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Wednesday, October 30, 2013


In a comment on my last post, Jerry Fresia asks:  " is the music that results [i.e., from quartet playing] a by-product of a state of being? A spirit that is more than the whole, that issues from the assemblage of four musical agents conversing in harmony?"

The simple answer is, Yes when the music is made by great musicians, not so much when it is made by patzers like me.  Have you ever watched Yo Yo Ma playing the cello?  [I have actually seen him in person only once, some years ago at Tanglewood in Western Massachusetts, but I have seen him on television many times.]  When he plays the Bach suites for unaccompanied cello, he leans back and pulls his upper body a little bit away from the neck of the cello as though he were not so much playing the suites as listening to them.  They are rather difficult to play [trust me -- I have spent a good deal of time trying to play the viola transcriptions], but he has so thoroughly transcended the purely technical problems of playing the notes that he seems not to need to pay attention to them.  [Mstislav Rostropovich played the cello the same way.]  Ma is clearly hearing something in the music that he is effortlessly succeeding in transforming into his performance.

At their very best, string quartets are an intense, complex conversation among the four musicians.  Quartet playing is the ultimate cooperative enterprise.  There is absolutely no reward for playing the loudest or getting to the end of the piece first!  When you watch a great quartet -- the Boromeo comes to my  mind since I once listened to them play from a distance of only fifteen feet or so -- you see them constantly looking at one another as much as at the sheet music, smiling, nodding, interacting endlessly as they play.  With a great quartet -- but not so much even with a merely good professional quartet -- what emerges is a seamless complex polyphonic unity that is much, much more than the sum of individual notes.

Now, achieving that perfection is very hard.  Each of the members of the quartet must be an absolute master of the notes on the page, and the four players must spend many hours deciding the tempo, the dynamics, and the phrasing of virtually every measure.  Only then can they, like Yo Yo Ma, transcend the technical problems of playing the notes and truly make music.

Each great quartet is different, both because of the sound of each instrument and because of the musical interpretation and interpersonal dynamics of the four members of the quartet.  The Boromeo, for example, is dominated by the enormous power of the two women, who play viola and cello.  In other quartets, the first violinist defines the sound of the group.

What was it like for me to play for a number of years in the same amateur quartet?  Well, it goes without saying that it was NOT like being Yo Yo Ma!  First of all, each of us was, in one way or another, struggling simply to play the notes in tune and in the correct tempo.  My quartet mates were all vastly experienced, having played all of their lives.  What this means, fairly precisely, is that they did not get lost.  They could count [essential in quartet playing] and they knew the music so well that if they lost their way for a measure or two they could immediately get back in.  I, on the other hand, was playing each quartet for the first time, and it was a real effort not to get lost and screw up the entire group.

Now, as a matter of fact, once I got better, as a result of lessons and practice, I actually made a sound with my beautiful viola that was as good as, and in some cases better than, the sound being made by the others, but that counts for much less in quartet playing than it does in solo playing.  The arrangement of the quartet placed me to the left of the cellist, Barbara Davis.  Barbara is a solid cellist -- not nearly as accomplished or facile as the first violinist, Don White.  But Barbara has a beautiful tone, and it was a constant source of pleasure for me to hear her in my right ear playing those deep, grounded notes in a Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven quartet.  Barbara Greenstein, the organizer of the quartet whose sad death brought an end to my playing, was far and away the most experienced of the group, having under her belt almost seventy years of quartet playing.  She handled the second violin parts easily, though without making a beautiful sound, but she was always looking out for me [I sat opposite her, with Don White to my left] and very often she would look over the top of our music stands and give me a nod to help me find my way in a difficult passage.

I once read Indivisible by Four, the account by Arnold Steinhardt of his life as the first violinist of the great Guarneri String Quartet.  It was clear from the book that the relationship among the four members of the quartet was, in its way, more intimate and intense than their marital and other real world relationships.  [Since they toured for half the year, they spent more time with each other than with their spouses!]  For a cinematic rendering of the relationship of the members of a quartet, I strongly recommend last year's movie A Late Quartet, with an astonishing and uncharacteristic performance by Christopher Walken.

So, the short answer to Jerry's question is:  No, not for the likes of me.  But still, there are moments, there are moments.


David Auerbach said...

You said: For a cinematic rendering of the relationship of the members of a quartet, I strongly recommend last year's movie A Late Quartet, with an astonishing and uncharacteristic performance by Christopher Walken.

Which if you hadn't is what I was going to recommend. It's not a perfect movie (the daughter subplot is a little weak both in acting and writing) but Walken is stunning.

Don Schneier said...

From my experience with ensemble music, I believe that it is more accurate to formulate it as--The music itself creates that "state of being"--i. e. rather than being subsequent to some non-musical pre-existing condition, from which it then issues. In other words, the whole first emerges in the performance, on my interpretation.

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