A Tribute to the Guarneri String Quartet

By dwebster on September 19, 2008

The Guarneri Quartet will play here on October 28, then return for the final concert of the PCMS season in May.  Then, silence — and memories.

The Quartet will end its 45-year run after that May concert, one in which founding cellist David Soyer, now 85, will rejoin the ensemble in a symbolic farewell, Schubert’s Quintet in C, featuring the only five members who have shaped the ensemble..

A PCMS season without the Guarneri is all but impossible to imagine, for the ensemble played in the series’ opening in 1986, and more than 30 times since then. Its repertoire has embraced Beethoven, Dvorak and Schubert, Lutoslawski, Bartok and Berg.  With guest artists, its reach has extended even farther.

Any future without the Guarneri is equally impossible to picture. This is the seminal American quartet, not the oldest, but the one that helped to change the ambitions of a generation of string players, expanded horizons in conservatories and refigured the listening habits of the country.  Before the four players joined hands in 1964 and committed to a life as quartet members, chamber music in America was almost a private matter. True, the Juilliard Quartet, at home in New York City, played mainly in university series; the Budapest Quartet was moving into its final years; the LaSalle Quartet made Cincinnati a place to study for European quartets.

In the 1960’s, conservatory students learned the big concertos and set off to play in major halls as soloists or orchestral players. Once settled, they sometimes played chamber music. Philadelphians with long memories recall that chamber music was proscribed for Philadelphia Orchestra members in the same year the Guarneri was founded. Small ensembles diverted orchestra musicians’ attention from their true profession for which they were being paid year-round.

And, Philadelphia played its role in the Quartet’s founding — rather like the nation’s. Three of the four players had studied at the Curtis Institute; all attended the summer festival at Marlboro, Vermont, where Rudolf Serkin, Adolf Busch, Felix Galimir, Marcel Moyse and Pablo Casals combined to bring the largely European tradition of chamber music into the center of a generation of American instrumentalists’ consciousness.

At Curtis, director Efrem Zimbalist, part of the tidal wave of Russian and Ukrainian violinists who defined the instrument at the time, said chamber music was something you did in retirement, and implied that great violinists played concertos; the lesser talents?  Maybe chamber music.

But in this antagonistic atmosphere, violinists Arnold Steinhardt, John Dalley and Michael Tree, and cellist David Soyer declared their dream achievable and plunged in. Quartet life is often and sometimes tiresomely compared with marriage, but like marriage nobody knows for sure how it works until you do it. Their first hurdle was in deciding who would play viola and how the violinists would sit.

These players had to learn how to balance profession with home life, how to mediate differences in the tight and sometimes explosive world of intimate music making.  They needed to find managerial support to convince concert promoters that a quartet could actually find an audience. And they had to support themselves, wives and families.

They were lucky early on to find a berth at Harpur College in Binghamton. There they had practice space and a schedule that encouraged their own development through discoveries while planning repertoire and touring schedules.  Soon, the ensemble was on its own, a true American quartet playing for audiences just getting used to the idea that quartet repertoire may be the most sublime in the Western heritage.

Their very existence caught the fancy of the media. This must be the most documented quartet in history. Films, interviews, books, TV documentaries traced their growth, revealed bits of their lives inside and outside the quartet, showed squabbles in rehearsal and on planes. The Guarneri seemed larger than life, but wondrously accessible, quixotic, even lovable.

Not beginning with a firm image of themselves, the Quartet defined itself as it went along. Fired with the love of the core repertoire, the players took on Beethoven, Schubert, Mozart, Brahms, Dvorak, Mendelssohn, Schumann and Haydn.  Where European quartets could bring repertoire from their own countries, the very American Guarneri had to show themselves musical polyglots, capable of enunciating Ravel and Debussy, Shostakovich, Arriaga and Britten with the same aplomb as native speakers.

Other fledgling ensembles — crowding down the road cut by the Guarneri — called them the “imperial” quartet, explorers of what everyone knew as the great masterpieces. Yet those critics forgot that the Guarneri was among the first to record all six Bartok quartets, music that had seemed thorny and impenetrable only a few years before the Guarneri recorded.

The Guarneri has had a special gift for the big pieces. They have won recording honors for the three Beethoven Op. 59, and all the other Beethoven quartets, plus Mozart, Schubert and Dvorak works.  Their approach has always been exploratory rather than didactic. Listeners have come away from concerts wondering if they had heard right. Was that the Op. 132 we remembered from only three years ago?

The answer was "no," for the classics were always under re-examination, tempos adjusted or junked, details re-imagined. Intriguingly, the new works — by Bolcom, Rorem, Derek Bermel, among others, in first performance — seemed settled, authoritative and even final.

So much a timeless part of the musical scene, signs of change were hard to digest. When founding cellist David Soyer left, it sent a shudder through the chamber music world.  The Amadeus Quartet in England had stopped playing after the death of their violist. The Guarneri suddenly seemed finite and mortal.  Yet the ensemble found Peter Wiley, who had been a student of Soyer’s and who knew the other players well — and musically well.

The decision to stop playing after this season cannot have been easy, yet the tradition of quartet has to be recognized.  Orchestras can annually regenerate themselves and play for decades and decades. A quartet is much more personal. It is the sum of the four players’ thinking, musical beliefs and backgrounds. Personnel changes may add to longevity (a managerial function), but take away from personality (the founding musical urge).

The players have been notably withheld about their thoughts on ending such an emblazoning career.  Learning how to stop may be as difficult as it was learning how to start on an unmapped route.  For listeners, the Guarneri’s work remains on recordings. For quartet members, their work stands in the newspapers, where concerts by string quartets directly descended from their decision — 45 years ago — are scheduled everywhere. What courage! What standards! What a gift to music!  What a gift to us!

The Philadelphia Chamber Music Society expresses its thanks and appreciation to Daniel Webster for this special tribute.