools? No school can evoke feeling in a man, and still less can it teach him how to manifest it in the one particular manner natural to him alone. But the essence of art lies in these things….The one thing these schools can teach is how to transmit feelings experienced by other artists in the way those other artists transmitted them.”)

By the time Tolstoy finished What Is Art? some eight or nine years after his “religious conversion” in 1880, he had developed a deep disdain for the artistic “canons” of the time.  He disliked the works of the Greek tragedians, Dante, Tasso, Milton, Shakespeare, almost all the works of Goethe, Zola and Ibsen.

In music, Tolstoy particularly disliked the later works of Beethoven – feeling that the musician, having gone deaf, was creating patterns devoid of feeling.  He devotes a couple of pages to dissing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, including this indignant and regretful passage:

“…not only do I not see how the feelings transmitted by this work could unite people not specially trained to submit themselves to its complex hypnotism, but I am unable to imagine to myself a crowd of normal people who could understand anything of this long, confused, and artificial production, except short snatches which are lost in a sea of what is incomprehensible. And therefore, whether I like it or not, I am compelled to conclude that this work belongs to the rank of bad art.”

He also greatly disliked the music of Wagner:

“It is the same when listening to an opera of Wagner’s. Sit in the dark for four days in company with people who are not quite normal, and, through the auditory nerves, subject your brain to the strongest action of the sounds best  adapted to excite it, and you will no doubt be reduced to an abnormal condition and be enchanted by absurdities.

Chapter XIII of the essay is a criticism of both the poetry and music of Wagner’s opera The Ring of the Nibelung.  Tolstoy rants for five pages (see pages 132-137, or pp. 176-181 of the .pdf file) about the miserable experience he had while attending a single day of the opera’s performance in Moscow.  It reminded me of Mark Twain’s invective against the German language, except that Twain intended to be amusing, and dear old Lev Nikolayevich was dead serious:

“…around me I saw a crowd of three thousand people, who not only patiently witnessed all  this absurd nonsense, but even  considered it their duty to be delighted with it.” 

I prefer Mark Twain’s more generous assessment of Wagner’s music, which he summed up with a quote from his fellow humorist Edward Wilson Nye: “Wagner’s music is better than it sounds.”

What Is Art? raised several interesting questions and ideas about art, and I may blog more about some of them next week.  But overall, I found the tone of the essay to be so crotchety and complaining that I didn’t really enjoy it.  So, for the rest of the month, I’ll be listening to The Ring of the Niebelung and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony while I read more of Tolstoy’s short fiction.

Take that, you grumpy old geezer!

About readersquest

I'm a retired naval officer and writer. I live with my husband, two sons, and several family pets in a house in the woods.
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3 Responses to What Art Isn’t – Tolstoy Disses Beethoven and Wagner

  1. Pingback: What Art Isn’t – Tolstoy Disses Beethoven and Wagner (via Reader’s Quest) « Psilomelane

  2. Nice post. I came across this essay a while back though I haven’t read it yet. I put it off after reading reviews similar to yours about Tolstoy’s negativity. I will get to it eventually but since I’ve only just begun to delve into the question, “what is art?” I’ll likely put it off until I have some other reading under my belt. I’ve just started The Principles of Art by R.G. Collingwood, it looks like it will be interesting but it’s too soon to say as I’ve only just scratched the surface of the intro.

  3. readersquest says:

    Mirsky has a good point when he says that Tolstoy, after his 1880 “conversion”, “ceased to be a ‘writer,’ in the sense of a man who writes for the sake of producing good literary work, and became a preacher. And when he turned…towards imaginative narrative, he wrote stories that, like everything else, were strictly subordinate to his dogmatic teaching and intended to illustrate and to popularize it.” He renounced all of his earlier works except “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” as being “bad art” – including War and Peace and Anna Karenina! Stories like The Death of Ivan Ilyich and “The Kreutzer Sonata” turned out to be good literary work, I suppose, inadvertently. Perhaps you can take the man out of the art, but you can’t take the art out of the man?

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