Instrumentation string quartet

Timing 12’15”

Composed 2006

Commissioned by the Penderecki String Quartet with funding from Music TORONTO

World Premiere March 2, 2006, Jane Mallett Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, Toronto, Ontario. Penderecki String Quartet

Recorded by the Penderecki String Quartet on Launch Pad

Recognition Western Canadian Music Award nomination, Classical Composition of the Year 2009

Programme Notes

Tolstoy’s novella The Kreutzer Sonata takes place in a train compartment, where a quiet but intense man relates to a fellow traveler the tale of how he came to murder his wife. As he describes the early days of his marriage and the events that led him to that fateful night, it becomes clear that he is a complete misogynist, deeply tormented and repulsed by sexuality, seeing women as devils for enticing innocent men into depravity, and believing that between husband and wife there is an uncrossable abyss and an innate hostility that is covered up by the sexual act.

When his wife accompanies the violinist Trukhachevski at the piano for a performance of Beethoven’s “Kreutzer” Sonata, his torment takes a focus. He feels transformed by the music, yet jealous of the musical connection between his wife and her new friend, and he begins to suspect an affair, though in the novella it is not clear whether this is a reality or a product of his tormented imagination.

It is easy to see why Tolstoy chose Beethoven’s sonata as the trigger. Particularly in the first movement, the chromaticism, the unsettledness of the tonality, the short phrases interrupted by extemporisation, and the underlying sense of frenetic panic, all mirror his feelings of jealousy and lack of control.

In this one-movement work, String Quartet #3 (sonata distorta) attempts to enter the protagonist’s tortured mind as he rushes home, convinced that he will find his wife with Trukhachevski. Elements from Beethoven’s work appear distorted at various levels in the music, from the sonata’s opening melody here played out obsessively in slow motion as the harmony dissolves, to the imagined mocking laughter implied by the rhythm of Beethoven’s closing gigue. Disconnected thoughts are reflected by the music’s sudden shifts between dense and oppressive repeated patterns and the “harmony” of idealized love. In a central slow section, soft sustained chords call out to a devastating emptiness, in their futility becoming more and more dissonant, leading to a final section that conveys the rising intensity and singularity of purpose that drives him to the drawing-room door.

String Quartet #3 (sonata distorta) was commissioned by the Penderecki Quartet with funding from Music Toronto.


This work is comparable to Macbeth with its dark elements of suspense, tragedy and death. (Brandon Walker/Timmins Daily Press)

The piece perfectly sets the unhinged thoughts of a man about to kill his wife by using agitated motives interrupted by shaken chords and melodic lines that veer into unexpected territory. (Kraig Lamper/American Record Guide)

Simple tones were carefully twisted by gradually harsher dissonances, like the audio soundtrack to weeping tomatoes withering on their vine at 80 times the speed. As it progressed, you got the terrifying feeling you were listening to someone struggling to crack open Pandora’s Box. (Dawn Stevenson/Guelph Mercury)

…a marvel of consonance disintegrating into deadly dissonance. (James Wegg/

…a fascinating work reflecting on the Tolstoy story The Kreutzer Sonata and the Beethoven violin sonata that inspired it…[T]his disc features definitive and stunning performances in all respects by the PSQ. (Terry Robbins/WholeNote)

[A] powerful work of considerable subtlety (Richard Todd/Ottawa Citizen)

PDF perusal score

Sonata Distorta perusal


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