A Late Quartet — a Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

Ludwig van Beethoven

It’s not often that I see a movie on subject matter that I think I know something about. But A Late Quartet in some respects touches very close to home.

The story is about a famous string quartet struggling to stay together after its cellist, played by Christopher Walken, announces he’s in the early stages of Parkinson’s and will not be able to play much longer — in fact is already barely play at the level of consummate perfection required of a world class chamber musician. In that world there is utterly no faking it.

The very idea of small ensembles in music has been one of my very biggest driving interests in life since youth — not just string quartets, and not just classical chamber groups in general. I’ve long believed that in small ensemble playing the end result can be far greater than the sum of its parts, and that the best groups are those who stay with it a very long time to the point that the players become like family to one another, virtually living together — disfunctionally perhaps, but family nonetheless. When I think of great groups I think not only of the Juilliard, Amadeus, Takacs, and Emerson string quartets, but also of the Beatles, Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, the Modern Jazz Quartet, and yes (some will shudder), even the Rolling Stones. By coincidence I happen to be reading Philip Norman’s biography about Mick Jagger right now, and previously read Keith Richards’s autobiography wherein I have come to appreciate that although the Stones are a different category of musicians from the others I’ve mentioned, in terms of their commitment to music making, they fit right in.

With any great ensemble, it’s not about who has the best assemblage of solo concert artists (though most great classical chamber musicians can knock off a concerto any day of the week), but above all about the chemistry between precisely the right people. Change even one person, and the whole sound becomes different. For instance, rock and roll drumnmers abound, and half or more of them are as good as or better than Ringo Starr. But the Beatles would not have been at all the same without Ringo, even at the beginning, and even though he was clearly the fourth man. But what a fourth man he was! In the world of classical chamber music it’s not hard to find a musician who can walk onto the stage and sightread all the written notes right, or who has played everything in the standard repertoire many times before, but the end result is never the same thing when a substitute is required. It takes months to work a single new musician into a tight group — and the quartet in A Late Quartet is acutely aware of that reality. My own frustrated efforts to create a long-lasting ensemble back in the late sixties, thwarted largely by non-stop personnel changes, taught me that lesson on a personal level.

The story line of A Late Quartet is built around the group’s preparation for a concert on which they will play Beethoven’s Quartet Opus 131, one of the composer’s latest works, which the group’s cellist hopes will be his farewell performance. (With consequences that explain what happens at the end.)

Each one of Beethoven’s late quartets is among the greatest examples of music ever written. There are six of them, known by their opus numbers in the range 127 to 135, and of these not a few musicians regard Opus 131 as their personal favorite, including me. While I was an undergraduate music student, I went on a Beethoven quartet kick (which followed my Beethoven piano sonata kick), during which almost all I did for a week or so was play recordings of all the quartets with the scores in front of me. And when I got to Opus 131, which somehow at that point I had never yet heard (there’s a first time for everything), it was a revelation, moving me to exude a tiresome stream of superlatives about it that my friends surely tired of hearing. It took me a while to get down off of that particular cloud. (Today I still rank Opus 131 as my third all-time favorite piece of music, with the Bach Chaconne at the top, followed by the second movement of Beethoven’s Opus 111 piano sonata.)

But the story of A Late Quartet is not just about the music. It’s about the people who make it, and about how the disturbance of inevitably losing their senior member was the butterfly effect-like tremor that presaged a tsunami of difficulties and misbehavior to follow — some of which events are frankly cheaply melodramatic, even stupid, reducing the merit of this film from being a great film to merely a very good film.

Philip Seymour Hoffman turns in by far the best acting performance as the brilliant but oppressed second violinist, married to the violist. (They have a beautiful violinist daughter who also figures importantly into the plot.) He confesses that he sees his role in the ensemble as having being that of an accompanist to the younger first violinist for twenty-five years. He’s as dead wrong as if John Lennon had told George Harrison that he was going to take over the lead guitar role — which never happened. (I’m reminded of one day when Mick Jagger was fooling around on a guitar, Keith Richards said to him, “There are two guitarists in this band, and you’re not one of them.”)

