Beethoven for a Later Age: Peter Oundjian Interviews Edward Dusinberre

December 22, 2020

As part of the Colorado Music Festival’s celebration of Beethoven’s 250th birthday, Music Director Peter Oundjian sat down with author and musician Edward Dusinberre to discuss their mutual fondness for Beethoven. Ed is the first violinist of Boulder’s Takács Quartet, author of the book Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets, and a good friend to the Festival. Watch this interview or read the transcription below.

 

Introduction

Peter Oundjian: Well, as always, I am absolutely delighted to welcome Ed Dusinberre to our space here, our virtual space. Ed, how are you?

Ed Dusinberre: I’m very well, and it’s great to see you again.

Peter: Fantastic, so we’re here to celebrate Beethoven because it has been deprived of us almost this entire year to take part in all these massive celebrations and I’m guessing that the Takács Quartet had some significant plans that you’ve had to cancel. Tell us a little bit about that.

Ed: Yeah, I think like everyone we’ve had to make tremendous changes and have been doing more in the way of video content for some of our loyal presenters, which has been a great sort of learning curve for us.

Peter: Totally, for me too.

Ed: Yeah, and one of the things that’s funny about it, one of the recordings we made was actually of Beethoven [Opus] 132, the whole piece. First of all, it’s quite unusual for a string quartet to get filmed in my experience, I don’t know, there are some wonderful films of the Tokyo Quartet. I remember particularly seeing one recently from Tokyo, but generally it’s not something that happens every day and certainly when it does happen, we’ve had no input in which camera angles are used or how it looks. This has been really a new experience for us to actually have input. We’ve been working with a talented videographer here and it’s been fun, but of course, in a string quartet, there are like six different opinions for how it should look, so that’s a whole different dimension that we’ve had to talk about.

Peter: Of course, we have to come to an agreement. I mean, that’s one of the magical things about playing in a string quartet, right? Figuring out how to be one voice when essentially you have at least four ideas, right? That’s assuming that each of us only has one. [laughs]

Ed: Exactly. [laughs]

Peter: But in a way that’s also part of the magic of it, the tension. I find it always interesting when I look back and I see a film of us playing from maybe 30 years ago, and I kind of remember that there was a lot of tension, a lot of disagreement and frustration that we couldn’t play it the way we wanted to and then later you look at it and say, “My God, that seemed really unified actually.”

Ed: Yes, that’s very interesting.

Peter: Right, maybe some of that tension is, in a funny way, unifying.

Ed: Yes, because you have to work through it. When you think of that, are there particular pieces or contentious passages or things that every time you went to play them, you knew there was going to be conversation?

Peter: More, it was to do with a general thing, with a feeling of a tempo or something like that because all musicians have particular tendencies when it comes to rhythm. Some people are just born rushers and that in order to become really good professionals, they have to figure out how to resist that, but it’s never entirely gone, right? Some people are born expanders, like the great conductor Celibidache; he never rushed a phrase in his entire life. And then everything in between, I think.

Our conversations were usually about trying to come to terms with how the rhythm feels because we talk about rhythm and it’s not symmetry right? Rhythm is flow, and so that’s the thing too, because it’s flow, the degree to which you flow or the degree to which you allow space around the flow, these things are very intricate and by the time we get to the stage, we better not make it look like we have friction.

Ed: Yes, as I hear you saying that, I would have to categorize myself in the “rusher” department rather than the “expander” and so the second movement of Opus 59, No. 3 has always been a delicate negotiation in that slow movement, because I think András, our cellist, has a very good sense that it’s a piece that is so… repetition is a real feature of the character, this sort of, kind of almost slightly numbed sadness that just keeps coming back.

I think he always sort of reminds us that we shouldn’t fight that, we shouldn’t feel like we have to make big events and big direction, there’s a quality, sort of an almost drugged quality to it, at least at the beginning, of course, it changes later on. Sometimes in the past, I’ve been a little resistant to that, but now that I’m hopefully older and a bit wiser, I’m… But as you said, by the time you get to actually play in the concert you have to just agree, that’s really important and then it’s in the rehearsals that the cans of worms get opened.

Peter: Sure, well you bring up a really important subject, which is to what degree do we, as musicians, impose our own personality on a composer’s work rather than try to reflect what we truly believe the composer intended and only adding the degree to which we have to add ourselves. György Sebők who was the greatest teacher, he was a wonderful pianist, Hungarian, taught at Indiana, he said something which I always loved. He said, “If I want to go on stage and play a Beethoven sonata, I have to disappear for 25 minutes because there’s no room for both of us.”

Ed: [laughs] That’s great.

