Kreutzer Sonata's Rousseauian Gospel: Leo Tolstoy's Artistic Asceticism

Keri Hul*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articlepeer-review


Often remembered as one of the greatest novelists in history, Leo Tolstoy had since a young age shown an ascetic temperament that emphasized sexual discipline. As a teenager, Tolstoy logged down his "every little sin" including his violation of the Seventh Commandment "Thou shalt not commit adultery"; at the age of sixty-one, he penned the novel The Kreutzer Sonata (1889) to proselytize an even more radical measure that advocated abstinence from not only sex but also marriage. In Kreutzer Sonata, however, Tolstoy also censures the presto of Beethoven’s "Kreutzer Sonata" No. 9, Op. 47, claiming it has the power to arouse immoral sexual desire. Tolstoy expands on this argument in What is Art? (1897) where he establishes music as primarily "a means of union among men." In the treatise, he criticizes many musical works for being "false" and "exclusive," but he also paradoxically arrives at a narrow musical preference that divided him and his contemporaries: in his view, folk tunes and music with melodic simplicity are the only true musical art worthy of devotion, for not only do they not incite sexual passion, but they also unify mankind by heightening the consciousness of universal brotherhood. This article examines Tolstoy’s musical orientation in light of his reading of the Gospels and Rousseau, which engendered in him a yearning to return to a primitive state of nature that aligned with his vision of the Kingdom of God. In this Rousseauian gospel, musical simplicity as a form of artistic asceticism became the means of salvation that could deliver men from the curse of civilization.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)77-108
Number of pages32
JournalInternational Review of the Aesthetics and Sociology of Music
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2022

Scopus Subject Areas

  • Music

User-Defined Keywords

  • Leo Tolstoy
  • What Is Art?
  • folk tunes
  • folk music
  • religious perception
  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau
  • back to nature
  • Kreutzer Sonata
  • ascetism


Dive into the research topics of 'Kreutzer Sonata's Rousseauian Gospel: Leo Tolstoy's Artistic Asceticism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this