Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets

Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets

by Edward Dusinberre

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Beethoven’s sixteen string quartets are some of the most extraordinary and challenging pieces of music ever written. Originally composed and performed between 1798 and 1826, they have inspired artists of all kinds—not only musicians—and have been subject to endless reinterpretation. But what is it like to personally take up the challenge of these compositions, not only as a musician, but as a member of a quartet, where each player has ideas about style and expression? To answer this question, Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the renowned Takács Quartet, offers a rare peek inside the workings of his ensemble, while providing an insightful history of the compositions and their performance.

Founded in Hungary in 1975 and now based in Boulder, Colorado, the Takács is one of the world’s preeminent string quartets, and performances of Beethoven have been at the center of their work together for over forty years. Using the history of both the Takács Quartet and the Beethoven quartets as a foundation, Beethoven for a Later Age provides a backstage look at the daily life of a quartet, showing the necessary creative tension between individual and group and how four people can at the same time forge a lasting artistic connection and enjoy making music together over decades. The key, Dusinberre reveals, to a quartet crafting its own sound is in balancing continuity with change and experimentation—a theme that lies at the heart of Beethoven’s remarkable compositions. In an accessible style, suitable for novices and chamber music enthusiasts alike, Dusinberre illuminates the variety and contradictions of Beethoven's quartets, which were composed against the turbulent backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars and their aftermath, and he brings the technical aspects of the music to life.

Beethoven for a Later Age vividly shows that creative engagement with Beethoven’s radical and brilliant quartets continues to be as stimulating now as it was for its first performers and audiences. Musicians and music lovers will be intrigued by Dusinberre’s exploration of the close collaboration at the heart of any great performance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226374536
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/06/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 936,300
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Edward Dusinberre has been the first violinist of Takács Quartet since 1993, and he is an artist-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Read an Excerpt


Audition: Opus 59, no. 3

Practice does not necessarily make perfect. Blundering my way repeatedly through difficult passages was not improving the first violin part of Beethoven's String Quartet, Opus 59, no. 3. In danger of forming an antagonistic relationship with the final movement I could hear the composer's derisive retort when Ignaz Schuppanzigh, the Viennese violinist most closely associated with Beethoven's quartets, complained about the difficulties of these latest quartets: 'Do you suppose I am thinking about your wretched fiddle when the spirit moves me?'

This Allegro molto was one of several movements the members of the Takács Quartet had selected for my audition in January 1993. I wondered why a group that had already been playing concerts worldwide for eighteen years would consider hiring a twenty-four-year-old graduate student from the Juilliard School, with no prior professional string quartet experience. My teacher, Dorothy DeLay, had been asked by Fay Shwayder, a friend of the Takács Quartet, to recommend one of her students and explained that it was sometimes easier for a quartet to choose a malleable player fresh out of college than an established artist who might less easily adapt to the distinct musical personality of an ensemble, developed over many years.

My first audition with the Takács would take place in Boulder, Colorado, where the quartet had held a university residency since 1986. I guessed that the Takács had chosen this particular Beethoven movement for its technical difficulties. The viola begins with a fast solo theme, taken up in turn by the second violin and cello, the first violin last to join the frenzy. I had never come across a Beethoven movement so unashamedly flashy, a virtuosic showpiece where the challenge of playing the right notes seemed more pressing than any questions of musical interpretation. I could move my left hand fingers and bowing arm fast enough, just not at precisely the same time as each other. Hopefully familiarity would facilitate greater velocity and more nimble coordination. In the mean time Beethoven seemed to mock my slow practice tempo, laughing at my violinistic limitations and questioning my suitability to audition with the Takács.

The first string players to encounter these pieces were also challenged by them. Six years younger than Beethoven, Ignaz Schuppanzigh began his musical education as a violist, changing to the violin only in 1793, at the age of sixteen. Several years later Beethoven described Schuppanzigh as a miserable egoist and would have enjoyed the joke: Why does a violin appear smaller than a viola? They're the same size but the violinist's head is bigger.

