Following is an essay by Ed Dusinberre, first violinist of the Takács Quartet, to accompany the quartet’s AFCM program on January 25, 2023 following the launch of his book Musical Voyages at Home and Abroad:
Music has the power to bridge and accentuate distance. A fragment of melody triggers a memory, rekindling a connection to home or exposing a painful separation from a place left behind. The pieces on this program were written by composers during periods of their lives shaped by departures and homecomings, themes explored in my new book Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home.
In May 1939, when the twenty-five-year-old Benjamin Britten crossed the Atlantic on the RMS Ausonia, he did not know how long he might stay in North America. The summer months that Britten and Peter Pears spent in California in 1941 proved to be pivotal. Britten composed his String Quartet, Op. 25 that summer while staying at a sunny orange ranch north of San Diego. At the same time he read an article by E.M. Forster about the Suffolk poet George Crabbe (1754-1832). Forster linked the crashing waves of the North Sea and the bleak mudflats of the estuary near Aldeburgh to the troubled character of Peter Grimes, the protagonist in Crabbe’s grim story of an ostracised fisherman. Forster’s essay increased Britten’s homesickness for the Suffolk seascape of his youth, sparked his interest in Crabbe and provided the impetus for what would become Britten’s most famous opera.
The String Quartet Op. 25 was first performed in September 1941 in Los Angeles by the Coolidge Quartet. In June 1945, three years after Britten and Pears returned to England, Peter Grimes received its premiere at the Sadler’s Wells Theatre in London with Pears singing the title role. The undulating melodic lines and sense of uneasy calm in the earlier string quartet’s slow movement surfaced again in Moonlight, one of the opera’s orchestral interludes. Two years later, Britten and Pears moved to Crabbe Street in Aldeburgh, the town that would become their permanent home. As Britten later recalled, it was during the summer months of 1941 that he came to realize what was missing from his life in California and that he wished to make his home in England.
In August 1939, three months after Britten crossed the Atlantic, Bartók was beginning to compose his Sixth Quartet at a peaceful Swiss chalet in Saanen. Bartók’s initial concept for the piece consisted of an introductory Mesto (Sad) section for each of the four movements. Initially he intended the fourth movement to end with fast music. Bartók rushed back to Budapest shortly before 1 September when Hitler’s invasion of Poland commenced. In November, as he contemplated the likelihood of having to leave his homeland, Bartók abandoned his ideas for a fast finale, instead allowing the Mesto mood to take over the whole movement. At the moment that Bartók had originally planned fast music, he added a brief setting of the Mesto melody as a kind of chorale, followed by the return of the two primary melodies from the first movement, devoid of vigour and momentum. When the second violin and viola recalled the second tune, Bartók’s instruction to the players was: Più dolce, lontano – more sweetly, at a distance. By assigning the tune to the middle voices in the quartet, Bartók avoided the more extreme registers of first violin and cello, increasing the sense of remoteness. Lontano: the music to be experienced at a distance – an idea that Bartók imagined against a background of advancing chaos and horror.
In December his mother died following a long illness, shattering one tie to Budapest. Bartók and his second wife Ditta eventually left Hungary in October 1940. When he began the Sixth Quartet in Saanen, Bartók had doubtless imagined its first performance would take place in Budapest but the Kolisch Quartet gave the premiere on 20 January 1941 in New York – the same day that Franklin Roosevelt was inaugurated for his third term. Although Bartók had hoped to be able to return to Hungary, he gradually became resigned to remaining in the USA. He died in September 1945 in New York due to complications from leukemia.
In October 1892, Antonín Dvořák had arrived in New York under happier circumstances than Bartók, to assume a prestigious and well-paid position as Director of the National Conservatory. Although Dvořák enjoyed the stimuli offered by a new environment and the rapturous reception of his New World Symphony, a part of his identity remained firmly rooted in Bohemia, particularly in the village of Vysoká, forty-two miles south-west of Prague. A dedicated collector of pigeons, Dvořák stayed in touch with the caretaker of his country retreat there, asking if his pigeons were getting enough food and suggesting that if the young doves were well-behaved, they should be allowed to fly out of the coop. The longer Dvořák stayed in America the more his yearning for Bohemia intensified. He became fascinated by the steamers that transported his letters back to friends and family, sometimes travelling by overhead tram to Battery Park at the most southern tip of Manhattan to follow the progress of the ships, until he could see them no more.
Dvořák composed his Opus 106 late in the autumn of 1895, several months after he returned to Bohemia for good. Although this often ebullient music can be described as a celebration of homecoming, some of the most memorable moments occur when familiar melodies return transformed. The momentum of the bustling last movement is arrested when slower music from the first movement intrudes. The effect is ambiguous, the recognisable tune reassuring but also disruptive. Dvořák subjects the primary melody of the sombre slow movement to extreme variations: dramatic outbursts and ethereal wanderings that seem to suggest absence and loss – both at times elements of homecoming. To pigeon hole this music as merely celebratory is to lessen its emotional charge.
As they composed the works on tonight’s program, Britten, Bartók and Dvorák’s lives were shaped by ideas of home and the emotional impact of absence. Their music allows for the contemplation of contrary emotions, the uneasy balancing of past and present. Nostalgia may be defined as the yearning for a time or place that cannot be recovered but sometimes music offers a recovery of its own.