Author: John Check

THE NEW CRITERION: Takács Quartet’s Edward Dusinberre on Beethoven’s golden years

When the twin Voyager probes were launched from Cape Canaveral in 1977, they each carried with them a Golden Record. Containing audio recordings of natural sounds, spoken greetings in a host of languages, and musical works from around the world, the record was a time capsule of life on earth. It was intended, as Edward Dusinberre writes, “to convey a snapshot of humanity to any space traveller who might find it in the future.” The last musical selection on the record, performed by the Budapest Quartet, was the fifth movement of Beethoven’s Op. 130 string quartet, a work deemed by the panel of experts selecting the music as one of humankind’s most sublime achievements.

Beethoven’s quartets are the main theme of Dusinberre’s book, and they afford him a way of making sense of the composer’s immensely complicated life. So it is that we meet first the youngish man whose Op. 18 quartets, six all told, were published in 1801. Later we find the older man who, with his Op. 95 “Serioso,” seemed to bid farewell to quartet writing; fourteen years passed before he wrote another. Finally, we behold the invalid, near death in late 1826, composing an alternative ending to Op. 130, which originally concluded with the “incomprehensible” Grosse Fuge. Powerful patrons are depicted, such as Count Andrei Kirillovich Razumovsky (the dedicatee of the three Op. 59 quartets) and Prince Karl Lichnowsky (whom Beethoven never could respect). Mentioned, too, are little-known figures who showed the composer small but impressive kindnesses. With feeling, Dusinberre writes of the composer’s struggles with deafness, captured in the Heiligenstadt Testament. He also relates the pathetic ups and many downs of a man temperamentally unsuited for the role of guardian of his nephew, Karl (who was so often overwhelmed by his “needy” uncle that he once attempted suicide).

All of this is told from the perspective of a man who is himself a superlative performer: Edward Dusinberre, the first violinist of the Takács quartet. The Takács, founded in 1975, winners of a Grammy award, and the quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado Boulder, has recorded all sixteen of Beethoven’s quartets. Dusinberre’s immersion in the composer’s life and works was undertaken, he writes, “to prevent the music [from] ever becoming too comfortably familiar.” His having taken physical possession of the music and achieving mastery over it lends the book special authority.

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