Throughout a professional association that lasted more than thirty years, Beethoven sported a satirical attitude to Schuppanzigh, nicknaming him after Shakespeare's Falstaff, not for the size of his head but for the rotundity of his stomach: 'He might be grateful to me if my insults were to make him slimmer.' But his attitude was not always so jovial. Writing to a close friend, Karl Amenda, Beethoven described Schuppanzigh and the amateur cellist Nikolaus Zsemskall 'merely as instruments on which to play when I feel inclined'. These musicians 'can never be noblewitnesses to the fullest extent of my inward and outward activities, nor can they ever truly share my life. I value them merely for what they do for me.'

As I continued to work on my audition music, Beethoven's objections about his musicians provided a useful jolt. Having spent many hours over the last three years labouring in a practice room while fretting about how to progress in the music profession, I recognised self-absorption as a not exactly elusive concept. But Beethoven's letter to Amenda was a more interesting subject with which to occupy myself than the question of my suitability as a candidate for the Takács Quartet, providing an intriguing snapshot of Beethoven's emotional state nearly a decade after he had moved to Vienna. While I couldn't enter fully into the 'inward and outward activities' of his life, any extra information would give me another angle from which to approach my audition music.

Beethoven moved from Bonn to Vienna in November 1792, at the age of twenty-one, to study with Europe's most celebrated composer, Joseph Haydn. His mother had died five years earlier and Beethoven ended his teenage years as the primary breadwinner for his alcoholic father and two younger brothers, relying mainly on his income as a court musician in the Electorate of Cologne, one of three hundred German-speaking states under the umbrella of the Habsburg or Holy Roman Empire, whose emperor resided in Vienna. Beethoven's precarious family situation played itself out against the backdrop of increasing instability in Europe: in April 1792, France declared war on the Habsburg Empire, and the rise to power of Napoleon in 1799 and the Napoleonic Wars would dominate European life for the next fifteen years.

Establishing himself during his first decade in Vienna as a pianist renowned for his expressive improvisations, Beethoven continued to develop as a young composer about whom his patron in Bonn, Count Waldstein, had made a prophecy: 'Through uninterrupted diligence you shall receive Mozart's spirit from Haydn's hands.' (Mozart died in 1791.) A letter from Waldstein introduced Beethoven to a network of aristocratic patrons who helped to enable Beethoven's rise to prominence. But by 1801 Beethoven felt that his early successes were threatened by the deterioration of his hearing, as he confided to Amenda:

In my present condition I must withdraw from everything; and my best years will rapidly pass away without my being able to achieve all that my talent and my strength have commanded me to do – Sad resignation, to which I am supposed to have recourse.

Beethoven's sense of isolation was perhaps increased by his determination to protect his professional reputation by concealing his condition from musicians such as Schuppanzigh. In the 'Heiligenstadt Testament' of 1802, a document addressed but not sent to his brothers and discovered only after his death, Beethoven continued to worry that his credibility as a composer would be ruined if his deafness became known. As a result he felt he must live as a recluse, although sometimes yielding to his desire for companionship.

But what a humiliation for me when someone standing beside me heard a flute in the distance and I heard nothing, or someone heard a shepherd singing and again I heard nothing. Such occurrences brought me near to despair; it would not have taken much more for me to end my life – only my art held me back. Ah, it seemed impossible to me to leave this world until I had created all that I felt was within me.

During the four years following the crisis that prompted the 'Heiligenstadt Testament', Beethoven composed the 'Eroica' Symphony, the 'Kreutzer' Sonata for violin and piano, the 'Waldstein' and 'Appassionata' piano sonatas, the Fourth Piano Concerto and the Violin Concerto. The Opus 59 string quartets, commissioned by Count Razumovsky, the Russian ambassador in Vienna, formed part of the extraordinary body of works that emerged from Beethoven's despair. As he worked on the quartet the Takács had asked me to prepare, Beethoven had written on a sketch leaf a startling declaration that marked a significant change of attitude: 'Let your deafness be no more a secret – even in art.' Rather than the virtuosic showpiece I had taken it for, perhaps the finale celebrated his defiance against his condition. As I continued the painstaking work of learning the notes in a practice room, I wondered how playing it with the members of the Takács would illuminate the character of this deceptively complex music.

