New book opens to the door into the inner life of a string quartet
By Peter Alexander ook
Edward Dusinberre’s new book, Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home, is a fascinating read on many levels.
A lovely companion for your morning coffee, it is also unlike any other book on music I have read. But it is certainly one that lovers of chamber music and fans of the Takács Quartet will want to read.
Dusinberre focuses on just four composers—Edward Elgar, Antonín Dvořák, Béla Bartók and Benjamin Britten—and music by them that he has played and recorded as first violinist of the Takács. In each case, he discusses the composer’s life and what “home” might mean to them, and to him.
This interest on Dusinberre’s part grows out of his experience as a dual national who grew up in England but has lived many years in the United States. Like Dusinberre, three of the composers left their homes for the U.S. at some point in their careers: Dvořák, who lived in New York and Iowa 1892–95 before returning permanently to his homeland in Bohemia; Bartók, who was forced to flee Europe in 1940 and died in the United States in 1945; and Britten, who voluntarily moved to the US at the outbreak of war in 1939 but whose longing for home led him to return in 1942.
In contrast, Elgar lived his entire life in Britain, apart from tours in the U.S. and continental Europe, and he provided some of the most identifiably “British” music in the form of his “Pomp and Circumstance” marches and other works.
But the book is far more than an introduction to these composer’s biographies, because Dusinberre describes his own relationship with each work, both individually and as a member of a leading quartet. He begins in fact with his own childhood in Leamington Spa and his move to New York, followed by his rediscovery of Elgar, as it were, as acknowledgment of his own Englishness. That sets the theme of the connection between home and music.
The section on Elgar is best understood to those who are familiar with British geography, such as the Malvern Hills, which I had to look up. The rest is easily accessible to American readers, and it is great fun to read about life in a top string quartet—both in and out of rehearsals, which are both mundane work and distilled artistry. If you follow the Takács, these will be your favorite parts of the book. For others, it will be the insight into the specific works around which the book revolves—Elgar’s Piano Quintet, Dvořák’s “American” String Quartet, Bartók’s Sixth String Quartet and Britten’s Third String Quartet—and the related works that Dusinberre mentions.
Throughout the book, he connects the works he has played to other works of the same composer, to literary works, and to the times in which they were written. As I said at the outset, I know of no other book that manages this balancing act, combining personal experience with digressions without ever losing the thread.
In its scant 210 pages of text, I came to enjoy Dusinberre’s pleasurable company, I learned from his many insights into music, and ultimately I was sorry to put it down at the end.