Yesterday, after a somewhat frustrating passage at arms at the local mega-mall on Black Friday, Susie and I went to the movies, where we saw A Late Quartet, a beautiful new film featuring outstanding work by Christopher Walken and Seymour Phillip Hoffman. The film explores a critical time of changes in the intertwined lives of the four members of a long-established string quartet. The second violinist [Hoffman] is married to the violist. Their daughter, a budding violinist, is the student, and the briefly the lover, of the obsessive, driven first violinist. But the focus of the movie is the cellist [Walken], who as the film begins is diagnosed with early stage Parkinson's. I freely confess that in the film's final moments, I wept openly. If Hollywood has any shred of integrity left, Walken and Hoffman will get Oscar nominations.
As I watched the film, I was reminded of a fascinating autobiographical memoir, Indivisible by Four, by the great first violinist of the Guarneri Quartet, Arnold Steinhardt. Through Steinhardt's writing, I gained some sense of the cloistral intimacy of the personal relationships of the members of a string quartet. A well-established quartet, like the Guarneri or the Juilliard, may remain together, its members unchanged, for decades. Night after night, for seven months a year, they sustain an intense, focused relationship, constantly attuned to one another's most subtle variations of mood and performance in their collective effort to create transcendently beautiful music. String quartets differ enormously from one another, though to the novice they may all sound alike. The Borromeo, for example, the very best of the new young quartets [although Wikipedia tells me that it has now been in existence for twenty years], is defined for me by the driving intensity of its cellist, Yeesun Kim. I once had the extraordinary privilege of listening to the Borromeo perform the great Grosse Fugue quartet by Beethoven while sitting no more than twenty feet from the musicians, and the power of her playing was a transformative experience.
Those of us in the professional upper middle classes tend to spend an entire lifetime in a single profession. Generally speaking, none of us -- Philosophy professors, cardiologists, corporation lawyers, architects, ministers -- has any direct experience of the professional lives of anyone outside of our own sub-specialty. My own case is actually somewhat anomalous, inasmuch as I taught History, Economics, Political Science, Mathematics, and Afro-American Studies, as well as Philosophy, and yet not once in my fifty year career did I so much as set foot in an active Biology, Chemistry, or Physics laboratory, nor did I ever go on an archeological dig or spend time in a performing arts studio. I know as a matter of general information that scientists these days work in groups in laboratories, typically under the guidance of a senior researcher whose NIH or NSF grants support cadres of graduate students and lab technicians. But I have no hands-on sense of what it would be like actually to work with another academic on a daily basis. The closest I ever came, I suppose, was co-authoring a little book with Barrington Moore, Jr. and Herbert Marcuse in 1965, but each of us wrote his essay alone, and we did not even exchange them for comment before cobbling them together into a book.
Susie and I have daily watched the most popular of the soaps, The Young and the Restless, for more than twenty years [I like to think of it as being rather like War and Peace -- a great deal of a good story, rather than, like The Brothers Karamazov, a good deal of a great story.] A number of the characters in the The Young and the Restless have been featured in the soap for more than two decades, and in several cases those roles have been, during all of that time, played by the very same actors. I am absolutely fascinated by this fact, and I endlessly wonder what it is like to play the same character for that length of time. This cannot at all be like acting in a long-running stage play [such as Agatha Christie's The Mousetrap, which has now run continuously in London for fifty years!] An actor in a long-running play says the same lines and does the same stage business night after night, and that is clearly its own experience sui generis. But an actor in a soap never utters the same lines twice. Every day is a new plot twist, a new set of lines, a new bit of stage business. The actors playing Catherine, Victor, Nicky, and Jill have probably spent more time together in this imaginary world than they have spent with their husbands and wives. What on earth can it be like to be a professional actor whose entire career consists of playing one part, and yet playing it in such a way that one never repeats a performance?
If I may return to the world of the string quartet, I played viola for several years in an amateur quartet when I lived in Pelham, Massachusetts. I was brought into the quartet by a wonderful woman, Barbara Greenstein, who had been playing quartets for sixty years, and served as our second violinist. The cellist was Barbara Davis, a woman in her late forties whose husband was the neurologist who, for a while, treated Susie's Multiple Sclerosis. It was a delight for me to sit next to her [as the violist and cellist do in a string quartet] and listen to her beautiful sound. The first violinist, Don White [who, like a number of accomplished amateur string quartet players could handle both the violin and the viola parts], was the most skilled of the four of us, but not a terribly sympatico person. Weak as my playing was, I cherished our weekly sessions. When Barbara Greenstein was taken from us by cancer, the heart went out of my playing, and although I did some pick-up quartet playing for a while, when I retired a bit later and moved to North Carolina, I put my beautiful Marten Cornellissen viola and my Benoit Roland bow in the closet and have not played since. For me, the personal relationships with my quartet mates were inseparable from the music making.
All of this, the elevated and the banal, was evoked by watching the A Late Quartet yesterday evening. I think I wept as much for my own personal loss as for the affecting end of the film.