Transposition of a Western Mythical Hero: Odoevskij’s “Beethoven’s Last Quartet”

Although many writers and critics, including Puškin, highly praised Prince Vladimir Odoevskij’s “Poslednij kvartet Betxovena,” first published in 1831, and later included in the Sixth Night of Russkie noči (1844), relatively little criticism has been devoted to the work. In the scant commentary available, critics usually assume that Odoevskij simply renders homage to the great composer. Yet Odoevskij’s Beethoven is more ambiguous than one would expect for a eulogy. Furthermore, critics claim that the novella fits the typical romantic representation of an artist popular at the time. After all, myths of Beethoven had turned the composer into a quintessential romantic hero. However, several elements in the text do not coincide with what we might expect to find in a quintessential romantic hero’s portrayal.

In posthumous notes for a second edition of Russkie noči, which was not realized until well after Odoevskij’s death, the author addresses accusations that he imitated E. T. A. Hoffmann. He writes that such accusations do not offend him, because he reveres the German author and, besides, all authors are influenced by their predecessors and contemporaries. At the same time, he maintains that he did not imitate Hoffmann. Thus while acknowledging the German author’s influence, Odoevskij attempts to assert his independence. Similarly, in “Poslednij kvartet Betxovena,” he further attempts to separate himself from European models.

In this paper, I will show that “Poslednij kvartet Betxovena” does not fit literary, musical, and historical models and myths that the author invokes. One of the first indications that “Poslednij kvartet Betxovena” does not coincide with literary models is the epigraph from Hoffmann’s “Rat Krespel.” On first glance, it may seem suitable, but a closer analysis shows that the two texts actually share little in common. Furthermore, through his use of Egmont, Odoevskij subverts both literary and musical models by denying his own Beethoven the heroic triumph bestowed upon the heroes in both Beethoven’s overture and Goethe’s drama of the same name. The author also rejects historical models by questioning the validity of biographies, as well as challenging notions of historical “facts” and “truth.” Finally, he disputes powerful myths of Beethoven as a triumphant, noble hero, sorcerer, or saint (which emerged from compositions of the composer’s middle period) by examining Beethoven’s late period. Moreover, by characterizing him as pathetic and even ridiculous, in many ways, Odoevskij’s Beethoven is the antithesis of the mythical hero.

While drawing on these models, genres, and myths, Odoevskij attempts to deviate from and reject them. But the fact that his deviations can be discovered only through a close reading suggests that he remained hesitant about explicitly challenging them. In this way, he imbues his transposition of a western figure into Russian literature with ambiguity and ambivalence. Thus he creatively expresses anxiety, prevalent in Russia at the time, about what role western models should play in the creation of an independent Russian culture.