Musing on Life vs. Art

“The most perfect expression of human behaviour is a string quartet”Jeffrey Tate - English conductor

Whilst Goethe famously considered the string quartet to be “four rational people conversing with one another”, we prefer Tate’s take on it. Tate hasn’t romanticised that a quartet models perfect human behaviour, rather a “perfect expression of human behaviour” - which of course makes for heights of drama and excitement that may not be reached in rational conversation. Still, Goethe rightly positions a string quartet as a conversation. A string quartet should invite you into a conversation that ebbs and flows as it gives way to each voice; whether this is in agreement, a counter opinion, or a further elaboration on what has just been said.

The first thing a musician must learn to do, like any good friend or partner, is to listen. Ensemble players must hear and understand the purpose of each line, much like an actor approaching a script. We consider whether our role is is to present the main theme, or whether we are assuming a supporting role to complement this melody. Perhaps the line of music offers a contradiction to oppose another player, in which case the discord is not to be shied away from but aired before it can be resolved. Again, so much like any good relationship where debate and differing opinions make for healthy conversation. For an early example of daring harmonic language, listen to Mozart’s String Quartet no. 19 ‘Dissonance’.

Not only does a well written score play out like a tapestry of human relations, the players themselves must establish a good relationship to enable communication. The ability to read one another without speaking is key. And when you know someone well, speech can become a secondary or even redundant means of communicating in certain instances. In performance a string quartet will rely on eye contact, a subtle eyebrow raise, a nod or a feeling of a breath in order to move together as a whole.

We see that the overarching structure of composition for a string quartet safely contains the journey of a conversation - at times rational, at times explosive, but in the end resolved. Perhaps there lies the difference between art and life: human behaviour can well be replicated (or demonstrated) in music, but life cannot always imitate the perfect and mathematical resolve made possible in art.