The book follows [Dusinberre’s] personal journey, while simultaneously threading through the parallel stories of Beethoven’s development as a composer, of the string quartet in general, and of early 19th-century culture and politics. Does all that seem a tall order? The narrative is potentially as complex as one of Beethoven’s knotty four-part fugues in the late quartets, but 20 years’ experience of playing chamber music has made Dusinberre adept at handling the interplay of multiple themes. Self-awareness and a sense of humor play their part. Sleight of hand makes the book entertaining and easy to digest.
Back in 1993, the invitation to join the august Takács Quartet was not extended lightly. “This is not a job,” warned one of the other three. “It’s your family, your life.” Periods of months away on international concert tours mean that any kind of settled social life has to be forgotten. From day one, the diary involved criss-crossing continents in a dirty white Ford Granada alternating with long hours of rehearsal sessions, day and night in the company of the same three colleagues.
Every string quartet sets out with the intrinsically contradictory aim of attaining a unanimity of playing style without losing the four musicians’ individual personalities. Dusinberre says it took him five years to work out his place within the group. That involved learning to shape opinions without stifling dissent, knowing how to manage frustration and tiredness in rehearsal, and then transferring all they had practised into the performance as if it was spontaneous. In the quartets, more than any of his other works, Beethoven explores his most private feelings. For chamber music performers this leads to the ultimate challenge of their profession: how to express a “private grief . . . in a hall to 500 people.”
Goethe, Beethoven’s contemporary and cautious admirer, described the string quartet as “four rational people conversing with each other”. That makes it all sound so easy. What this book gives us is a 20-year struggle for perfection, a story of integration and companionship, of loss and renewal as members of the quartet die or leave. As they play the “Heiliger Dankgesang”, Beethoven’s thanks for hoped-for recovery during his last illness, Dusinberre recalls with exhilaration: “We were taken far out of ourselves, liberated from the confines of individual personalities as we surrendered to the music.” That, he might have added, was Beethoven’s gift to a later age.
To read more about Beethoven for a Later Age, click here.
To read the Financial Times review in full, click here.