Performing for Tolstoy


In December 1909 a young Italian musician named Alfredo Casella was among a group of travelers who went to perform for the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. Casella describes the visit in his memoirs:

“After a half-hour sleigh ride through snowy woods, we arrived at the house of the grand old man.

“We entered the foyer and found Tolstoy in his customary peasant’s blouse and boots. In perfect French he told us that he had already heard our music in a dream the night before. He was sure that the real thing would he even more beautiful. We got down to work and played for about two hours. He couldn’t get enough and constantly asked for something new.

“After lunch and tea Tolstoy climbed onto his horse and went to ride in the woods for two hours. He was eighty years old but still exercised every day.

“After supper we started performing again. The ensemble played old music. I played piano pieces. 1 accompanied Serge Koussevitsky in various solos. Word of the concert spread through the neighborhood and a fair number of peasants had slipped into the next room to listen. When Tolstoy found out about them, he invited all the rustics into the room and personally offered seats to the women. At eleven o’clock – the hour at which he inevitably retired– all of us stood up with him. In a voice that I can still hear resounding he said, ‘I am infinitely grateful to you for your musical gift. I wish you all the best and hope to see you again in this world or in the next,’ adding with a peculiar smile, “if there is a next world.”

Alfredo Casella was puzzled by Tolstoy’s musical taste. The novelist didn’t understand Bach and thought of him as too learned. He loved Beethoven and cherished Chopin but he found Wagner incomprehensible, and he had no use for any modern composer except Mussorgsky.

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