By Katie Mitchell
‘I should like to get something of this into verse,’ wrote TS Eliot about Beethoven. Katie Mitchell tells how she united the two artists’ work.
In 1994, on a dusty bookshelf at a friend’s house, I stumbled across an old tape recording of Ted Hughes reading my favourite poem, TS Eliot’s Four Quartets. I was struck by the power of hearing the poem read aloud. When you read it to yourself silently, you can appreciate Eliot’s use of alliteration, or the way in which he cuts the cloth of his ideas in different metrical patterns – but the appreciation is cerebral. When you hear it spoken, the musical impact of the language, metres and rhymes crystallises the meaning and releases the emotion. The more I listened to Hughes’ recording, the more I became convinced that the poem was written to be read out loud, and that hearing it made the material more accessible.
I began to wonder how you could make it into a live performance. With this in mind, I approached Stephen Dillane, one the few actors I knew who would not be daunted by the scale and potential loneliness of the undertaking. And so, three years ago, rehearsals began, fitted around our other work commitments.
It was only by chance that we discovered – in Lyndall Gordon’s book on Eliot’s later career, Eliot’s New Life – that the poem was inspired by one of Beethoven’s late string quartets. Once the initial connection had been made between the two pieces, I started to research them both, with a view to working out how to put them together. The idea of an evening that somehow combined a reading of the poem with a performance of the string quartet was born.
Listen to the Borodin Quartet play Beethoven’s string quartet, Opus 132 in A minor – the music that inspired T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets.
Another reminder that we’ll be reading and discussing T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets in our February and March sessions. On February 23 we will focus on “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” Please bring your own favourite excerpts, interpretations and comments for discussion about these challenging poems.