I could see no one resembling the urbane violist of the Takács Quartet pictured on a CD cover: leaning back in an armchair, viola resting on his lap, Gábor Ormai's photo exuded ease and confidence. In the baggage claim area at Denver's Stapleton Airport a pale-faced man with rowdy ginger hair wearing a shapeless brown anorak passed me several times before I thought to wave my violin case in his direction. He glanced at me and then away as if in search of a viable alternative.

'Are you Gábor?'

He tried to cover his surprise with a rapid grin. 'You're Ed! Sorry to miss you. We were expecting someone older.' The quietly assertive expression looking out from the CD cover had not prepared me for restless, darting eyes that were hard to engage. 'Welcome! It's not far to Boulder. Are you tired after your flight?'

The Takács spent six months of the year travelling – I was not about to admit fatigue after a three-hour journey. We walked to Gábor's car as he pointed out the Rocky Mountains on the horizon. He spoke softly, head pushed forward, diminishing his natural height. For someone accustomed to performing in front of large audiences, the violist was surprisingly unassuming.

On the way to Boulder, Gábor explained that we would first have dinner together, and play through the audition pieces only the following morning. In the position of the Takács members I would have wanted to read through the music right away: in the event that a candidate ruled himself out with bad finger coordination in a Beethoven movement, obligatory social interaction could be whittled down to a quick sandwich and token campus tour.

'Why do you like string quartets?' Gábor asked as we left the airport.

'I've never really thought about quartets as a career but I always enjoy playing chamber music. What about you?'

'Quartets are not as glamorous as solo playing, and sometimes you feel trapped. We are always so close: if one person is suffering then we all suffer. But together we can create something special – much more than I can make on my own.'

A better answer than mine. It should have occurred to me that, since the members of a string quartet spend more time with each other than with their families, my personality as well as musicianship would be under close scrutiny. Anxious to highlight my suitability for group endeavour, I mentioned a successful spell on the school chess team. Gábor promised to show me the chess program on his new computer, while I wondered why I had chosen a game not renowned for its emphasis on teamwork.

'Why did you study at Juilliard?'

'For some time I've been aware of problems in my playing, especially with my bowing arm.' Perhaps I could improve my flailing attempts at conversation by being more forthcoming. 'I still have some work to do to change bow more smoothly and keep my arm relaxed. But DeLay has been very helpful.'

Gábor looked concerned. While frequent displays of modesty at school in England were an important strategy for survival – Look at that stuck-up wanker with the violin case: who does he think he is? – self-deprecation didn't appear to be a good ploy here.

'Well, there are always things to work on. Can I ask how old you are?'


'That's young. Dorothy didn't tell us that.'

I couldn't think of a response. As we drove over the crest of a hill Gábor pointed out Boulder, nestled against the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, roofs of the university campus rosy in the late afternoon sun. When Robert Fink, Dean of the College of Music, first drove the Takács to Boulder, he pulled off the road at this scenic outlook. 'Enjoy the view; that's part of your salary.'

Gábor's story about Dean Fink had piqued my curiosity about the history of the quartet: perhaps at dinner I could limit the damage of my inept interview technique by asking the members of the Takács how they had ended up in Boulder, a change of environment from their native Hungary surely more dramatic than any a new first violinist would face by joining the quartet.

'You must be Ed!' As I entered the restaurant a man wearing a matching denim jacket, jeans and a furry hat jumped up from the table. Although clearly recognisable as the second violinist, Károly looked more mischievous than his photo. 'Schranz, Károly. Call me Karcsi or Charlie, whatever you like. What do you want to drink?'

'Ginger ale, please.'

'Are you sure? We'll find out everything about you anyway.'

András, the Takács' cellist, asked some of the same questions I had fielded earlier that afternoon. His wild curly brown hair and ruddy tan suggested a laid-back demeanour somewhat at odds with his formal use of English. He listened to my answers, alert eyes conveying curiosity mingled with scepticism.

'Gábor says you are young.'

'I am turning twenty-five in just a few months.'

