Thursday, March 2, 2017

A Memoir That Could Have Been More

Taken at face value, Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets is a memoir by violinist Edward Dusinberre that accounts for roughly a decade of his relationship with the Takás Quartet, in which he currently serves as first violinist. Chronologically, the narrative begins with his auditioning for the chair originally occupied by founding first violinist Gábor Takás-Nagy. It then proceeds through two further replacements of personnel, both for the violists chair, Roger Tapping in 1995 and Geraldine Walther (who currently holds the chair) in 2005.

However, as the title of the book suggests, this book is also about the repertoire of the string quartets composed by Ludwig van Beethoven. The result is that each chapter, including the prologue, is given a subtitle that is the opus number of one of those quartets. Similarly, the title of the book is drawn from a quotation by Beethoven, which refers specifically to the three Opus 59 quartets composed for Count Andrey Razumovsky.

It would thus be fair to say that the book is a highly personal account of how an individual, who has succeeded in attaining the position of leading a major string quartet, has confronted the many problems that arise in preparing each of the Beethoven quartets for performance. Those familiar with Beethoven lore (not to mention the music) know that those problems are legion. More often than not, they began with the first attempts to play those pieces; and they persist as today’s string quartets continue to try to make sense of them for audiences whose listening experiences are, in turn, continually evolving.

As a result it is important to recognize that this is not, strictly speaking, a scholarly book. Indeed, it is not scholarly on at least two fronts. In addition to the usual standard that would be set by the literature in both music history and music theory, Dusinberre’s efforts to document his personal experience also fall in the domain of what is usually called “workplace anthropology,” based on the premise that any “community of workers,” including a string quartet, is as much a “culture for study” as is some tribe in New Guinea. For those unfamiliar with this genre, Paul R. Berliner’s Thinking in Jazz: The Infinite Art of Improvisation is one of the best examples of this anthropological stance. It is also over 800 pages long, while Dusinberre’s book is only a little more that 260!

Thus, this book is best approached the way one might approach the author being interviewed by someone like Charlie Rose. He has a lot of stories to tell; and, for the most part, they are highly engaging. However, those really interested in the processes that lead to bringing a piece of music like one of Beethoven’s quartets to performance may find it difficult to establish when the face value of the text is sufficient and when deeper digging is necessary. To some extent Dusinberre has provided helpful footnotes, but there are still problems with casual remarks that are likely to be deceptive unless one is committed to digging deeper into the sources that Dusinberre cites.

Consider the title. The Table of Contents page is preceded by an epigraph page that includes the sentence “They are not for you, but for a later age!” The source for this sentence is given as “Ludwig van Beethoven, on the Opus 59 quartets.” This shows up again in the Prologue chapter, this time with a footnote that points, conveniently, to the right page in the Princeton University Press edition of Elliot Forbes revised and edited version of Alexander Wheelock Thayer’s Life of Beethoven. Those who follow the footnote will discover that the quotation is actually second-hand! The actual source was the Italian violinist and composer Felice (“Felix” in Thayer’s text) Radicati. When in London for a concert tour with his wife, Teresa Bertinotti, Radicati saw a published copy of the Opus 59 quartets while visiting Thomas Appleby, principal director of concerts in Manchester. Thayer quotes Radicati’s reaction as follows:
Ha! Beethoven, as the world says, and as I believe, is music-mad;—for these are not music. He submitted them to me in manuscript and, at his request, I fingered them for him. I said to him, that he surely did not consider these works to be music?—to which he replied, ‘Oh, they are not for you, but for a later age!’
It goes without saying that most readers are unlikely to be lured into this sort of deep digging. On the other hand it is certainly true that listening to the Beethoven quartets, even the early ones, can pose challenges to the serious listener. When the Cypress String Quartet would perform these quartets at their recitals, they would usually preface the performance by having one of the members discuss some of his/her personal impressions. These tended to be a combination of background knowledge and “frank and open” accounts of some rehearsal experiences. For the serious listener trying to find his/her way through this music, any background information is better than none at all.

Nevertheless, there is at least one aesthetic bone that I would like to pick. In the final chapter, which discusses the Opus 130 quartet in B-flat major and its original final movement, which became the Opus 133 “Große Fuge,” there was one sentence that gave me pause:
In order to convey the musical conflict, the contrasting elements would have to be conveyed more deliberately, not as if the performers were on the verge of losing control.
I have always felt that one of the pleasures of listening arises when the performance is on that verge. It is not hard to come up with examples of when Beethoven takes the listener to that verge; but the same can be said of other composers, such as Franz Schubert, Robert Schumann, and Gustav Mahler. The performances that really click are the ones that succeed in conveying the impression of losing control without actually “losing it!” After all, performance always carries with it the potential of risk; and capturing the spirit of music is rarely (if ever) a matter of “risk avoidance!”

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