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Review of Beethoven for a Later Age

Beethoven for a Later Age

I have a theory that musicians write in exactly the same style that they play their instruments. I’m pleased to see it proven, somewhat unscientifically, by the new book from Takács Quartet first violinist Edward Dusinberre, Beethoven for a Later Age. In this engaging and insightful account of his life with the group and with the composer’s quartets, Dusinberre shows himself to be as thoughtful, sincere and open a writer as he is a violinist.

He also proves adept at counterpoint, weaving together several parallel narratives to keep the pace smart and the tone varied. The underlying one is of his own musical coming-of-age within the Takács Quartet, which he joined in 1993, aged 23 and barely out of musical nappies from Juilliard. Never having played quartets professionally, he finds himself the stiff young Englishman, bound up with three passionate Hungarians who are steeped in the Eastern European music tradition and who have been together for nearly 20 years in one of the world’s most successful string quartets.

Thanks to Dusinberre’s ear (and memory) for dialogue, we feel like we are with in the rehearsal room in Boulder, Colorado, as he works out how to fit with his elder colleagues and to make his mark, and it’s a fascinating process – essential reading for any aspiring musician. With self-deprecating humour and remarkable honesty, he charts the ups and downs of being bound to three other people in a creative endeavour that requires near-constant physical proximity. (One secret, it turns out, is booking hotel rooms at other ends of the building, and not sitting next to each other on airplanes or eating together on tour.)

The other main narrative is that of Beethoven’s great middle and late quartet opuses, which Dusinberre tells both in historical and musical terms. He explains how Beethoven came to write them, and the relationships with his patrons and performers. He describes certain passages in specific technical detail, and goes into great depth about their musical challenges, offering a rare perspective for the listener. It has been said that ‘Writing about music is like dancing about architecture,’ though, and it helped to have the Takács performances on as I read, fully to appreciate the music and understand Dusinberre’s insights (an accompanying CD would have been a treat).

There are several other themes that run throughout. Beethoven himself bestrides the pages with his massive personality, through well-chosen quotes from the man himself and his associates: it’s wonderful to imagine him laughing (when violinist Schuppanzigh can’t play his music), although I’m not sure I needed to visualise him suffering diarrhea. We also have a potted history of Vienna and of Austria, to put the composer and his music in proper context.

Rude members of the public also make regular appearances – the book starts comically with an audience member at the Wigmore Hall coughing disruptively, and also includes the story of someone writing to the Takács’s agent to complain about Dusinberre’s foot-tapping. This self-effacing humour is often used to counterpoint more serious subjects and emotions (such as at the death of violist Gábor Ormai) and profound insights about human behaviour, music, and the nature of life itself (none more so than his fascinating analysis of the Grosse Fuge ending of the Op.130 Quartet).

For the string-music geeks, there’s plenty of technical detail about how Dusinberre plays the violin, comparisons of the various strings he uses, and a fascinating discussion of how the players’ old Italian instruments work within the group. There is also practical advice on the psychology of rehearsing – one of the things he learns quickly is how rehearsals often go better the less talking there is, with players adjusting better just by listening to each other.

And so, like a Beethoven quartet, Dusinberre’s book has great depth, appealing themes, vivid characters, and plenty of light and shade, all cleverly structured, and I recommend it to anyone who has ever enjoyed any of these works (preferably while simultaneously listening to them).

This review was first published on Sinfini Music and is republished by permission.

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