A Late Quartet's centerpiece--Beethoven's String Quartet No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Opus 131--can be a fool's errand. The marathon composition requires string musicians to play, without pauses, no fewer than seven movements. This often leads to physical exhaustion while instruments lose their natural pitch, forcing musicians to race to the opus' finish rather than maintaining Beethoven's measured pace. And therein lies the moral of A Late Quartet: our greatest weaknesses lie in our aspirations.
To understand the theme of A Late Quartet is to understand Beethoven himself. Beethoven was sick and profoundly deaf when he crafted his late string quartets. Beckoning artists to endure his compositions, Beethoven exhausts musicians by requiring a perfectly detailed ensemble that can only succeed if the notes are genuinely in-synch. Beethoven's opus reminds us that if we leave someone behind in a self-seeking quest for harmony, we risk the possibility of being in eternal disaccord.
Christopher Walken gives his finest and gentlest performance in years as Peter, the founder and lead cellist of The Fugue, a world-famous quartet, which is approaching its 25th anniversary. But Peter is spiritually and cerebrally scarred. He suffers from severe depression following the death of his wife and has been diagnosed with advancing Parkinson's. When Peter informs his fellow musicians of his handicap and the possible end of the quartet--which is comprised of the wonderful Philip Seymour-Hoffman, Catherine Keener and Mark Ivanir--they respond with a cluster of reactions, including sadness, grief and even calculation. While Juliette (Keener) is beside herself with anguish, Robert (Hoffman) and Daniel (Ivanir) look at Peter's pending departure as an opportunity for advancement.
I must profess that when I first saw A Late Quartet at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was responsively laid bare. More than a decade ago, I was diagnosed with a neurological disorder that has since progressed into Parkinson's, hastening my personal and professional choices. The awkward journey of physical limitation is indeed a singular experience, but its real impact hits hardest those who share your space in the world. Until you find that harmony--not unlike a quartet's--your life has little measure.
In A Late Quartet, Peter's struggle to step away from his cello is all the more poignant as he decides to step closer to the music. A scene late in the film shows Peter listening to a recording by his late wife, an opera star, singing a glorious aria. It's as beautiful a scene about musical transportation as I've ever witnessed.
How do you keep the music playing? Sometimes you don't. Instead, you understand that measured harmony is a fleeting gift.