'Dorothy did not tell us that.'

'But I'm an oldest child – we have to grow up faster.'

'Károly is an oldest child too.' András raised his eyebrows dubiously.

'Younger is good,' said Karcsi. 'More energy!'

I mentioned that the first violinist of the Tokyo Quartet, Peter Oundjian, also a student of Dorothy DeLay, was my age when he joined the ensemble. Asked by András about my professional chamber music experience, I described the handful of paid concerts my student quartet had performed while I was at the Royal College of Music in London before going to Juilliard. A highlight was our appearance at a Downing Street Christmas party hosted by the then British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher – from my account of this illustrious engagement I omitted my fifteen-pound fee and the fact that she had criticised our choice of too slow and lugubrious a tempo in 'Ding Dong Merrily on High'.

Having swiftly exhausted the subject of my professional qualifications, I asked how the members of the Takács had come to settle in Boulder. In 1982 the Takács had participated in a masterclass for Hungarian television, run by the violist Dénes Koromzay, the only member of the Hungarian String Quartet to play in the group for its entire thirty-seven-year history. From 1962 to 1970 the ensemble had been in residence at the University of Colorado. Following his retirement from playing, Koromzay returned to Boulder in 1980 to teach. When Koromzay asked the Takács to recommend a student quartet to study with him in Boulder, the Takács put themselves forward instead. Although they were already developing an international concert career, the members of the quartet were eager to add to their repertoire – particularly the Beethoven quartets, some of which they had not yet studied. After several shorter residencies with Koromzay, the quartet applied for and were granted a long-term residency at the university. In 1986 the members of the Takács and their families moved from Budapest to Boulder.

It was an exhilarating but disorienting change, differences of culture and language confronting the members of the Takács and their families each day. At one of the quartet's first concerts in Boulder Karcsi limped on stage with a bandaged foot: not comprehending a DISMOUNT sign during a bike ride had resulted in a brief and painful encounter with a rock cluster. When the quartet embarked on a six-week tour, their families were left to get to grips with a bewildering array of regulations. Knowing that in order to register her car some sort of additional paperwork was required, András' wife Kati (accompanied by Karcsi's wife Mari and both sets of children), entered a neighbourhood fire station, asking some surprised firemen where the right place was to get an 'emotion test'.

Throughout dinner the Hungarians were keen to emphasise that although Boulder was so far from their roots, their adjustment to living in the community had been greatly eased by the generosity of a number of European immigrants, some of them Hungarian, who extended hospitality to the Takács just as they had to the Hungarian String Quartet during their earlier Boulder sojourn. Additionally, members of the string faculty welcomed them to the university community and helped to arrange their residency activities. My teacher's friend Fay Shwayder had financed a large part of their initial residency, facilitated by the support of Dean Fink.

Nonetheless the three Hungarians expressed mixed feelings about leaving Hungary, feeling homesick for friends and families left behind and appreciative of their special status in Budapest. The founding members of the Takács had received a rigorous musical education at the Franz Liszt Academy. Two lessons of individual instruction each week on the instrument were supplemented by chamber music coachings and a separate session on sonata repertoire. Classes in music history and theory and orchestral rehearsals completed their weekly musical activities. Obligatory political philosophy and Russian language courses imposed by the Communist regime were not taken terribly seriously. Required to explain the sources of Marxism during an oral exam, András had offered the succinct answer that 'Feuerbach had been raised by sucking on Hegel's breasts'. Ludwig Feuerbach was indeed, along with Marx, a great admirer of G. W. F. Hegel and although András' irreverent breastfeeding thesis was unappreciated by a stony-faced examiner, he was nonetheless given a pass grade.


Excerpted from "Beethoven for a Later Age"
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Copyright © 2016 Edward Dusinberre.
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Table of Contents

Members of the Takács Quartet
List of musical examples
Prologue: Opus 131
1 Audition: Opus 59, no. 3
2 Joining the Quartet: Opus 18, no. 1
3 Fracture: Opus 59, no. 2
4 Re-creation: Opus 127
5 Convalescence: Opus 132
6 Alternative Endings: Opus 130

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