‘I have [Beethoven’s] A minor Quartet on the gramophone, and I find it quite inexhaustible to study,” wrote poet T.S. Eliot in 1931 to his poet friend Stephen Spender about the power of one of the 19th century “revolutionary” composer’s string quartets. “There is a sort of heavenly, or at least more than human gaiety, about some of his later things which one imagines might come to oneself as the fruit of reconciliation and relief after immense suffering; I should like to get something of that into verse before I die.”
The comment is just a peek into the importance of these stringed works in the Western cultural tradition. It is one that still inspires, as the Takacs Quartet plans to make clear when it launches a series that includes all of 16 Beethoven’s string quartets.
The works created by Beethoven over 27 years are not to be taken lightly. As author and musician William Kinderman argues in the introduction of his 2006 book “The String Quartets of Beethoven”: “No group of compositions occupies a more central position in chamber music than Beethoven’s string quartets, yet the meaning of these works continues to stimulate debate.”
Kinderman continues that Beethoven took an already established “stylistic development” — one reflecting a “refined cultural position” in which “one hears four reasonable people conversing with one another — and transformed that “medium for some of his boldest and most advanced ideas. These works convey wit and humor, pathos and drama, and the last quartets in particular seem to push beyond established traditions to discover whole new seas of thought and feeling.”
That urge to “push” is still felt, as contemporary American composer Philip Glass notes, “String quartets have always functioned like that. It’s almost as if we say we’re going to write a string quartet, we take a deep breath, and we wade in to try to write the most serious, significant piece that we can.”
The serious undertaking of performing the Beethoven quartets in Princeton seems to be in good hands with Takacs. As a New York Times reviewer noted in 2015, “From even the most prominent of string quartets, a program of Schubert, Mozart, and Beethoven might come across as stolid. But the Takacs Quartet always shows that there is, and must be, room for insightful, intense performances of major works. That was its achievement in a superb appearance: revealing the familiar as unfamiliar, making the most traditional of works feel radical once more.”
Additionally, the group’s recordings of the Beethoven’s late string quartets received the Disc of the Year and Chamber Award from BBC Music Magazine, a Gramophone Award, and a Japanese Record Academy Award. And member Edward Dusinberre recently published the book “Beethoven for a Later Age: The Journey of a String Quartet.”
The Takacs Quartet was formed in 1975 at the Franz Liszt Academy in Budapest by Gabor Takacs-Nagy, Karoly Schranz, Gabor Ormai, and Andras Fejer, while all four were students. Today Karoly Schranz, violin, and Andras Fejer, cello, are joined by Edward Dusinberre, violin, and Geraldine Walther, viola.
Today the ensemble has reputation for innovative events that have expanded to include human voice and text, as demonstrated in Princeton in 2014 when it presented Philip Roth’s “Everyman” program with actor Meryl Streep.
Produced by the Princeton University Concerts (PUC), the ensemble’s six-performance Beethoven cycle of thematic rather than chronological works will also be presented in Wigmore Hall in London, University of Michigan, and University of California – Berkeley.
And since this is the last time that Takacs will perform the works together, it is an event within an event.
The first segment of the artistic undertaking starts on Tuesday, November 15, at 8 p.m. with the three selections.
The presentation is followed on Wednesday, November 16, 12:30 p.m., with Takacs presenting a free lunchtime “Live Music Meditation” in Richardson Auditorium, with Princeton University Office of Religious Life Associate Dean Matthew Weiner offering meditation guidance. A light lunch and discussion with the quartet will follow.
That evening at 7 p.m., PUC, in collaboration with the Princeton Adult School, will hosts the first of three Princeton Adult School classes on the Beethoven String Quartets, led by noted Beethoven scholar Scott Burnham and Takacs violinist Dusinberre. Visit princetonadultschool.org for more details.
On Thursday, November 17, 8 p.m., the ensemble presents a program that pairs Beethoven’s first and final quartet. A pre-concert lecture by Burnham is set for 7 p.m.
The series continues on Wednesdays and Thursdays, January 18 and 19, and March 15 and 16, 8 p.m., with all but the last concert featuring “Beethoven Up Close” seating and Burnham leading post-concert discussions with the quartet.
A complete listing of works for each program of this musical event is available at princetonuniversityconcerts.org.
Takacs Quartet, Princeton University Concerts, Richardson Auditorium, Princeton University, $25 to $50. 609-258-9220 or princetonuniversityconcerts.org.