The European usually doesn’t publish movie reviews, and this article won’t turn into one either – although Dustin Hoffman’s directorial debut “The Quartet” surely deserves to have its praises sung. No, this article will be about something else: About music, and about life.
When I returned from the movie premiere of Hoffman’s “Quartet”, I felt compelled to make music. For twenty years I have been playing the organ, often with passion, sometimes with weariness. It’s a love-hate relationship. Anyone who has been playing the same instrument for a long time probably knows what I mean.
Several years ago, it seemed uncertain whether I would continue to play. Eventually, I bought an organ that now occupies space in my apartment. As you can imagine, the life of a journalist – as founder and executive editor of The European – is a busy one. The tight schedule doesn’t leave much time for regular practice sessions in local churches (which are frigid during the winter and have out-of-tune organs during the summer).
Thus I decided to purchase my own organ, for the price of a small car and with a physical presence that makes it unsuited to aficionados of minimalist furniture. At the moment, I am preparing for an interview with the violinist Charlie Siem, who says that he likes to carry his instrument around, ready to play at a moment’s notice when the muses strike. As an organist, cherishing that idea means chasing a dream.
The movie “Quartet” centers on a group of aging musicians who live together on a nice English countryside estate. They bond over their mutual attempts at dealing with age. The atmosphere resembles that of a retirement home. But the musicians cannot let go of their memories: Sitting in the music room or in the dining room of the estate, they dream about past performances, about stepping onto the stage once more, about the curtain being lifted again and again to the thunderous applause of the audience. They cultivate the idiosyncrasies of old age just like an opera singer might cultivate her aria or an organist might internalize the trills and strokes of Bach’s choral music.
What you don’t know yet: All residents are actual musicians, not actors (with the exception of the leading roles). Dustin Hoffman emphasizes this after the German premiere of the movie and echoes a line spoken on screen by one of the young doctors who cares for the elderly: “Working with you has inspired me”, she says. Which is just another way of saying, “your music has fascinated me”.
“Quartet” lends weight to the feeling that maybe, just maybe, the countless hours spent learning the notes and studying the music – and the embrace of the music’s spirit – have not been spent in vain. I don’t deceive myself: My musical talent is limited. But I don’t intend to turn my passion into a profession. Music is an accompanying feature of my life. “Quartet” has reminded me to appreciate the effect that classical music has on me. I’ll certainly encourage my godchildren to pick up an instrument as well. Lilly and Julius, watch out!
Opera, we learn from the movie, is the rap music of the 19th century. Someone is back-stabbed with a knife and decides to sing about it. Just like the contemporary rapper’s spoken lyrics, the sound of the classical opera addresses the drama of human existence. Music says something about who we are. Once you’ve listened to a rendering of Johann Sebastian Bach’s “When in the hour of utmost need” (the trills will kill you!), you’ll get a sense of the existentialist sound of the late 17th century. Choral music allows us a glimpse at the lives of previous generations and sheds light on their beliefs. You could probably turn the hymns into rap songs, too.
In the end, everyone (hopefully) has their personal soundtrack. “Quartet” proclaims: “You ought to have your own music. Ideally, make it yourself!” The film is itself a homage to Guiseppe Verdi’s compositions. It is based on the story of an actual retirement home for musicians near Milan (which is named after Verdi).
As this article comes to a close, put your favorite song on your record player. Or, even better: Dig out your dusty old instrument and give it a try.
Read more in this column Alexander Görlach: Splendid desperation