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A Late Quartet


Presented at the Film Program Sponsored by
Houston Psychoanalytic Society and Jung Center

Donna R. Copeland, Ph.D.
May 9, 2013

            First, I would like to discuss the musical aspects of A Late Quartet and how the writers have created a musical composition as seen in its title and in the characters’ interactions and dialog.  Then, I will discuss it from a psychological perspective in terms of human reactions to separation and loss, and how the characters exemplify what is typical and what is needed when we as humans are confronted with major changes. 

Change can be many things—it can throw us into turmoil and acting out, or inspire us, or shut us down—depending on the ways we cope with it and the meaning of it that we construct.  Change is a fact of life.  We have no choice but to accommodate to it, even when we desperately want things to stay the same.  Probably the most difficult change for humans comes with separation and loss.  In the case of this film, not only is the loss of a beloved player the subject, there is the threatened loss of the whole quartet, called—interestingly enough—the Fugue String Quartet.


The name chosen—fugue—refers to a contrapuntal composition technique built on a theme that is introduced in the beginning of a piece, then recurs frequently in the course of the composition at different pitches with different instruments or voices.  “Most fugues open with a short main theme, the subject, which then sounds successively in each voice…when each voice has entered, the exposition is complete…” and previously heard material continues to be repeated at different pitches with different instruments “until the ‘final entry’ of the subject, by which point the music has returned to the opening key, which is often followed by [a] closing… the coda.  In this sense, a fugue is a style of composition, rather than a fixed structure” (

            The story in A Late Quartet follows the style of a fugue to some extent.  Peter is already mourning the loss of his wife who has died only a short time before, so he is already accommodating to a drastic and sorrowful change.  Then he discovers he has Parkinson’s Disease, and is faced with more change.  He starts the “fugue” of the film when he announces that he will be leaving the Quartet. 

            I found it interesting to learn that the term ‘fugue’ comes from the Latin—fuga—which is related both to fugere, which means “to flee” and fugare, which means “to chase”.  The form the characters’ accommodation to Peter’s announcement takes resembles very much a “fugue” in its combination of fleeing and chasing among different pairs of characters.  After the diagnosis of Parkinson’s, Peter wants to flee the group, and Juliet chases after him, wanting him to remain just as long as he possibly can.  Robert wants to chase after Daniel’s first violin position, and later on, flees momentarily from his wife Juliet and chases after an acquaintance.  Then, when the friend responds by wanting to be with him, he begins chasing after Juliet, who has discovered what he has done and pushed him out of the house.  Alex seduces Daniel, who responds enthusiastically to her chase, but after she has second thoughts, he picks up the chase for her until she stops him, not wanting to be the cause of the Quartet’s demise.  All of this comes to some kind of conclusion—albeit ambiguous—at the final concert in something like a coda.  The Quartet has a new cellist, Daniel gives in to Robert’s request to play from memory, Robert then closes his sheet music and his finger rests momentarily on the designation “Violin II”, Robert and Juliet kiss, Alex has separated from Daniel, and after rejecting suicide as an option and with the Quartet surviving, Peter is at peace.

            The music the Quartet is working on also ties in with the unfolding dramas:  Beethoven’s Opus 131 String Quartet in C-Sharp minor is considered one of what is known as his “late quartets.”  As Peter tells the class he is teaching when he is describing it, “Playing so long without pause, our instruments must in time go out of tune, each in its own quite different way.  It’s a mess.  What are we supposed to do?  Stop?  Or struggle to continuously adjust to each other up until the end, even if we are out of tune?”  This applies to Beethoven’s Quartet and, just as much, to life itself. 

One reviewer, Nigel Andrews, refers to Yaron Zilberman’s and Seth Grossman’s “musically literate script” for A Late Quartet.  Whereas some critics see the drama as soap-opera-like, he recognizes the pain and tragedy that are treated perceptively by the screenwriters.  The drama “finds a match”, he says, “in Beethoven’s music…famed for its…[progression without pause] through seven movements, each more intense than the last…The actors, all allowed their individual cadenzas as the drama-fugue unfolds, persuade us that a quartet on the stage is as delicately organic as a quartet on the page (my italics).  He goes on:  “The harmonies must finally triumph, however vitalizing the intervening discords and conflicts [are].  Insightful and incandescent, this is a film for both music lovers and movie lovers.” (my italics again).


            Freud is one of the first theoreticians to look at the process of mourning, and he looked at it as the painful process of decathexis from the lost love object (Freud, 1917).  Healing occurs when that is achieved and normal functioning is restored, and the person feels free to love again.  Current Object Relations theory recognizes the importance of the meanings and affects associated with the experience, which allows for a longer continuing relationship with the lost object (Hagman, 2001).  Hagman and others have noted that individual responses are contextual, influenced by factors such as personality, the nature of the relationship to the lost object, and other variables such as family and culture.

            Nowadays, clinicians usually agree that healing occurs most easily if a person expresses his/her emotional experience within an object relations system (Hagman, 2001).  Attig (2001) refers to work that has to be done in terms of self—regaining self-confidence, self-esteem and self-identity.  Recently, the concept of narrative reconstruction has been introduced for the person to develop a better understanding of what has been lost (Neimeyer, 2001).  The social context influences that narrative in modifying it, maintaining it, and informing the individual.  As stated by Deena Metzger (1992), “we cannot cloister our inner selves…or we will find ourselves bereft of one of the essential components for the process of transformation:  interchange” (p. 36).


            In pondering the characters in A Late Quartet and the processes they go through, I thought it might be useful to consider them together as a family system.  They have been close friends and colleagues for 25 years.  In fact, we learn that Peter and his wife took Juliet under their wing when Juliet’s mother died at her birth.  Her mother was in a musical ensemble with Peter at the time.  After joining the Quartet, Robert and Juliet fell in love and married.  Peter is a father-figure for them all.

