Book review: ‘Beethoven For A Later Age: Living With The String Quartets’
May 7, 2016
Colorado has long been a haven for summer classical music festivals, with the Aspen Music Festival as the most prominent and established. True music aficionados are also well aware of how fortunate the state is to have a world-class string quartet within its borders, as well. The Takács Quartet, in residency at the University of Colorado since the mid-'80s, has traveled all over the world, establishing itself as one of the most respected and lauded chamber music ensembles of today, including a long-established presence in Aspen during the summer months.
The lives of classical musicians have often seemed remote and abstract, a bit inscrutable and a little outdated. In his recent book, "Beethoven For A Later Age: Living With The String Quartets," Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist of the Takács, gives readers a new and refreshing view into the internal workings of a classical string quartet as it exists in a contemporary setting.
At the heart of the book is Dusinberre's and the quartet's internal challenge of bringing to life the music of Beethoven for modern ears. For those who have ever wondered what goes on behind the closed doors of a rehearsal, the book pulls back the veil and reveals some of the variables at play, including the very real presence of the composer, long dead, whose notes are on the page. What Dusinberre does best, though, is use the deeply emotional and personal music of Beethoven in a thoughtful juxtaposition with the progression of his own individual experiences as part of the notable string quartet.
Each time a group of musicians sits down to play compositions that have been around for centuries, they bring a unique perspective based on a synthesis of all the variables at play in that specific moment of music-making. Dusinberre chooses Beethoven, in particular, to represent his own journey with the Takács, calling the famed composer's 16 string quartets a "rite of passage" for himself and as an extension for the group.
The Beethoven string quartet repertoire is profoundly significant in the quartet's celebrated and international history, from the group's inception in the 1970s in Budapest, well before Dusinberre's time, to the most recent performances with him at the ensemble's helm. It was a Beethoven quartet performance at a competition that had the Takács taking first prize, a moment that set them on their career course. Dusinberre joined the quartet in 1993, replacing the original first violinist, thus becoming the first non-Hungarian member.
Throughout the lifespan of the Takács, Beethoven's music has been woven into each major metamorphosis of their maturation as a world-class ensemble — from serving as part of Dusinberre's quartet audition, to the last piece played with the group's original violist. Like a proper Fibonacci spiral, the quartet has looped back to ever-evolving iterations of the Beethoven quartets, performing and recording the whole collection of quartets at different points throughout its illustrious career.
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In addition to his portrayal of his life within the Takács, Dusinberre paints a rich picture of the landscape against which Beethoven created his many works for chamber ensembles. He places the composer and his impassioned music-making against the era of deep turmoil during which Napoleon's army made its presence known in and around Vienna. Dusinberre points out that as Napoleon's initial campaign in Europe wound down, Beethoven's star rose in direct correlation, for he had penned the "Battle Symphony," a much-lauded celebration of Napoleon's defeat.
Running as a unifying thread throughout the book is Dusinberre's analysis of the unique world of classical music-making in the modern age. In what other discipline do people living in our time — what Beethoven referred to as "a later age" — approach with such particular care and attention what someone from 200 years ago intended as an emotional output of expression?
"Happiness in a quartet seemed to be more easily attained during those times when the particulars of personality receded and the music became the main story." In "Beethoven For A Later Age: Living With The String Quartets," Dusinberre manages to integrate the two musical stories. Just as Beethoven made his own journey of discovery in the creation of his string quartets, the Takács had its own path of enlightenment to tread, with the Beethoven quartets looming large along the way.
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