Sunday, March 24, 2013

A Late Quartet

The accepted notion is that age confers a spirit of reconciliation and serenity on late works....But what of artistic lateness not as harmony and resolution, but as intransigence, difficulty and contradiction? What if age and ill health don’t produce serenity at all?
—Edward Said, "Thoughts on Late Style," London Review of Books, 5 August 2004

When we think about an artist's "late style," Edward Said writes, we may think of Bach creating the crowning masterpieces A Musical Offering (1747), Mass in B-Minor (1749), and Art of the Fugue (1751) in his final years.* Or of Shakespeare writing The Tempest (1611), his bittersweet farewell to the magic of the stage. Or of Henri Matisse, often wheelchair-bound or bedridden and unable to paint, making the playful, brilliantly colored cut-outs that were published as Jazz (1947).

But there are also artists whose late work is difficult, dark, and challenging, posing problems that can never be finally resolved. Goya's Black Paintings (1819-1823), which he painted on the walls of his house when he was in his 70s, feature horrifying scenes of violence and rapacity. Monteverdi's final opera, L'incoronazione di Poppea (The Coronation of Poppea, 1642), features some of the most ruthless, corrupt and cynical characters ever put on stage.

In his final years, Beethoven continued to push the accepted boundaries of his chosen forms, producing works that achieved new extremes of scale, complexity and technical difficulty. Said, following Theodor Adorno's essay "Late Style in Beethoven," devotes much of his essay to a consideration of Beethoven's last compositions. These include his final string quartets, works which I think are aptly described as presenting a "bristling, difficult and unyielding—perhaps even inhuman—challenge" to listener and performer alike.

A Late Quartet (2012, directed and co-written by Yaron Zilberman) focusses on the fictional Fugue Quartet as its members prepare for a performance of Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131. This quartet was composed in the final year of Beethoven's life, after he had gone entirely deaf and while he was struggling with illness. Much about this quartet is unusual, if not unprecedented: it's in seven movements, instead of the then-standard four; it begins with a slow movement instead of the then-standard fast movement; the movements range in length from nearly 15 minutes to under a minute, and were intended to be played continuously, without a break; the movements modulate over six different keys, instead of the usual two or three, and can feature abrupt shifts of mood and tempo.

Here is the opening movement of the quartet, marked "Adagio, ma non troppo e molto espressivo" (Slowly, but not too much so, and very expressively):

In Zilberman's film the Fugue Quartet's cellist, Peter (Christopher Walken), is diagnosed with early-stage Parkinson's disease, a disorder that affects motor control and will soon make it impossible for him to play.

Peter's revelation of his diagnosis to the other members of the Quartet throws the group into crisis. And from my point of view, far too much screen time is spent on the melodrama surrounding the rocky marriage of second violinist Robert and violist Juliette (Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener), and on the affair first violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir) initiates with Robert and Juliette's daughter Alexandra (Imogen Poots).

Peter's story—that of a musician facing the loss of his ability to perform the music that has been his life's purpose, dealing with the many diminishments of old age, and mourning the recent death of his wife Miriam (a brief but poignant cameo by mezzo-soprano Anne Sofie von Otter)—is far more compelling, and I wish it had remained the central focus of the film. Instead, for long stretches Peter remains in the background as we follow the increasingly erratic behavior of the other characters. It is a huge relief to return to Peter, who is the only member of the quartet who seems to deal with the situation like an adult.

The film includes some thoughtful touches. To commune with his memory of Miriam, Peter puts on one of her recordings; the music he chooses is "Mariettas Lied" from Erich Korngold's opera Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City, 1920), about a man seeking consolation after the death of his beloved wife:

The words mean: "Joy, stay with me. Come to me, my true love. Night falls now; you are my light and day. Our hearts beat as one; our hopes rise heavenward...Though sorrow darkens all, come to me, my true love. Bring your pale face close to mine. Death cannot separate us. If you must leave me one day, know that there is a life after this."

Another thoughtful touch is the cellist that Peter suggests to the other members of the Quartet as his replacement: Nina Lee, who in real life is the cellist for the Brentano Quartet, the group that performs on the film's soundtrack.

These kinds of touches, and the fascinating discussions among the characters about the challenges of playing Op. 131, are hints of the more music-centered (and in my view, more interesting) film that A Late Quartet could have been. As it stands, with its focus on not-very-engaging interpersonal melodrama, Zilberman's film feels like a missed opportunity.

Beethoven's Op. 131 in its entirety, played by the Quatuor Mosaïques on period instruments:


* But I've also written about why Bach isn't (yet) carved on my musical Mount Rushmore.


  1. I agree, Pessimisissimo, that A Late Quartet is a missed opportunity. Peter's condition and the fate of the quartet is emotionally compelling; the unlikely melo-romantic relationships are just silly. I wish, for example, that the back story about the tension between Daniel and Robert over first and second violin positions in the quartet had been fleshed out, instead. Their quartet formed at a time when strict separation of players between those positions was the rule, whereas today violinists sharing those roles is more common. The estrangement between Robert and Juliette could have been better developed as well; the indifference of Jule to Robert's morning offering of coffee suggests a long and difficult history between the two. Similarly with Alexandra; the difficulties of being the daughter and musical heir of Juliette and Robert could have been explored in so many ways; cheapening it with an unlikely affair is a huge distraction. The Beethoven string quartet and the membership dynamics of the Fugue Quartet in the face of Peter's illness provide more than enough inspiration for a beautiful story. On a positive note, I appreciated that each of the actors learned enough about their instruments that their "faking it" allowed me to maintain my suspension of disbelief that they were actually playing.

    Speaking of late quartets, I've been listening to the Zehetmair Quartett's recording of Schumann's string quartets in a-minor and A-major as I write (although it may be odd to attribute a "late period" to someone who died in his forties). A CD, if memory serves, that you, Pessimisissimo, gave to me some years ago. Many thanks.

    1. Cher M. Lapin, your invocation of Thomas Zehetmair is entirely apposite. As I watched A Late Quartet I wondered whether the Fugue Quartet was based in part on the Zehetmair Quartet. Like Daniel, Thomas Zehetmair seems to be a bit of an obsessive; and like Robert, he is married to his quartet's violist (Ruth Killius). One key difference: the Zehetmair Quartet performs every program by memory, and in the film Daniel is reluctant to follow Robert's suggestion that the Quartet not consult their carefully marked scores during performance. It's a highly significant moment when they close their scores.

      Thanks, too, for your note about the actors. One reason I was so disappointed in the film's script is that the cast's performances are excellent, even when the script is forcing their characters into inconsistent, implausible or simply irritating actions. And the film has sent me back to my CD shelves to listen again to the quartets of Beethoven (and Shostakovich, whose quartets are mentioned by Robert). Despite its shortcomings, A Late Quartet has many positive qualities, and so I should thank the person who recommended it to me—a recommendation that, if memory serves, came from you, M. Lapin.

      Many thanks!