Life and Death, Worry and Humor: On Performing Beethoven's String Quartets

Takács Quartet violinist Edward Dusinberre takes the listener-turned-reader on a guided tour between the notes of Beethoven's bewildering string quartets.

Beethoven for a Later Age: Living With the String Quartets

Publisher: The University of Chicago Press
Length: 232 pages
Author: Edward Dusinberre
ISBN: 022637436X
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-05

Ludwig van Beethoven was a volatile man. Two incidents surrounding his celebrated string quartets tell you all you need to know about the composer's behavior. When violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh bellyached to Beethoven about the difficulty of the music he had written, the composer famously shot back "Do you suppose I am thinking about your wretched fiddle when the spirit moves me?" Felix Radicati, a violinist who was probably more self-assured than Schuppanzigh ever was, told Beethoven himself that his Opus 59 quartets were "not music". The composer outdid himself in the comeback department by saying "They are not for you; they are for a later age."

Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács Quartet, is all too aware that the "later age" Beethoven spoke of has indeed arrived and that the "wretched fiddle" could just as well be his very own. It has been almost 200 years since Beethoven completed his late-period string quartets, and still today, chamber ensembles continue to discover new avenues of interpretation. Dusinberre and his colleagues sit in the shadow of this classical music giant, small fish in a big pond of musicians who look for ways to justify repeated performances of Beethoven's ever-challenging quartets.

The subtitle for Dusinberre's part memoir, part biography isn't as glamorous as it sounds. Beethoven for a Later Age: Living With the String Quartets, for me at least, suggested the act of wrapping yourself up in a work of classical music so completely that you can see nothing but its beauty. You live it, you breathe it, you eat it, you sleep it, you make the world a prettier place because of it -- you know, art for art's sake. But "living" with the string quartets can almost be like living with Beethoven himself.

When you spend your career throwing yourself at such dense works, beauty and frustration go hand in hand. Toss in all the hurdles that adult life gives you, and this "living" arrangement grows less rosy over time. But a musician like Dusinberre has a lot of thoughts to unload for the reader, even if those thoughts are mostly anecdotal and/or from previously documented research. He knows he's far from having the last word on the mighty Beethoven string quartets, and the affability that comes with his humility helps to guide the reader swiftly through Beethoven for a Later Age.

Dusinberre bounces the narrative back and forth between his career with the Takács Quartet and a lightweight biography of Beethoven's life during the time the string quartets were composed. In naming the chapters, Dusinberre maps out his time as a musician to fit the overall string quartet timeline -- "Audtion: Opus 59, no. 3", "Joining the Quartet: Opus 18, no. 1" and so on. Along the way, he manages to give himself a scare when comparing his duties to that of his historical counterpart, Ignaz Schuppanzigh.

You see, Beethoven and Schuppanzigh had a rocky relationship. Apart from the composer chewing out the violinist over musical difficulties, Schuppanzigh had a hard time ingratiating himself with the rest of the Beethoven family, as well. Considered to be more of an amateur than a professional, Schuppanizgh was granted chances to perform premieres of Beethoven's work more out of loyalty than any professional reasons. Beethoven's nephew and brother were not only unimpressed with his musical abilities, but also shared a concern that he may one day grow too fat to play the violin. As the Takács Quartet were preparing for a recording session of one of the string quartets, Dusinberre admits that he unwisely chose the historical record of Schuppanizgh's botched performance at a string quartet premiere as his night time reading.

Reading about the various lineup changes that the Takács Quartet had to undergo makes me wonder how a guy like David Harrington is able to hit the ground running with the Kronos Quartet every time they change personnel. But the process of saying goodbye to old friends while making new ones gives Beethoven for a Later Age a much-needed touch of tenderness when the thicket of music theory threatens to grow, well, thicker.

The Takács Quartet was originally made up of four Hungarian musicians who abruptly relocated to Boulder, Colorado in the early '80s. After adjusting to life in the United States, founding member and first violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy decided to retire in 1992. Based on a recommendation from his teacher,Dusinberre was flown in from England for an audtion. The remaining Takács members found him to be a suitable replacement and Dusinberre went about adjusting to both life in the United States and a Hungarian string quartet with long established working quirks -- not to mention sudden bursts of musical advice in a foreign language.

Original violist Gábor Ormai has been replaced twice over the past 22 years, first by Roger Tapping then by Geraldine Walther, who is still presently with Takács. Each time the personnel shifts, Dusinberre worries himself sick over finding a replacement and subsequently reestablishing the ensemble's chemistry. The fact that things do work out for Takács in the long run is either a testament to music's universal appeal or perhaps that those of us who worry, tend to overdo it.

When all is said and done, Beethoven for a Later Age doesn't impart us with any astounding truths or worldview-rattling accounts. As it is, the book is merely a coherent string of snapshots of a career in music from the first violinist's chair, interspersed with some leisure time in a university library's music history section. Fortunately, Dusinberre doesn't bore you and he has a sense of humor. For example, I learned a new joke from his book: Why does a violin appear smaller than a viola? They're the same size but the violinist's head is bigger (page 16).

Matters of life and death are yet another chance to show off some dry wit. He begins chapter 5 with a backstage conversation the quartet was having before a show. Apparently, cellist András Fejér had to wait until the end of a Takács tour before having a stint put inside his ticker. "'Don't worry,' András told us backstage before a Sunday afternoon concert in June 2002 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. 'I'm taking blood thinners and there's a nitroglycerin pill in my tuxedo pocket: in the worst case just put it under my tongue.'" (page 171) Admit it, part of you chuckled at that.


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