“A Late Quartet”
For the last 25 years, the string quartet calling themselves “The Fugue”
has been playing concerts together, and making beautiful music together.
Mark (Daniel Learner) at first violin, Robert (Philip Seymour Hoffman) at
second violin, Juliette (Catherine Keener) on viola, and Peter (Christopher
Walken) on cello. Robert and Juliette are married to each other, and have a
grown daughter, Alexandra (Imogen Poots) who also studies the violin, taking
lessons from Mark, who also builds and makes the bows, out of genuine
horsehair. Peter’s wife, who occasionally sang some mezzo-soprano at
concerts with the quartet, has died in the last year, and they’ve been on
hiatus. The trouble is, now that they’re ready to resume, and begin
rehearsing to embark on tour again, Peter discovers that it’s not just that
he is out of practice, he is in the beginning stages of Parkinson’s.
And the seams holding the group together seem to rip apart under the strain.
Robert has always resented “playing second fiddle,” and demands at least
that they alternate, but Mark is unwilling to negotiate his customary first
position. The more Robert thinks about that, the madder it makes him, and when
he goes to Juliette for support, he is flabbergasted to think that she
actually considers him second-best, as well. And being the stereotypical
emotional musician, he immediately goes out and seeks comfort elsewhere, to a
running partner, a flamenco dancer, who was more than happy to share her
passion with him, but now he really feels terrible. Worse, Juliette has found
out about their one-night soiree, and she is particularly unforgiving, perhaps
because she’s secretly had a crush on Mark all this time, anyway.
But Mark, for his part, can’t seem to resist the wiles of Alexandra, who
carries a strong resentment about her parents’ long absences growing up, and
it doesn’t take Freud to figure out that her dalliance with Mark was really
just a way of exacting revenge on her parents, through the dissembling of
their precious quartet.
And all along, we hear the beautiful strains of Beethoven, along with some
snowy and barren landscapes, because it is not only the season of winter, it
is the winter of these people’s lives, and their coldness and cruelty to
each other chills us. But wait, Peter, quoting Pablo Casals, gives us an
encouraging word, when he tells his students the story about his meeting
Casals once, and playing badly for him, but Casals chose to emphasize the
positive, and that, of course, is not just about playing difficult music,
it’s about how we treat other people no matter what the context.
The problem with showing us the dark undersides of these characters is that
they look a little less lovely to us, even when they are making beautiful
But as one who has participated in adult choirs for 40 years, there’s
something about that synergy of soprano, alto, tenor, bass that is beyond
words. Even as this 1st violin, 2nd violin, viola, and cello together is about
the powerful synergy of making beautiful sound together. Yes, it’s about how
music affects the very soul. Even when those who are making the music are
You know, you could say the same thing about the Church……
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving,