A Violinist Reflects On The Ties Of Composers To Their Home Ground

Edward Dusinberre is first violinist of the Takács Quartet and author of a new book, ‘Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home.’ (Photo by Wolfgang Schmidt)

Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home. Edward Dusinberre. The University of Chicago Press, 2022. 233 pages.

PERSPECTIVE — Edward Dusinberre has been the first violinist of the Takács Quartet since 1993, and in 2016 he wrote one of the most insightful books ever about the Beethoven string quartets: Beethoven for a Later Age. Now he has given us another excellent book about string quartets. Distant Melodies examines works by Dvořák, Elgar, Bartók, and Britten, again from the perspective of a man who has played these works for years.

This new book was written during the pandemic, when the Takács Quartet was essentially shut down, unable to appear for months of scheduled concerts due to Covid restrictions.

“Compared with most people impacted by the virus,” he writes, “I was exceptionally privileged; able to teach my students online, mess around with a bird feeder and sit on my deck listening to a Britten string quartet.”

Dusinberre used the down time to think about his own situation. He was born in England, studied at Juilliard, and has lived for many years in Boulder, Colo., where the Takács has been the quartet-in-residence at the University of Colorado. How did he feel about being confined to quarters, as it were, for an indefinite period, far from his birthplace? And what of the composers whose works he often played? Dvořák had a deep attachment to his homeland but spent almost three years in America as head of the National Conservatory in New York. Bartók, too, spent his last years in America, far from his native Hungary. Britten left England to live in America during World War II. Elgar never lived outside England, and in his music Dusinberre finds a profound attachment to his surroundings.

As a young man growing up in England, studying the violin and playing in youth orchestras, Dusinberre often heard and played Elgar’s music, including the Serenade for Strings, Introduction and Allegro, the First Symphony, and the Cello Concerto — not to mention “Land of Hope and Glory” from Pomp and Circumstance, March No. 1. It became part of his DNA. When he moved to America, he discovered that Elgar’s music was far less appreciated.

Elgar made only minor contributions to the chamber-music repertoire, but Dusinberre has a special affection for the Piano Quintet. In 2016, when the Takács was engaged in its annual recording sessions for Hyperion in a village called Symonds Yat in the Wye Valley of Herefordshire, Dusinberre took the opportunity to visit several sites associated with Elgar, and particularly the Piano Quintet. He took walks that Elgar might have taken and visited the gravesites of the composer and his wife Alice in Little Malvern. And the following year, he traveled to Sussex to visit Brinkwells, the cottage where Elgar composed the Piano Quintet in 1919. But as is often the case with pilgrimages, there were surprises and disappointments:

“…the Elgar that I took away from Brinkwells was not the rejuvenated composer who in 1918 revelled in woodwork projects and for relaxation rushed down to the river to try out his latest fishing equipment, but the diminished man of three summers later, struggling to recapture Brinkwells through a map a child could have drawn.”

The map in question was drawn by Elgar in 1921 to help his friend and colleague William Henry Reed, the leader of the London Symphony Orchestra, find Brinkwells.

After more than a hundred years, much has changed at Brinkwells. There is a new owner, and the landscape itself has been radically altered. Nor is there any indication that a great composer had spent time working there. In the map, Dusinberre saw signs of decline, and it is true that Elgar’s creative powers had been all but played out by this time. No major work appeared after the Piano Quintet. And while Dusinberre writes fondly of this work, and it does indeed contain pages of great beauty, it would be hard to argue that it is either important Elgar or a significant contribution to the genre.

With respect to the theme of Dusinberre’s book, how does Elgar’s music, particularly the Piano Quintet, speak of home? Elgar and his wife — and Billy Reed, too — related the opening of the quintet to some local lore involving monks enacting impious rites. The music does begin with a Gregorian chant-like theme and some “ghostly stuff,” as Elgar called it. But the piece is clearly about the development of thematic material and not a depiction of any actual or fictional historic occurrences, nor does it paint a picture of trees and rivers near Brinkwells. Still, it is interesting that Dusinberre would take the trouble to learn more about the background of the piece by visiting the place where it was created. The Takács recorded the Piano Quintet with pianist Garrick Ohlsson in 2019 (Hyperion CDA 68295).

Dusinberre is able to advance his thesis more convincingly in the case of Dvořák’s String Quartet No. 12 in F major, Op. 96 (American). The work was written during the composer’s sojourn in America. He was based in New York as head of the National Conservatory but was often homesick and made a point of visiting the Czech community in Spillville, Iowa. As it happened, in 1993 Dusinberre had his first professional engagement with the Takács in Spillville performing the American Quartet. The concert was a centennial program celebrating Dvořák’s summer there in 1893.

Dusinberre spends several chapters on Dvořák, but it is mainly biographical information borrowed from other writers. The most interesting material has to do with Dusinberre’s experience playing the work with the Takács. It is quite fascinating to read about how a new member, second violinist Harumi Rhodes, who joined in 2018, changed his thinking about a particular episode in the slow movement of the American Quartet. From this discussion, we can learn a lot about the piece and how it should be played. However, in this passage and many others in the book, it would have been helpful to have musical examples. There are virtually none in the book. That is a serious oversight in a book that abounds in discussion of particular passages. Even readers with a good working knowledge of the chamber-music literature would have difficulty identifying many of the passages Dusinberre talks about.

