A few weeks ago, before the holidays, I went to the movies. This is not something I do very often, I’m too lazy and far prefer today’s myriad streaming methods and TV channels which allow me to see most of what I want to see in the comfort and coziness of my living-room. I do have friends who are horrified by this laxity, comparing viewing movies on TV to swallowing food pills instead of enjoying steak-pommes frites, but I’m hopeless. At this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, I even have trouble going to concerts, imagine!
The movie I went to see had an extraordinary appeal for the musical busybody in me, I just couldn’t wait to see this “Late Quartet” – for the libretto, for the cast, for the whole idea. It’s not often that a movie seems to be written just for me, and I remember being equally excited when I went to see “Le Maître de Musique”, Belgian director Gérard Corbiau’s thrilling movie starring José van Dam or, more recently, Carlos Saura’s “Io, Don Giovanni”.
When I say the libretto, I of course mean the script, but I guess the name is more appropriate for a movie in which music plays such an important part. But here begins my slight disappointment. Yes, the movie is about a string quartet, both the players and the piece they play. The Fugue Quartet is practising Beethoven’s op.131, one of the most important quartets in all chamber literature, monumental in size and in content. A beautiful but extremely difficult and cerebral work, which does not easily lend itself to being heard as background music, in bits and pieces. So I realize that the music is an accessory, a pretext and that this is a drama about four people who happen to play together in a string quartet. Now, there is no shortage of real quartet stories ( I am thinking especially of Arnold Steinhardt’s books about the Guarneri) and most of them stress the difficulties and tensions of years of practising and performing together, so this was not exactly a surprising plot, not even for the cellist’s discovery of a debilitating illness, a circumstance that has, alas!, deprived audiences of quite a few outstanding musicians way too early.
On the positive side, the script is mostly interesting, and shows very good insight into the workings of a string quartet, but I believe it could have done without two or three soap-opera like twists, particularly those revolving around the second violinist’s and the violist’s daughter, an aspiring violinist herself (although I doubt she could have built a career on her rather weak skills). Her affair with the first violinist, his ridiculous flight from her apartment when her mother arrives suddenly, her wrenching confrontation with her mother could have been edited out without any detriment to the main plot.
What really makes the movie are the brilliant performances, especially those of Christopher Walken, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener. Walken is certainly the most credible of them all, he moves and talks like a cellist, and his solitude and fear are palpable. Anne Sophie von Otter’s cameo appearance as his late wife make it all the more understandable.
Now, a few trivial remarks which should not deter you from seeing the movie, if you haven’t yet gone.
First, I was slightly, although unjustifiably, annoyed by the fact that the actors were obviously not playing their instruments. We all know they are not musicians, but I have seen (and wondered how it was done) far better faking in other movies. Second, I found that Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character’s rebellion regarding his always playing second fiddle a bit overstated, but I may be totally wrong and only a professional quartet player could set me right. I just don’t believe that the first violin in a quartet is the diva that this movie depicts, and we all know that the second violin parts are as important as the first, sometimes even more so. A string quartet is, as the name indicates, an ensemble of four string instruments, each assigned a specific role which has changed over the years as the form evolved. The viola and the cello in early Mozart and Haydn quartets, for instance, are far more self-effacing than in the later Beethoven, Schubert or Mendelssohn works. Yes, but try to remove them altogether, even from the earlier forms, even from piano quartets or trios, and what do you get? A total collapse! That is because the lower strings are like the ground we walk on, or better, the stage a ballerina hops on. No ground, no walk and no dance. The viola and the cello provide that lush, rich, secure backdrop on which the violins embroider. And then, in later quartets, they not only form the solid harmonic and rhythmic base of the composition, but they take an active part in the melody – just listen to the great Schubert quartets and see what a cello can do. And please don’t underestimate the power of the viola, that often misunderstood middle voice. I think a fun exercise would be to listen to quartets minus one by one, and see what happens. Has anyone done that?
But going back to the movie, I would definitely recommend it, because the subject is interesting although the treatment is a bit light – as is to be expected in a one and a half hour entertainement – and the actors are superb. Oh, and one more word about the excitement of playing chamber music by heart – duh? Actually, I believe chamber musicians do know their parts extremely well, as they do those of their partners, a sine qua non condition to good ensemble playing. But to be completely deprived of a prompt now and then seems to me totally irrelevant. Again, the role of memorizing in music can be argued ad nauseam. Yes, it is good to let the music inhabit you and to be free of the written page, and clearly mandatory for solo performances. But for ensemble playing, I’m not so sure. Another topic open to discussion.