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Sharon Bill Music Tutor & Author

"Quartet" - A Review

This review of the Film "Quartet" featured in a local quarterly magazine that I contribute to.

I recently saw the film “Quartet” (Cert. 12) which was adapted from the theatrical play of the same title. It was quite scary how true to life it really was. It was hilarious, inspiring, touching and at times a little shocking. The story is based in a retirement home for elderly, retired musicians with the central characters being opera soloists who once sang the famous quartet from Rigoletto, by Verdi - a most beautiful piece of music.

If you can put aside the occasional outburst of strong vocabulary the story is hilarious in the way it highlights the stereotypes of the musical world. My son studies at a Conservatoire and he laughed out loud at the characterisation and how true those stereotypes can be. Even in the amateur world of music we come across petty prejudices: sopranos look down on altos (supposedly), both sopranos and altos immediately sag at the thought of the bass section, soloists look down on chorus members and woodwind players moan about string players. Even within the orchestral sections the imagined divisions occur. It’s highlighted by a joke I once read: “What is the advantage of a viola over a violin? A viola burns for longer!” And of course simply everybody moans about the musical director (although I hasten to add that in our choir we all love our musical director and think that he is amazing). In “Quartet” Michael Gambon portrays the pompous director to a tee. You also see the musical snobbery that can so easily take root when the director absolutely refuses to acknowledge music from Gilbert and Sullivan or Music Hall favourites, despite the rapturous applause of the audience. It is nevertheless encouraging to see one of the residents coming to terms with the music of the next generation and being taught himself by a teenager of the similarities between modern music and opera - even though he dislikes it personally.

However, once you get past these superficial ‘nonsensities’ there are some touching truths to take to heart. There is of course the strand of enduring love woven throughout the storyline, but there are more subtle lessons too. All of the characters, to varying degrees, have dedicated their lives to music - but some have learned that there is more to life. Others seem to have managed the balance better and can enjoy playing into their old age. Playing a wind instrument is physically demanding (especially at a professional level) and one gentleman is seen to have to stop mid bar to take his medication before he can continue. The inspiring thought here is that he does continue - despite his faltering breath. One of the central characters has to learn to overcome her nerves all over again, even though her high notes might crack these days. She also has to learn that sometimes it is better to sing in a quartet with her friends than to stand alone in the limelight for a solo aria. There are some scenes where you can see the musical cream of the last generation giving lessons to the young and aspiring next generation. Even if it is only a faltering rendition of “Go Tell Aunt Rhody” on out of tune violins you can see a retired BBC Philharmonic member heartily clapping and urging them on.

Of course “Quartet” is only a film and cannot address life in all its fullness, but as a Romantic Comedy it really has quite a lot to offer. Apart from the odd outburst the content is heartening, the musical backdrop is rich and the concept of music being a part of life - throughout your life is really quite heartening. It also enables us musicians to take a step back and have a good old laugh at ourselves and invites everybody else to have a good laugh at us too!