Psychologically, adjustment to the experience of separation and loss generally involves efforts directed toward restoring bonds of attachment.  Although the steps of grieving are not necessarily in the same sequence for everyone, they usually involve initial disbelief, followed by gradual awareness of the reality of the loss, the experience of pain about the loss, then adjustment to a new environment without the lost person, and finally reinvestment in a new reality (Worden, 1991).  We can recognize these steps in the Quartet members—each in his/her own way—as they experience a great deal of turmoil and upset about the impending separation.

The manner in which they react to the stress of impending separation and loss is typical--which is to feel stunned at first.  There is an immediate pall over the group at Peter’s announcement and disbelief.  Then they feel wounded and angry; and soon, many of the resentments bubbling below the surface begin to stir things up.  They seem to have fared quite well through the years, despite some unrest, but like many families, when they encounter threat, their emotional strengths weaken.  Conflicts develop immediately between Robert and Juliet and between Robert and Daniel.  Robert takes the opportunity to advocate for sharing the first chair with Peter, and when Juliet sides with Daniel, Robert is incensed.  Peter is more quiet in his reluctance to accept his new condition, but it is shown by his not participating in the first exercise group for Parkinson’s patients he attends. 

            Juliet especially is not inclined at first to accept the reality of Peter’s condition.  She immediately says she does not want him to resign right away:  “Let’s see if the medicine works”, she says.  At that point, she is more aware of her need for Peter than she is Peter’s own needs.  Daniel, too, at a later time tries to get Peter to reconsider.

            The reality of Peter’s illness is hard to deal with, partly because there is no one to blame (a not uncommon reaction).  Robert directs some blame toward Daniel.  He is convinced Daniel is keeping him down;  this is easier for him to talk about than to own and express his feelings about losing Peter.

            On the other hand, Daniel does not even want to consider seriously Robert’s request to alternate the first chair between them, denying that there is a problem.  He is a perfectionist and tends to think he is more reliable than others, and wants to maintain his control over the music.

            Although Juliet seems best able to acknowledge and express mourning, even she considers bailing on the group if Peter resigns.  The others express little to Peter directly, although he does express more than the other men his feelings about losing members of the group and worrying about its survival.  But he is more a problem-solver—as all of the men are—and they tend to assume that that will take the place of mourning.  As Robert says to Alex, “Daniel is helping Peter find a new cellist for the group”, implying that that will fix everything.

            We often see personal and gender differences in adjustment to change.  Juliet does what many women do—she has heart-to-heart talks with each of the men—except, interestingly, her husband.  Daniel talks to Peter a bit, but it is very abbreviated.

            Initially, Robert tries to do caring things for Juliet, but she withdraws, and that—coupled with her lack of support for what he feels is his heart’s desire—makes him seek a temporary fix.

            Whether or not grief makes Daniel become more susceptible to Alex’s advances is unclear, but he is alone, in any case, and in need of loving arms about him.  But they likewise dance the dance of chasing and fleeing, first around the lessons, then around their romantic involvement.

The threat of loss extends to family members. For instance, when we first see the Gelbarts (Robert and Juliet), we get the impression they have a great relationship with their daughter, Alex, until she unloads on her mother about feeling shunted aside and unimportant to them during her childhood.  She has blurted this out when she gets anxious about her parents’ separation.  Granted, just as the mother noted, their professions made this necessary; it is just that the mother seemed to be completely unaware of her daughter’s experience until that moment.

            As is not uncommon, Peter as the “patient” is the one who seems to be coping with his loss in a more mature way.  Maybe because he has already started a grieving process, and maybe because he is simply more mature.  He sees the larger picture, is less egocentric, and will feel peace only when he finds a good replacement for himself, and that the Quartet, which has been so important and meaningful in his life—will survive.  He tells Daniel, “Find a new cellist and take the Fugue to a different place.”  In other words, find a new identity.


            In conclusion, this is a story about mourning, but it is—just as fundamentally—about change.  Like most of us, the quartet members want things to stay the same and for their lives to continue on pretty much as before.  We get the impression that Robert would probably not have pressured Daniel so strongly to share the first chair and would have accepted Daniel’s leadership much more quietly if the threat of change did not present itself.  We wonder if marital discord would have occurred so intensely between Robert and Jules without the threat of loss.  But--by the end of the film, it seems as if the group has undergone the mourning process—at least to some extent—and that they are quickly going to be transformed into another group identity, and looking toward the future rather than trying to hold onto the past—a fitting coda to the fugue of their lives.


Attig, Thomas (2001).  Relearning the world:  Making and finding meanings.  In Robert Neimeyer (Ed.), Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (pp. 33-54).  American Psychological Association:  Washington, DC.

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary, eleventh edition, revised, ed. Catherine Soanes and Angus Stevenson (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Freud, S.  (1917).  Mourning and melancholia.  The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.  London:  The Hogarth Press, Vol. 14, pp. 239-260.

Hagman, George (2001).  Beyond decathexis:  Toward a new psychoanalytic understanding and treatment of mourning.  In Robert Neimeyer (Ed.), Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss (pp. 13-32).  American Psychological Association:  Washington, DC.

Metzger, Deena (1992).  Writing for your Life:  A Guide and Companion to the Inner Worlds.  New York:   Harper Collins Publishers. 

Neimeyer, Robert A. (Ed.).  (2001).  Meaning Reconstruction and the Experience of Loss.  Washington, DC:  American Psychological Association.

Worden, J. William. (1991).  Grief Couselling and Grief Therapy:  A Handbook for the Mental Health Practitioner (2nd ed.).  London:  Springer.