Article/ A Late Quartet

A Late Quartet explores the turbulent lives of classical musicians

By Ian Haydn Smith

Beethoven’s String Quartet no. 14 in C# minor, op. 131, is a 40-minute composition in seven movements, intended to be played without a break. It was completed in the last year of the composer’s life but not heard publicly until 1835, eight years after his death. Beethoven himself is quoted as saying it was his greatest work, while Robert Schumann, the noted composer, music critic and a contemporary of Beethoven’s, described the three final string quartets (op. 132, 130 and 131, in the order they were written) as  occupying a place “on the extreme boundary of all that has hitherto been attained by human art and imagination”.

The piece lies at the heart of Yaron Zilberman’s thoughtful, meditative A Late Quartet. Through it we witness the players’ passion for their craft. It also gives the film its thematic underpinning. The complexity of the composition, shifting between tranquility and raw emotion, reflects the journey of the characters as they edge towards an emotional precipice before finally achieving a state of grace. For lead violinist Daniel (Mark Ivanir), second violinist Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his wife and viola player Juliette (Catherine Keener) and ailing cellist Peter (Christopher Walken), the music is the force that ultimately binds them together. Performing requires everything from the quartet, often at the expense of their personal lives. Like lovers, they exist solely for each other and those outside this close-knit circle are left to sate themselves on whatever scraps of affection remain.

The history of classical music has long been meat for the filmmaker’s grind. Mozart (Amadeus, 1984), Beethoven (Immortal Beloved,  1994), Bach (The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach,  1968), Liszt (Lisztomania, 1975), Tchaikovsky (The Music Lovers, 1970) and Chopin (Impromptu, 1991) are just a small number of composers whose often-colourful lives have been dramatised on screen. Although they may highlight the brilliance of these artists, many of the films fall short of grasping the emotional weight of the music created, or the demands it places on musicians. As Daniel informs Alexandra (Imogen Poots), Robert and Juliette’s daughter, merely performing the music is not enough. To understand, to feel it, one has to find a way back to Beethoven’s own emotional state.  As Alexandra learns, it is an almost insurmountable task.

A Late Quartet delivers a balanced portrait of the personal lives of musicians alongside their professional personas. As with Anand Tucker’s Hilary and Jackie (1998) and Scott Hick’s Shine  (1996), it details the cost of a life-long dedication to art. Selfishness, a disregard for the feelings of others and an almost childlike desire for attention are the flip side of such success. For the quartet, the problems are four-fold – balancing their own needs with those of their fellow players. Petty jealousies, the quest for perfection, feeling under appreciated and the fear that their talent may one day desert them haunt them all. Only when they are lost in the music do their concerns evaporate.

A Late Quartet is ultimately a celebration of both Beethoven’s beautiful composition and the musicians’ dedication and the sacrifices made in order to achieve perfection. It rightly suggests that this music is not separate from our lives, something to be experienced in the concert hall and half-forgotten soon after. It is, like great fiction, a drama that draws from and is inspired by the chaotic nature of our lives.

With thanks to Curzon Cinemas

A Late Quartet opens on Fri 12 April.