Peter: I love that and I think you see a lot of playing which we might consider rather indulgent and on the other side you might see some playing which you say, “yeah, it’s not expressive enough,” or “they’re not committing enough” and finding that balance, it’s one of the reasons I love teaching actually. I know you do quite a bit of teaching as well, I think it really helps us understand how to formulate where to go, you know what I mean?

Getting Hooked on Beethoven’s Quartets

Ed: Yes, absolutely. I was thinking just as I was listening to you talk, just wondering if you have particular early experiences in the Tokyo Quartet around Beethoven or even way before that. How did you first get hooked on Beethoven quartets?

Peter: I first got hooked on Beethoven piano sonatas because there were so many pianists in my house, I mean my father and my sister at least. For me to listen to Opus 109 or Opus 111 or the Hammerklavier was just otherworldly. I think that’s what caught me. Funnily enough, I didn’t play that many quartets. I think we share that in common, you had a piano trio in England, right?

Ed: I played a quartet of the Royal College, but I didn’t play a lot of quartets, you’re absolutely right. Like you, my first experience to Beethoven was piano sonatas because my grandfather, who was the registrar at the Royal College of Music, but he was a very good amateur pianist and when he retired, he and my gran moved to Shropshire and they had a little cottage there. We frequently went on summer holidays there and they had a lovely garden that I’d go and play football with my brother and quite often there’d be the sound of piano floating out in the garden.

He was a very modest man. He loved to play for himself, he didn’t particularly love performing, but I think particularly my dad loved to listen to him play and so it was quite often pushing him like, “John, can you play? What are you working on right now?” Eventually my grandfather sort of lost some of his shyness and ended up playing for us in the late afternoon. I heard lots of piano sonatas, Beethoven piano sonatas, and it was a kind of magic to have them in one’s system from that early age and also played by someone where his sense of wonder and delight, it wasn’t anything about his personality. He wasn’t a flashy player, and sometimes he’d just stop and point out a really great chord that he loved, so that ended up being the better experience.

Peter: You didn’t get to college until about the mid ’80s, late ’80s?

Ed: ’86.

Peter: ’86, okay, I think people know by now that we’ve followed very a similar path, but you are more than a dozen years later because you’re more than a dozen years younger, but it kind of always intrigues me that then you came to Juilliard and then you joined a quartet with three people of a specific nationality who had been a quartet of one nationality, yours Hungarian, mine Japanese, so it’s always intrigued me. But you asked me about falling in love, I bet the next thing you did with Beethoven was to play violin sonatas I’m going to guess, maybe even with your grandfather.

Ed: Yeah, especially we played the Spring Sonata and actually growing up in Cambridge, I was very lucky, I had a piano teacher, a woman called Hilda Bor who had been a child prodigy, and then when she was older, also played with the Amadeus Quartet.

Peter: My gosh.

Ed: But by the time that I was working with her, she was just teaching private students. She was a wonderful pianist and she kindly suffered my very crude first attempts with a couple of different Beethoven sonatas. Actually, I played the concerto much earlier than I should have done, probably.

Peter: How old were you?

Ed: I was probably second year of college, so 18, 19. Of course I wasn’t ready for it, but I think it was still great just to play it and I was lucky. My dad worked at the University of Warwick at that point and I was lucky enough to play with their student symphony orchestra and I think I played it with another orchestra put together by a conductor at college. I’m glad there isn’t any sort of physical evidence of those performances. [laughs]

Peter: I totally sympathize, that’s funny, we never talked about this, but I played the Beethoven concerto when I was 17 in public, which I also, I suppose shouldn’t have done although now we’re really revealing our English background aren’t we? “You’re too young, young lad, you’re not mature enough.” I was recently speaking to Augustin Hadelich a little bit about this, who’s such a wonderful person, an incredible musician and violinist.

He told me that actually his father encouraged him to play everything. He was playing Bartók’s Second Violin Concerto when he was like 10 or something and it’s very much the opposite of the way we grew up, “wait your turn” kind of thing, wait until you’re mature enough. But I bet that our experience of playing the Beethoven concerto at such a young age was really significant, because the whole point is you have to get to know the person, his music.

Ed: Yes.

Peter: So that you have a strong identity with it, which certainly I felt that I was doing so that when I did start playing the quartets, rather similarly, probably to you, you felt like, “Okay, I can learn what this is about more quickly because I’m so familiar with his language” right?

