“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 music together.
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 perfectly human.
You know, you could say the same thing about the Church……
Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, Minister, St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church, Irving, Texas