Turgenev's musical impressions in his youth

In his childhood and adolescence Turgenev, who grew up on his family's estate in the village of Spasskoe-Lutovinovo, in Oryol province, but also attended a boarding-school in Moscow, had various opportunities to study and listen to music—for instance, at the modest concerts given by his mother's serf orchestra. As a young nobleman it was also de rigueur for him to have piano lessons. Nevertheless, his musical education in these decisive early years was far from solid, and this was something that he would later regret, especially after he became acquainted with Pauline Viardot. One reason for his lack of a grounding in music was perhaps his "genteel laziness", as he jestingly put it, but the Spartan pedagogical system which his father chose for him also played its part. The latter is reflected in his novel A Nest of the Gentry (1858), in which the description of Lavretsky's childhood contains the following autobiographical detail: "music was forever banished from his upbringing, since it was a pursuit not worthy of a man's time" (Ch. XI). Still, despite his inability to play even quite simple melodies on a piano, Turgenev had shown a love of music from early childhood, and the same is true of his hero Lavretsky:

"Although thanks to his father he wasn't able to play on a single instrument, he nevertheless loved music passionately—good, classical music." (Ch. XXI)

In fact, it is precisely in this novel—the most musical of Turgenev's works alongside the mysterious late story The Song of Triumphant Love (1881)—that all the leading characters experience the powerful effect of music. Where, then, did Turgenev become familiar with "good, classical music"? And with which works specifically?

Portrait of a young lady at the piano, painted by Pavel Fedotov
Portrait of a young lady at the piano,
1849-50. By Pavel Fedotov

In order to answer these questions, we may turn to the story The Unfortunate One (1868), in which the narrator recalls the impression made on him, when he was a seventeen-year-old student at Moscow University, by the ill-fated Susanna's playing of the Appassionata Listen to the allegro of this sonata, one of Beethoven's greatest piano sonatas:

"I had loved music ever since I was a child, but at that time I still didn't understand it particularly well; I hardly knew the works of the great masters [...] Susanna's playing astonished me in a way that defied description: I hadn't expected such vigour, such fire, such bold sweeping of the notes. From the very first beats of the impetuous and passionate allegro, the opening of the sonata, I felt that frozenness, that sweet terror of enthusiasm which instantly takes hold of the soul when it is invaded without warning by Beauty. I didn't stir a limb until the very end of the sonata; all the time I wanted to, but didn't dare to utter a sigh."

The figure of Susanna in this story is known to have been inspired by memories of Emilia Hebbel, the daughter of a German musician whose acquaintance Turgenev made when studying at the University of Berlin from 1839 to 1841. Turgenev became a regular guest at this musician's house thanks to his friend Nikolai Stankevich (1813-40), who was also studying in Berlin. It was precisely his friendship with the idealist Stankevich, and with yet another fellow-student, the future revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin (1814-76), that established the basis for a more profound appreciation of music by Turgenev, since these two slightly older friends were both fanatic admirers of Beethoven, and during their stay in Berlin they rarely missed an opportunity to attend a symphonic or chamber music concert at which some work by the great composer was performed. Turgenev naturally accompanied them to many of these concerts.

Turgenev's cousin Olga Turgeneva (married name: Somova; 1836-72)
Olga Turgeneva (Somova) (1836-72)

Just how strong these impressions of Beethoven's music were, is testified by the fact that in 1854, when he had already been in thrall to Pauline Viardot for a number of years, Turgenev nevertheless briefly considered marrying his young distant cousin Olga Turgeneva. The writer was drawn to her not just by her remarkable goodness of heart but by her musicality as well. When he visited her elderly father's house in the outskirts of Moscow, she would often play for him Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Olga recorded one such occasion in her diary:

"Papa told Ivan Sergeevich that the poetry reading couldn't take place today, but he still turned up at the usual hour and said: "Olga Aleksandrovna, I have come to listen to you—would you play for me my favourite sonata by Beethoven?" That is the sonata which I myself love most of all, and this evening, when playing it, I gave myself up with all my feelings to this wonderful music, forgetting everything around me. When I had finished, Ivan Sergeevich held out both his hands to me, and clasping mine he said: "You have given me great happiness: this will always stay in my mind. I thank you, my dear Olga Aleksandrovna." I blushed for joy, my heart started beating louder—his words made me so glad..." [1]

Indeed, Turgenev would never forget those evenings. Many years later, in 1879— when Olga was no longer alive (she had died in childbed in 1872)—the writer came to Saint Petersburg, and, in between the various festivities organized in his honour by the city's students, he paid a visit to the school which Olga's two daughters were attending and spoke with them. The elder of the two sisters later recalled their meeting:

"Do any of you play the piano?" asked Ivan Sergeevich. "We both do," the two of us replied together. "But Katya plays better than I do," Nadya added immediately. "What honest and delightful little girls!" said Ivan Sergeevich, laughing; "Your mother was just like that, too. Can you play Beethoven's 'Mondschein' sonata?" Ivan Sergeevich asked me. "Yes, I can," I timidly answered, afraid that Ivan Sergeevich would ask me to play the sonata then and there on the piano in our classroom. "How beautifully your mother used to play that wonderful piece," continued Ivan Sergeevich. He gave a deep sigh and hung his head; a grey lock of his hair swept down over his forehead. Leaning against the desk with his right hand, Ivan Sergeevich passed his left hand over his eyes..." [2]

