Beethoven String Quartet opus 131 is a protagonist of epic dimension in the film “A Late Quartet”. The seven movement work vividly represents the volcanic creativity that relentlessly demanded expression even in the last year of the deaf and mortally ill Beethoven.
This is what manipulates both characters and viewers in “A Late Quartet.” In real life it excited the nearly dead Franz Schubert into such a state that those present at the private performance became frightened and the invigorated dying man lived five more days.
The film’s human characters, members of the (fictional) famous Fugue Quartet fight against the inevitability of change. The Brentano String Quartet performs on the soundtrack. Though the backdrop is the rarefied realm of high artistic achievement they lapse into typical human behavior that is banal and tawdry. But this is where the film becomes unique. It delivers a glimpse of the mystical effect of music and the inescapable specter of Ludwig Van Beethoven in a contrived but all too real snapshot of string quartet lore. Furthermore “A Late Quartet” spotlights (one might say exposes) this peculiar grouping called the string quartet, which is an equally astounding invention. Originating with Franz Joseph Haydn it situates, by its own device, the players in roles of behavior that shape their personalities and that for better or for worse. Together the co-protagonists, Beethoven opus 131 and its institutional domain, the string quartet, lead the characters to a noble conclusion.
Even quartets of fleeting existence endure the same issues and complaints; who shall play 1st violin? Who is the lead voice, first violin or cello? Which one of us has the correct interpretation? Who should be playing the loudest? All of these questions are rhetorical.
Few people were at the Spectrum for the Nov.15th viewing of “A Late Quartet” so my reputation for not disturbing the peace in public is mostly safe. Having endured a grueling schedule for the GFSO world premier of the era ” Canto V” (terrifyingly wonderful) simultaneously with the Presidential election (terrifyingly wonderful) reliving the deep emotions provoked by music making, virtually this time, was a cathartic experience.
Seeing Christopher Walken, poker faced, attempting to mime cello playing was a laugh out loud moment for me. Since it is completely impossible to simulate string playing with any credibility-especially moving the bow- the actors do their best to at least hold the instruments in mock position.
The only convincing solution I’ve seen was the 1946 film, “Humoresque”, as Isaac Stern loops himself around actor John Garfield and actually plays the featured music.
In the film “Hilary and Jackie” about the legendary and tragic Jacqueline Du Pre, actress Emily Watson had actually been a cello student which lent quite enough credibility. Any way, it can be even funnier when real musicians try to act, such as Jascha Heifetz in the 1939 film ” They Shall Have Music.”
All through the film I recall real life situations and their resolutions. I hardly finished my chronicle of some of the changes taking place in the world of string quartets Jan 2012 post when more developments made it obsolete; David Finckel leaves the Emerson Quartet, the Tokyo Quartet decides to disband, Daedalus names a new cellist, the Ying Quartet reconfigures.
Interestingly, the Attacca String Quartet, First Prize winners of the 7th Osaka International Chamber Music Competition in 2011, are featured in an amusing vignette that mirrored a true to life event that happened when they competed at the 2007 Banff International String Competition. That was a delicious inside joke for me, and others who were at BISQC. I was happy to see they not only recovered their aplomb but also benefited from it.
It was good to include actual players. Nina Lee, cellist of the Brentano, guest stars near the end elevating the action above pretense.
Two violins, one leading and one secondary, viola and cello make a string quartet. That seems like a simple enough structure. But it has proven to be a perfect equation continuously capturing the creative mind. Its literature, evolving from Haydn to Mozart, Beethoven and into the 21st century ingeniously weaves a web of intrigue, affecting both the head and the heart.