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David Finckel Headshot

Disappearing Music

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One of the most wonderful things about music is that it cannot be eradicated. If every copy of Beethoven's 5th symphony was destroyed, it could be remembered and written down again. It is a comforting fact that lets me sleep at night.

I've never before said a final goodbye to a piece of music, but just before Christmas I packed up two enormous suitcases of quartet music and took it to my basement storage bin. It was a strange sensation, somewhat ghoulish, like burying one's self alive, and I have not been sleeping so well knowing I likely will never again play the string quartets I love by composers such as Beethoven, Haydn and Mozart following my departure from the Emerson String Quartet in May. I realize that the music will always be accessible to me through concerts and recordings, but simply hearing them won't have the same effect on me as the hands-on encounters I've had with these works over three decades.

I'm sure that any cellist who has played much of the string quartet literature would agree that the cello occupies an enjoyable, as well as influential, role in the ensemble. Cellists, usually playing the lowest notes at any given moment, are responsible for the quartet's tuning: the pitches of the upper three instruments rely on that of the cello, not the other way around. They also control, to a great extent, the tempo and volume of the ensemble: if they push the tempo a little with our often-rhythmic bass line, the music goes a little faster; if they play louder, the others, sensing a kind of ground swell, will respond, and the total volume increases. All of this is done almost under the radar, as the audience typically listens to the melody on top, but in this kind of janitorial role, it's the cellist's responsibility to make sure the quartet is running properly.

In addition to the gratifying general role we quartet cellists play, there are innumerable moments in the literature where we get to do some of the most thrilling things one can experience on stage. I can talk endlessly about laying down the mysterious, pulsing "C" that begins the famous introduction to Mozart's "Dissonant" quartet.* What a responsibility this is for the cellist! Loudness, tempo, tone color, mood and timing all depend on you. You have to wait until the hall is absolutely quiet and sense that everyone is concentrating; then you begin this great work all alone, your colleagues gradually entering one by one, building Mozart's famous controversial chords (which his contemporaries thought were mistakes!) on top of your bass line. Equally exciting, in an entirely other way, are the opportunities to burst in unexpectedly with wild, outrageous solos that composers such as Bartok and Shostakovich reserved especially for the cello.** And finally, there are the some of the most beautiful melodies in all of music that composers like Beethoven, Schubert and Dvořák gave to the most soulful of instruments, the one whose voice is closest to the human voice: the cello.***

One thing I'm keeping in mind is that the music we play is not something we can either own or give up: it's something that we borrow, that we are privileged to cherish during our careers, but the time inevitably comes for artists to pass the literature to the next generation. It gives me the greatest pleasure to be able to hand off the greatest quartet repertoire now, to my successor, Paul Watkins, a great cellist and musician.

My relationship with the string quartet literature will continue in a very exciting and hands-on way, especially through teaching. The responsibility of bringing young musicians' awareness of the depth of this music to higher levels requires deep thinking, creative choice of words and visible passion has the same zest as actually performing. In some ways teaching is even more difficult: you can't just simply teach by picking up the instrument and playing it the way you think it should be. You also don't want students to just imitate you. The excitement over my new life with these pieces is growing, and I ponder the questions: How can I best teach the Beethoven quartets? How can I describe the special feeling of Schubert? How can Mozart sound different from Haydn; Dvořák from Brahms; Shostakovich from Bartok?

As I look down the road at the future of my art, is it likely that younger musicians will surpass us, play better than we did, take music to new heights? While it is risky to say yes, it would be unconscionable to say no. Certainly, it would be more exciting to see young musicians pick up where I left off than simply to struggle to my level. To help them on that journey is a new and wonderful opportunity that is expanding my sense of what it means to be a musician.

I can't say exactly how it will feel on May 11th at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., when I play the final chord of Bartok's Third Quartet as the last note I ever play in a string quartet with the Emerson Quartet. Although my impending departure could become very emotional, I am increasingly focused on the many new quests, challenges and music, on the horizon. Exploring the unknown is truly what the life of an artist is all about.

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* Introduction to Mozart's "Dissonant" quartet
** Shostakovich String Quartet no. 1 in C
*** Smetana String Quartet no. 1 in e minor, "From My Life"