Book Review: Edward Dusinberre’s ‘Distant Melodies’ Delves into Works by Bartók, Dvořák, Elgar, and Britten

After taking on Beethoven, Edward Dusinberre’s second book of memories and music, Distant Melodies, focuses on selected works by Bartók, Dvořák, Elgar, and Britten.

By Laurence Vittes | From the March-April 2023 issue of Strings magazine

After taking on Beethoven, Edward Dusinberre’s second book of memories and music focuses on selected works by Bartók, Dvořák, Elgar, and Britten. “As first violinist of the Takács Quartet for nearly three decades,” he writes, “I have become intrigued by the different ways in which music can be both immediate and distant.” As he learned more about the composers’ lives and the landscapes that inspired their music, he found a powerful way of exploring the ways in which “a piece of music may affirm or alter one’s sense of home,” all of which Dusinberre also applies to himself as a transplanted Briton based in Boulder, Colorado.


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Distant Melodies: Music in Search of Home
by Edward Dusinberre
University of Chicago Press, $21.99

The first musical experiences Dusinberre remembers, at home in Leamington Spa, a Regency town in central England, already began shaping the mature musician. “At one end of our L-shaped living room was the mahogany Welbeck upright piano that my mother played… at the end of a slow movement, she encouraged me to taper my last note instead of just stopping the bow, blurring the moment at which the melody faded into silence. In this way, she explained, an audience could continue to hear the music even after I had stopped playing it. I did not realize it at the time, but this was my first introduction to music’s capacity to evoke a time or space beyond my immediate surroundings.”

Dusinberre’s most powerful memories occurred when he returned to Budapest to play Bartók’s sixth quartet in the same hall where the composer gave his last concert in Hungary and when visiting Bartók’s last home in Hungary, where he composed the piece. And it’s more than just a travelogue. Dusinberre hears distinct, distant memories in the music itself beyond the tunes. “A significant feature of Bartók’s compositional technique,” he writes, “is his treatment of recapitulation: often the so-called return of a primary melody is an opportunity for disorienting transformation.”

Readers will gain insight into how Dusinberre and his mates process these extra-musical aspects and incorporate them into their rehearsals and performances, and how the quartet evolved as Harumi Rhodes replaced second violinist Károly Schranz, the sole remaining member from the original Takács, and Richard O’Neill replaced violist Geraldine Walther.