Ed: Yes, exactly, and I also remember studying at the college with my teacher Felix Andrievsky, getting to that extraordinary second page of the slow movement of the concerto with its sort of magazine, florid sense of improvisation and just the ethereal sense of maybe someone talking to God or however you want to think of it. My teacher was a very inspiring personality. The first time I played it for him, I really didn’t have any idea what was going on. He didn’t demonstrate very much, but I do remember him just playing a whole of that page for me and I was in awe of both the beauty of what he was doing, but more his sense of being in the room with this music that was so special. I just needed to wake up and get with the program.

What Makes Beethoven’s Music so Extraordinary?

Peter: Absolutely, what is it, do you think that is so extraordinary about Beethoven? I know that’s a very difficult question to answer because we could speak about that for hours or days even, but there is something unique about the way Beethoven makes us feel as human beings, I think. Even if you can’t read music or you have very little exposure to music, certain passages of Beethoven will grab everyone, it’s incredibly universal. What are the things about Beethoven that you find so remarkable?

Ed: I want to hear your answer to this question as well. Many things. I think the juxtapositions of mood, we were talking earlier about how our own personalities can’t get in the way. He makes such emotional demands on the player, in terms of the understanding of something that can be very ethereal in one moment and then rather sort of rude and down to earth, so that’s one element. I think this amazing marrying of a very strong form and rhythm and structure and spine and solidity on the one hand and tremendous strife and pushing against all of those things on the other hand.

I think maybe in a nutshell, especially as I’ve got older and life gets more complicated and you become more aware of contradictions and ambivalence and trying to balance different things, Beethoven speaks to that because he’s so full of contradictions and different voices within the same piece, but somehow extraordinarily unified to be very convincing, or at times when it’s not unified, where it sounds really fractured, that’s totally intentional. That would be my short answer, how about for you?

Peter: Well, I think it’s the consolation ultimately for me, that is so completely rewarding. It’s like it doesn’t matter what Beethoven had to battle in his life, he found a way of giving us a sense of hope. Whether it was in his strong, powerful music, or particularly, of course, in the slow movements.

Ed: I liked that word, consolation, and thinking specifically about the quartets and not just the late quartets, but when one thinks about his deafness and the tremendous isolation that he felt as a result of that, it’s so touching and consoling that he creates the means of close relationships between people. First of all, the players in the quartet, the degree of cooperation and of melding individual ideas together.

How amazing that someone who had quite a lot of difficulty with his own relationships could provide this, that 250 years later he’s providing the opportunity for first of all, for four people to sit down and communicate this music with each other but then of course the relationships with the audiences. Even during these crazy times when we don’t have live audiences, nonetheless, there’s a powerful relationship, even through video and online.

Peter: Yeah, well it’s fascinating always that you find somebody like that who could not find resolution with almost anything in his life, and his life was essentially much more tragic than anything else, and yet his music… I mean, look at the last movement of [Opus] 59, [No.] 3, that fugue. What is more of a celebration than that? There’s nothing more dramatic, exciting and celebrational. It’s very tender to think about how Beethoven could create a sense of resolution and triumph for all of us, but he never could really find it in himself, right? 

Memories of Performing Beethoven

Ed: That’s right, do you have particularly fond concert memories of any of the quartets, in particular venues?

Peter: Well, we were very, very lucky, at the 25th anniversary of the Tokyo Quartet, which was in the ’94-’95 season, we played Beethoven cycles literally all over the world, at Carnegie Hall and Fisher Hall, we shared those two halls. We played one at La Scala Opera House.

Ed: Wow.

Peter: Yeah, and that I think was one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. It was six concerts and we finally played, for an encore at the end of it, we played the Cavatina from Opus 130 again. It really was impossible to hold back tears, it was so moving because the Italian audience would write to us. After every concert, we’d get many letters backstage thanking us and then asking us what we’re going to play for an encore and you felt that sense of unity. I think that’s probably the most powerful experience I ever had on the stage.

There’s another thought, I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about this, but do you know how lucky we are? How many times have you played the Cavatina or the late Beethoven quartets or any of it, and how long have you known them and how long did Beethoven know them?

Ed: Right, it’s a good point.

Peter: That’s really unfair, isn’t it?

Ed: I never thought of that.

Peter: He created them for us to enjoy our whole lives, but he’s deprived of them rather quickly, presumably, although who knows?

Ed: I think what you said about it being a moving experience for the player is interesting because of course we spend so much of our time thinking about communicating emotion rather than necessarily feeling. We shouldn’t be too obsessed with that, but I totally understand that with the Beethoven cycle. 