Dvořák did some of his finest work in America — the New World Symphony, the Cello Concerto, and the American string quartet — and he did a great deal to encourage American composers to make use of their own folk music, including Native American music and Negro spirituals. But in all these pieces and in others written in America, Dvořák also clearly expressed his own longing for home in Bohemian melodies and rhythms.

Dusinberre’s thoughts on Bartók and his string quartets brings him face to face with a special problem: All four original members of the Takács Quartet were Hungarian, and one of them, cellist András Fejér, is still there. The group was formed in 1975 when the members were students at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest, where Bartók taught for many years. The Takács became known for its authoritative Bartók performances, and it was expected of Dusinberre that he would carry on that tradition. He has certainly done so, and with distinction, but in the book Dusinberre admits to having differences of opinion with Fejér. Of course, disagreements in string quartet rehearsals go with the territory. But in this case, it couldn’t have been easy for a young Englishman to go toe to toe with a distinguished, middle-aged Hungarian musician on the subject of Bartók.

In the book, Dusinberre discusses passages in the Fourth and Sixth Bartók quartets in some detail. Again, the lack of musical examples is frustrating. And why not put a CD in the back of the book, or appropriate audio excerpts expressly for readers of the book on the Takács website? Dusinberre gives a very good account of Bartók’s later years, escaping the Nazis in Budapest, settling in New York, and going to Asheville, N.C., for five months for convalescence from what was diagnosed as tuberculosis. It turned out to be leukemia, and Bartók died in a New York hospital on Sept. 26, 1945. In the Sixth Quartet, one of his finest works, Dusinberre finds enormous technical challenges but spiritual ones, too, and eloquently makes the connection between Bartók’s unhappiness so far from home and longing for what once was. The Sixth Quartet is uncompromising intellectually, but it is also disturbing and sad. Bartók marks each movement “Mesto,” meaning mournful. The work opens with a melancholy viola solo and ends with similar music that is profoundly unsettling. Dusinberre gives us a privileged insight into what it is like to wrestle with preparing a performance of this great masterpiece.

The Takács Quartet: violinists Edward Dusinberre and Harumi Rhodes, cellist András Fejér, and violist Richard O’Neill (Photo by Amanda Tipton)

Bartók spent years seeking out and making recordings of the folk music of his native Hungary and elsewhere. This field research vastly increased our knowledge of folk music but also became part of the life’s blood of Bartók’s own compositions. His Concerto for Orchestra, one of the finest works of his American period, is replete with themes and rhythms based on Hungarian folk materials.

Moving finally to the music of Benjamin Britten, Dusinberre concentrates on Britten’s years in America, a turning away from his homeland in disgust at the militarism that was sweeping Europe and engulfing England, too. Britten was a pacifist, even in the face of a threat as evil as Hitler and the Nazis. Britten and his partner, Peter Pears, went to the United States together and found any number of friends and admirers ready to help them. They accepted hospitality first on Long Island and later in Brooklyn and California.

But for someone as sensitive as the young Britten, helpful friends often turned into annoying obstacles to the work he was trying to do as a composer. Britten and Pears accepted an invitation from the pianists Rae Robertson and Ethel Bartlett to spend the summer of 1941 with them in Escondido, just north of San Diego. Southern California sounded idyllic at first, but then came the incessant duo-piano practice and the deafening noise of airplanes from a nearby air base. In time it seems everything got to him:

“The combination of two pianists practicing and the overpowering heat make it impossible to think straight…the musical intelligence of commercial film audiences cannot be underestimated. If you must attend a concert at the Hollywood Bowl, beware: this will not be an authentic musical experience. In addition to incessant discussions of allergies, bowel movements and vitamin supplements, people here drive like maniacs.”

In spite of it all, Britten managed to complete his first string quartet. Perhaps more importantly, he came to an important realization. In a speech delivered at Aspen in 1964, he put it this way:

“I write music, now, in Aldeburgh, for people living there, and further afield, indeed for anyone who cares to play it or listen to it. But my music now has its roots in where I live and work. And I only came to realise that in California in 1941.”

For Dusinberre, Britten may be the one of best examples of a composer writing “Music in Search of Home.” Only by leaving home did Britten and many others come to understand that they had unbreakable ties with the places they came from. And they often found ways to express that bond in their music, as Dvořák did in his American Quartet, Bartók in his Sixth Quartet, and Britten in his String Quartet No. 1. Dusinberre points out that there is a clear connection between Britten’s quartet and his opera Peter Grimes, written four years later. The opera is based on a poem by George Crabbe that Britten had discovered in a Los Angeles bookshop in 1941. The Peter Grimes story about a fisherman suspected of murdering his apprentices was set in Aldeburgh, Suffolk, in the region where Britten was born and grew up, and where he spent the rest of his life after returning to England.

Distant Melodies does not offer thorough analysis of the chamber music of Elgar, Dvořák, Bartók, and Britten; it is not that kind of book. What it offers instead is often penetrating thoughts about the music by one of the finest quartet leaders active today. I would love to have such a book written by Norbert Brainin, Robert Mann, or Adolf Busch, or other legendary quartet leaders. But Dusinberre has now given us not one but two books about playing and understanding some of the greatest music ever written. His curiosity is insatiable, his knowledge and experience almost incomparable, and he has a sense of humor, too. I think musicians and music lovers will find the hours spent reading and thinking about this book time well spent.