There are conflicts between particularly the younger three members of the quartet that have little to do with the music itself (and which are extremely important to the plot — no spoilers here), but from which Walken remains quietly insulated as he begins to adjust to a new life with Parkinson’s.

What Hoffman’s character goes through, as self-centered as it all is for a period, seems very real to me; and it affects the ensemble and therefore the music.

Christopher Walken, who would seem to be an unlikely actor to choose to play the role of an aging, wise, and mature classical musician, handles his part well, but despite a great deal of coaching, handles the cello awkwardly, and is not convincing with an instrument in his hands.

Making an actor who is not a musician look like a musician (or an athlete who is not an athlete) is always a difficult trick to pull off in moviemaking. There is no group of musical instruments harder for a non-playing actor to fake on stage by going through the motions in front of a camera while someone else plays on the soundtrack than the instruments of a string quartet. Almost anyone can be made to look like a competent pianist. The actor can hide behind the instrument and just emote, if necessary, so you never even see their hands. And a woodwind or brass player just has to put the thing to his mouth and wiggle his fingers. But a string instrument involves the player much more completely. Of these, the violin and viola are almost impossible to get right. It takes a couple of years for a beginning player who is taking lessons and practicing daily just to learn to hold a violin or viola properly and not look like a dork. There’s absolutely nothing easy about it, as a player must twist his arm and shoulder into an unnatural position so as to bring his hands into a position so that his fingers strike the stings vertically — and somehow also play vibrato. I don’t know how they do it, and I’ve tried myself. And then there is the bow to deal with, which must be held and drawn exactly a certain way. It’s as hard as juggling even to fake it.

A cello is, in my opinion, somewhat easier, mostly because of an approximately ninety-degree shift in left-arm position to one that is absolutely natural. I’ve messed around myself just a little bit on violins, violas, and even many years ago on my brother’s cello. (The sum total of my string playing experience amounts to hours, not years.) I think if I wanted to try and fool someone on camera, I’d go for the cello part first because I’ve played guitar and electric bass, so can handle the appearance of left-hand dexterity, and would have to concentrate mainly on the bow.

That said, I think that all three of the other actors who were quartet members look more natural than Walken, who appears to be in pain (maybe he was supposed to because of the Parkinson’s, which is allegedly not painful), and more than stereotypically frowny-faced and serious, in harmony with Hollywood’s conception of the typical classical musicians as being nothing but stuffed shirts all the time, never having a moment of “fun,” especially when performing.

The other nit I have with this film is that the name of the ensemble is The Fugue (always spoken with reverence so you’ll know it’s supposed to be a great group, one that fills concert halls). It’s a silly name for a classical quartet, given that the fugue is primarily a baroque musical form, whereas the string quartet, both as an ensemble combination and a musical form, is something that emerged in the early classical era — Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven all wrote many — remained strong throughout the romantic era, and is still a respected combination today, written for by many composers. And yes, plenty of post-baroque composers have written fugues, even in string quatets. In fact Beethoven’s Opus 131 starts with a slow fugue, one factor among many that makes this work utterly unique in the repertoire. But starting in the classical era, fugues are the exception rather than the rule. So why call your string quartet ensemble The Fugue?

But regarding the group’s discussion about music — comments about string crossings, fingerings, matching vibrato speeds, arguments about hairpins (how many non-musicians will know they’re talking about crescendos and diminuendos, not bobby pins?), personal markings on the music, the problem of keeping the instruments in tune for the non-stop duration of the seven-movement Opus 131, and all the rest — a declamatory Yes! Those are exactly the sort of things real musicians talk about and work on when preparing for a performance. All that makes the movie more real. And in this case, verisimilitude is good, and a welcome relief from the usual Hollywood dreck thrown at audiences as representing the world of classical music. (For the very worst of that in comparison, see the dreadful film Mr. Holland’s Opus. Check that — don’t bother.)

In the end, all the conflicts — musical, mechanical, and personal — revolve around the question of whether being able to play the music is important enough that those four fragile, vulnerable, and imperfect human beings who comprise The Fugue are able to resolve their differences in a way that will allow there to be a quartet that will continue. The answer is supplied with great dignity, but not until the movie’s final scene.

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About Lynn

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