Some traits of Turgenev's cousin Olga would reappear in the radiant figure of Tatyana in Smoke (1867), as well as in young Katya in his most famous novel Fathers and Children (1862). Katya on one occasion plays Mozart's Fantasia and Sonata in C minor for Arkady, and here music appears as one of those forces which, alongside beauty and Nature, stand in contrast to the radical hero Bazarov's utilitarianism and point to a quite different world:

"Arkady was especially struck by the sonata's final section—that section in which, amidst the captivating merriness of the carefree melody, there suddenly emerge gusts of such bitter, such tragic grief..." (Ch. XVI)

From Turgenev's works and letters one can readily establish who the composers closest to his heart were: namely, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert (the latter's music also makes an appearance in Fathers and Children). Still, one cannot help asking how Turgenev, who didn't play a single instrument and was hardly competent enough to read a score, acquired so fine a knowledge of Western European music as to be able to include such inspired musical episodes in his novels and stories. Here it is necessary to turn to Pauline Viardot and her fateful influence on Turgenev's life.

Pauline Viardot

Pauline Viardot. 1840s.
Pauline Viardot in the 1840s.
Drawing by Petr Sokolov
     "Stay! As I now see you—stay forever like that in my memory!
     The last inspired sound has escaped your lips—your eyes are not shining nor sparkling—they have faded, weighed down by happiness, by the blissful consciousness of that beauty to which you were able to give expression, of that beauty in whose name you now hold out your triumphant, exhausted hands! [...]
     Stay! And let me partake of your immortality, let there fall into my soul a reflection of it!"

These are the opening and closing words of one of Turgenev's most famous Poems in Prose, which he wrote in 1879 but which evokes that moment when the aspiring young writer, aged twenty-five, first set eyes on Pauline Viardot on the stage of the Saint Petersburg Bolshoi Theatre. At that moment she had perhaps just finished singing Rosina's brilliant aria in The Barber of Seville or one of Amina's arias in La Sonnambula. We do not know in which role Turgenev heard her first during that unforgettable season of the Italian Opera in Saint Petersburg (1843/44), but it is clear that after finally having been introduced to Pauline, he became devoted to her for the rest of his life. As a singer, Pauline Viardot may perhaps not have justified all the hopes placed on her in view of her artistic pedigree (she was the daughter of the famous Spanish tenor and teacher Manuel García, and the younger sister of Maria Malibran who had died so tragically in the prime of her talent). But one mustn't forget that Pauline had originally not wanted to become a singer at all, since she had felt drawn to the career of a concert pianist: it is quite possible that if her parents hadn't forced her to dedicate herself to the stage, she might well have become a rival to Clara Schumann, who was of the same age and whose close friend she later became. Whatever the case may be, it is important to stress how the years which Turgenev spent in this singer's company and his attendance of her performances both on the stage and in private concerts at her house all had a most fruitful effect on him, especially since by nature he was highly receptive to musical impressions.

Musical matinée in Madame Viardot's villa in Baden-Baden
Musical matinée at the Viardots' villa in Baden-Baden, 1864. Turgenev is
standing to the left of Pauline, who is seated by the harmonium.
Drawing by Ludwig Pietsch

It was also partly as a result of Pauline's influence that Turgenev began to concern himself more seriously and consciously with Russian music, in which he hadn't shown that much interest in his youth. For instance, as a student he had attended the premiere of A Life for the Tsar (1836)—the first opera of Glinka, who is rightly considered to be the 'father' of Russian music—but despite his artistic sensitivity, the young Turgenev had failed to appreciate those parts of the opera in which Glinka drew inspiration from the Russian peasantry's wistful songs. Pauline, in contrast, already during her first season in Saint Petersburg, had discovered for herself the beauty of Glinka's music and quite often, after performances in the Russian imperial capital, or during concerts, she would sing some of his romances (and on some occasions even a whole scene from A Life for the Tsar). She also showed interest in the songs of Dargomyzhsky, another key figure in the development of Russian opera in the nineteenth century. It is therefore not surprising that Turgenev started to devote more effort to familiarising himself with the works not just of Glinka—whose music was already becoming known outside Russia thanks to the championing of Liszt and Berlioz—but also with those of the younger generation of Russian composers. And although for quite a while he refused to see anything positive in the "Mighty Handful", he did follow with great sympathy the young Tchaikovsky's career, and this not just because the latter stood somewhat apart from the Balakirev circle of nationalist composers, but because of his genuine appreciation of his music. Significantly, one of Tchaikovsky's most beautiful songs, None but the lonely heart... Listen to this romance was a favourite of Mme Viardot's, who often performed it at private or charitable concerts in Paris during the 1870s, and this song would feature in Turgenev's last published story: After Death (Klara Milich) (1883). Turgenev for his part greatly encouraged Pauline in her work as a composer, supplying the French libretti for her operettas and suggesting verses by such Russian poets as Pushkin and Fet for her to set to music.

On the whole, one cannot but agree with the music historian Abram Gozenpud's observation: "Pauline Viardot helped Turgenev to acquire a deeper understanding of the greatness and fascination of German, French, and Italian music." [3] At the same time, though, it was precisely his acquaintance with her that prompted Turgenev to pay more attention to the music of his own country.


  1. L. N. Nazarova, 'Turgenev u O. A. Turgenevoi', in: Turgenevskii sbornik, vol. 1 (Moscow / Leningrad, 1964), p. 294 [back]

  2. L. N. Nazarova, 'Vospominaniia E. S. Ilovaiskoi (Somovoi) o Turgeneve', in: Turgenevskii sbornik, vol. 4 (Leningrad, 1968), p. 253 [back]

  3. A. Gozenpud, I. S. Turgenev. Issledovanie (Saint Petersburg, 1994), p. 19 [back]