I had that feeling of being pretty much in tears slightly for a different reason when we got to the end of our cycle, which in London, at the Southbank Centre, and we ended with the Grosse Fuge and as you know, it just demands so much of you, that piece. I always feel like to play it well, you end up a little bit in little bits afterwards, you have to kind of reassemble yourself emotionally and physically. Yet at the same time, the very ending of that piece is so glorious, I can’t really think of a more joyful, affirming ending, anything.

Peter: Completely uplifting and yet people think, “The Grosse Fuge, my God, I’m scared of that,” but that middle passage is so beautiful and full of yearning again, of course, in a major key.

Ed: That time I really was very choked up on stage and felt a little bit embarrassed actually, because I thought this isn’t how it’s supposed to be, but it was just a powerful experience.

Beethoven for a Later Age: Living with the String Quartets

Peter: I have to ask you about your book, because I think it’s the most wonderful book, Beethoven for a Later Age, which I think you’ve got that title from something very interesting, tell me of the source.

Ed: Yeah, so the source was Beethoven himself, when a violinist rather rudely said to him that the Opus 59 quartets were not music, Beethoven said, “They’re not for you, this is music for a later age.” Originally I wanted to have just Music for a Later Age and then a subtitle about Beethoven. Embarrassingly, the reason it became Beethoven for a Later Age has everything to do with Google search engines. On a book about Beethoven, it needed to have Beethoven in the first part of the thing, so Beethoven for a Later Age works very well.

Peter: Great title.

Ed: It very much describes the themes that I’m talking about in the book.

Peter: Well, it’s a wonderful book, and obviously it required a lot of… somewhat research, but much more research really within yourself, because it’s a very personal book. Just explain a little bit for people who haven’t yet read it, how you put this together, because it’s really fascinating, there’s a kind of duality throughout the book.

Ed: Yeah, it’s a hybrid book really, it started off with my obsession with Count Razumovsky, one of Beethoven’s patrons, and the rather tragic life he had actually and the fact that we remember him because he commissioned these three quartets from Beethoven, and he also set up a string quartet in residence. I got very interested in him and in the first players who tackled these works, and this was a time when I was also tackling the works early on, and it was reassuring for me to discover that I wasn’t the only one who found them difficult.

I started to want to tell the story of the Takács Quartet through our experiences with Beethoven. [Opus] 59, [No.] 3 was my audition piece and they won the Portsmouth competition, now the London competition, before I joined with [Opus] 59, [No.] 2, and there’ve been certain sort of pivotal moments in the quartet’s history where Beethoven was prominent.

That was one element of it, but I also really wanted to try and tell the story of how the quartets came to be written and stories about the first players, especially the violinist Ignaz Schuppanzigh. It is a mixture of history and memoir and stories about playing quartets together.

Peter: But, the memoir part, let’s not skip over that because it’s very, very compelling. I mean, to hear your entire story of receiving the phone call and then traveling to Boulder for your audition, am I remembering this somewhat correctly? The way you spin the tale and the narrative, is absolutely beautiful, you’re a wonderful writer. It’s incredible that you could play the violin and be that kind of a musician and write in that way too.

Anyway, it’s a really beautiful book and it tells an awful lot about Ed and it tells an awful lot about the Takács Quartet, and even more about Beethoven and the experiences of how deeply meaningful these quartets are to all of us. I think some people might be falling asleep if we keep talking, although you and I probably could go on for a very long time.

Ed: We can go all night. [laughs]

Peter: We’re delighted that you’re performing Opus 18, No. 6 and Opus 59, No. 3 for our Beethoven celebration just around his birthday, we really appreciate that and your whole quartet’s commitment to everything you do. I’m a huge fan of the Takács Quartet, always have been. I remember hearing you, I don’t know why, but I was in Amsterdam and you had a concert in a little concertgebouw, and I snuck in and watched a little bit of the rehearsal when you were playing the Dvořák Cypresses. I looked and I went, “Now, that is quartet playing, that is really beautiful.”

Ed: Thanks, well I have to say that is very kind, Peter, but we also are very grateful to you and the Colorado Music Festival during these tremendously challenging times for hosting us for our first concert back in the summer with our new violist Richard O’Neill and now having another wonderful opportunity to play more Beethoven. Thanks for everything that you and the Colorado Music Festival is doing for musicians and for audiences around the world.

Peter: It’s our great pleasure, Ed. We look forward very much to hearing you live very soon, hopefully even at the opening of next year’s festival.

Ed: Wouldn’t that be wonderful?

Peter: Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Ed, thank you so much for this, really appreciate it and thanks to all of you for listening, and I hope you enjoyed our conversation. I can certainly say I enjoyed it very, very much, thanks Ed.

Ed: Thanks.

Music Director Peter Oundjian Interviews the Takács Quartet >>

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