Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home. Edward Dusinberre. 2022, University of Chicago Press 233 p. Illustrations, notes, index.
As a former student of cello I would read with great appetite about the art of string quartet playing. In 1999 Guarneri Quartet violinist Arnold Steinhardt published his memoir, “Indivisible by Four: A String Quartet in Pursuit of Harmony,” which I enjoyed immensely.
I listened to string quartet music deeply, and in the process became a fan of the Takács quartet. And so when I learned about violinist Edward Dusinberre’s “Distant Melodies” I wasted no time acquiring a copy.
I had the opportunity to interview him in 2017 in Madison Wisconsin as the Takács toured the Midwest. I was impressed by his humanity and articulate insights.
This book, his second, is inspired by the music and the personal stories of Benjamin Britten, Bela Bartok, and Antonin Dvorak, all of whom spent time in the U.S., and whose nostalgia for their homelands shaped their compositions: Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904), born in Bohemia, Austrian Empire (now in Czech Republic) lived in Spillville, Iowa; Hungarian Bela Bartok (1881-1945) relocated to Manhattan, upstate New York, and Asheville, NC; and Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) born in Suffolk, England lived in California and Long Island.
Himself a Britain living in Boulder, Colorado, Dusinberre also feels nostalgia for his homeland.
The largely self-taught Edward Elgar (1857-1934) was born in Worcester, England; he did not live abroad but did spend much of his composing time in a remote cottage and Englishness informed his music.
As a result of his seemingly inexhaustible appetite for research, Dusinberre provides archival photos and brief but substantial biographies of these composers based on their letters, previously published biographies, newspaper articles, and Dusinberre’s many field trips to places where composers lived, even temporarily. He portrays their lives, health, lovers, spouses, mentors, students, houses, families, patrons and commissions.
As members of today’s Takács Quartet must spend (? far too) much time on buses and taxis and airplanes, these profiled composers spent (? far too) much time on ships and trains.
Across the course of these chapters Dusinberre details the composition history of seven pieces in the quartet’s repertoire, the place each piece holds in each composer’s opus, and their personal, historical, and cultural contexts, the latter including mentions of Tom Stoppard, A. E. Housman, Willa Cather, Thomas Mann, F. Scott Fitzgerald, E. M. Forster, Tom Wolfe, Rimbaud, and even Ovid.
As musician, Dusinberre provides a front row (and behind the curtain) view of the rehearsals and peformances of Takács Quartet, named after founding member and first violinist Gábor Takács-Nagy.
Playing in an internationally ranked string quartet must be one of the most taxing and demanding lifeways imaginable. Besides maintaining mastery of one’s instrument and the group’s repertoire, such performers endure years and perhaps decades of the drudgery of life on the road: hotel rooms, jet lag, interpersonal frictions and their resolutions, and disruption of family life. Add to that the recent COVID pandemic which caused tour cancellations and concerts streamed from empty concert halls.
As much as the general reader will enjoy the stories of composers’ lives, musicians will appreciate the detailed descriptions of rehearsals, debates about interpreting various pieces, the inspiration, and details of playing four-stringed instruments: bowing techniques and why they matter and how they change, interpreting the ebb and flow of phrases, creating oscillating quavers and semiquavers and glissandi, the natural harmonic series, mastering challenging passages.
As author, Dusinberre weaves in his personal story and those of the members of the TSQ, former and current.
He describes lovingly his early life, musical training, eccentric teachers, and his family (his mother was a Shakespeare scholar and his father a historian of America.)
Yet he is a humble man and through his self criticism, and growing self awareness over the years, we witness his changing perspective on musical interpretation and human relationships. His writing voice is human, and humorous, and perhaps most importantly, knowledgeable.
For the benefit of those who desire further reading the book provides a 3-page list of works cited, notes, and index.
This book inspires the reader to revisit his CD library and give more time to these composers and to their grandfather, Haydn.
The world renowned Danish String Quartet will perform here in Madison April 18 with a program of Schubert, Shostakovich, Britten, and arrangements of Danish folk songs.
The Quartet, which debuted in 2002, performs classical and 20th Century music and its own arrangements of traditional Danish folk songs. Quartet members are Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen and Frederik Øland, violins; Asbjørn Nørgaard, viola; and Fredrik Schøyen Sjölin, cello.
In addition to works by J.S. Bach and Beethoven, the group’s five Prism CDs include works by Bartok, Shostakovich, Schnittke, Webern, and Mendelssohn.
The new release, Prism V, includes Bach’s chorale prelude Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit; Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16 in F major; Anton Webern’s 1905 String Quartet, (inspired both by Beethoven and Schoenberg); and concludes with Contrapunctus 14 from Bach’s The Art of the Fugue.
In an interview April 13, violinist Rune Tonsgaard Sørensen previewed the quartet’s Madison April 18 performance at Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall in Memorial Union and commented on classical music radio.
For the Madison concert the quartet will play Haydn’s Op 20 string quartet in G minor. “It’s a great piece that showcases Haydn’s creativity in an amazing way,” Sørensen said.
“And the Shostakovich 7th String quartet, it’s the shortest of his 15 quartets, about 12 or 13 minutes long,” Sørensen said. “A very compressed piece of music, but with so much power and so much impact. It really leaves the listener breathless. That’s often the case with his music. It’s fun to play. It changes you when you hear it. It’s a privilege playing his music. He has an anniversary coming up in 2025 (the 50th anniversary of his death). We are playing more of his music to prepare for that year.”
“In Madison we also will play the Schubert Quartettsatz, which is a single movement that he thought should be a string quartet, but it never got that far.
“After the intermission we’ll play a selection of Danish folks songs, our own arrangements.”
I mentioned the scarcity of 20th Century music on classical music radio in the U.S. “The twentieth century is my favorite era of music history,” Sørensen said. “There are so many fantastic composers. They should be played more often. There might be fear of this kind of music, but . . . it’s easy to convince people to listen to the music of Benjamin Britten or Shostakovich. There’s nothing to be afraid of. Only the opposite. Even Schnittke creates an incredible reaction in the audience when we play it live.
“But twentieth Century music works not only in a live concert; I think it works on radio too. It’s a matter of getting rid of the prejudice about contemporary music. It is very strong, and there are so many wonderful composers from the 20th century that should be played much more often.”
Madison area community members and visitors can attend a free studio class 11 a.m.-12:30 p.m. on April 18 in Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall in Memorial Union during which UW–Madison students will perform in front of members of the Danish String Quartet and receive feedback.
You must be logged in to post a comment.