‘There Is Only One Beethoven’

‘Head of Beethoven’; lithograph by Johannes Hendricus Fekkes, 1918; from The Art of Music, the catalog of a recent exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, published by Yale University Press
San Diego Museum of Art
‘Head of Beethoven’; lithograph by Johannes Hendricus Fekkes, 1918; from The Art of Music, the catalog of a recent exhibition at the San Diego Museum of Art, published by Yale University Press

Books written by or about performers of classical music tend to fall into predictable categories. One consists of biographies or autobiographies entirely centered on the individual’s career development—the early beginnings, the emerging talent, the teachers, the obstacles that had to be overcome, at last the rise to prominence. A second and more interesting type consists of interviews or conversations with the still living artist, in which the interviewer ferrets out aspects of the personality and outlook of a major singer, instrumentalist, or conductor, in the best cases evoking answers and memories that help to frame the subject’s career within the profession, ideally evoking insights on wider issues. A good example is David Blum’s Casals and the Art of Interpretation (1977), based on interviews and notes taken during master classes and orchestral rehearsals in Casals’s later years, abounding in comments on his interpretation of passages from the chamber music and orchestral literature.

A third type, rarer still, is composed of books written by well-known performers that are rich in insights on music from start to finish—the most recent examples that come to mind are the essays by the great pianist Alfred Brendel, which are less about his career than about his ways of interpreting a wide spectrum of works by composers such as Beethoven, Schubert, and Liszt. Brendel not only writes about how he plays and understands them but exhibits a broad knowledge of the critical and scholarly literature about the works under discussion. His “Notes on a Complete Recording of Beethoven’s Piano Works” provides comments on recordings, on the virtues and defects of various critical editions, on performance markings, and much else.1 Reading Brendel and hearing him become two complementary ways of appraising his qualities as both performer and musical intellectual.

The new book by Edward Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács Quartet, is mainly in the first category, but aspires to be much more. As a result it is essentially two books in one. It is first of all an autobiography, in which the author reviews his first twenty-two years as leader of a well-known string quartet, with numerous sidelights on his personal and musical interactions with his colleagues over the years. The other aspect of the book, which is interleaved in each chapter with the biographical story, is a more nearly objective historical survey of Beethoven’s life and career during the three periods of composition of his string quartets: the early works, the six of Op.…

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