Guarneri Quartet Takes a Final Bow
The quartet is hanging up its bows, but the legacy carries on
In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson declared war on poverty, and Yasser Arafat's Palestinian group Fatah effectively declared war on Israel with its first armed attack. In 1964, Barry Goldwater declared and lost his bid for the presidency. Carol Channing opened Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, and Fiddler on the Roof followed a few months later. The Beatles made their first appearance at the top of the Billboard pop chart (with "I Want to Hold Your Hand") and played on the Ed Sullivan Show. Andy Warhol produced his Brillo-box art, and the first Ford Mustang rolled off the assembly line. Congress passed the Civil Rights Act. Robert Moog unveiled his analog synthesizer, and Terry Riley composed the seminal minimalist work In C. Keanu Reeves and Gilligan's Island were born.
So, more auspiciously, was the Guarneri String Quartet. In the summer of 1964, violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree, and cellist David Soyer came together at the Marlboro Music Festival, after having already played together in various combinations, and founded what would soon become one of America's most honored and beloved chamber ensembles.
Now it's 2009, and at the end of this spring season, the Guarneri Quartet will disband after 45 years of distinctive music-making.
The Guarneri maintained its original personnel roster until 2001, when Soyer, the oldest member of the group, retired and was replaced by his one-time student Peter Wiley, a former member of the Beaux Arts Trio. All along, it was a remarkably cohesive foursome, despite the fact that the members famously kept their distance from one other when they weren't rehearsing or performing. It wasn't that they disliked each other; it was simply a matter of maintaining some personal space, psychic sanity, and a productive businesslike atmosphere.
As Steinhardt wrote in his 1998 book Indivisible by Four, "We were, from the beginning, blunt with each other, quickly becoming like four brothers who have spent a lifetime together—affectionate, fun-loving, occasionally cantankerous, and certainly long past the need for etiquette. I began to notice that no compliments were passed around, a distinct departure from the behavior of other groups in which I had played.... The Guarneri Quartet was a compliment-free zone: if there was nothing to complain about, we moved on to the next order of business."
Full-time professional quartets were rare in America in 1964; not so anymore, so how great a loss will this be to the classical music community? "Don't we miss Piatigorsky?" asks violinist Lucy Chapman Stoltzman, who studied with all the original Guarneri members at Curtis and was a fellow student of Wiley's there. "Don't we miss Casals? Oistrakh? Heifetz? There are a lot of great violinists and cellists out there, but we still miss those people. Of course the Guarneri Quartet will be missed."
The members of the group are hard-pressed to explain why they decided that now is the time to disband; the decision is unrelated to the recent announcement that the quartet will be sidelined temporarily while Dalley is treated for prostate cancer—it isn't as if the 45th anniversary had ever been the target retirement date. But their explanations come down to two main issues: playing chamber music at a high level is still hard after all these years, and touring is even harder.
"This is an extraordinarily difficult task that we have before us, to realize the masterpieces in our repertoire to any satisfaction, says first violinist Steinhardt. "Some of it is virtuoso work, and some is work a watchmaker might do, requiring the most delicate precision movement of ensemble and intonation and artistry. It doesn't get any easier with time. We all had the sense that we're still playing pretty well, and it's better to quit at that point than to go past our time. We had surprisingly little discussion; everybody came to that conclusion rather quickly."
Logically, the group might have considered disbanding when Soyer retired in 2001, but the cellist says the subject never came up. "Not at all," he insists. "The unanimous and first choice was to continue with Peter Wiley, my student."
Wiley is more than a decade younger than his quartet fellows, with plenty of career ahead of him, and you might assume it's a disappointment that the Guarneri is breaking up just a few years after the new guy came on. But Wiley says not. "I don't feel like the new guy," he says. "I was a fan of the quartet since I was 11 years old and I met them at that time, in 1966. So when I first was invited to join the quartet, that was after more than 30 years of being an incredible fan and student of theirs. It was a very natural transition for me. David Soyer was my teacher, so I was very much trained in their style musically."
About Wiley's arrival, Steinhardt says, "It turned out to be perfect. Peter is a musician with firm convictions, so it was impossible to say to him, 'Look, this is the way we do it, just accept that.' He was accepting of our ideas, but he'd say, Look, how about trying it this way? He was not shy in offering his positions. So somebody who comes to hear the Guarneri Quartet now says, 'Yes, I recognize the Guarneri Quartet I knew from old, but there's been a slight change of course.' We've moved a few degrees in another direction."
So how did the quartet's sound develop? One might have expected Soyer to be determining the quartet's direction back in 1964; he was a good 10 to 14 years older than the others, who were then in their 20s. It didn't turn out that way. "I don't think it was a question of David dominating us, just a question of everyone finding their niche," Dalley says. "You have to be able to bend or give up some of your ideas. If you don't compensate and give in and compromise, you just don't get along. I think we had four strong personalities, and that's good. It's one way for a quartet to mature. The other way is to have a dictator who rules over the other three. That's the way it was in Europe, but Americans don't like that. It works faster, but the democratic way is more satisfying."
Soyer was always the most blunt and opinionated member of the quartet, but he was careful not to bully the others, even though he did find a way to capitalize on his greater experience. "It was a help in the sense that I knew a lot of the pitfalls, personally and otherwise," he says. "I still bore scars from some other quartets. Having been through it already was a help in establishing attitudes and relationships between the guys."
For the Guarneris, thinking together has not necessarily meant thinking alike. Just ask them if, as individuals, they gradually became different sorts of players specifically because of their experience in the quartet and their interaction with the other members. The answers range from yes to no, with many nuances in between.
For Soyer, the answer is clearly a no. "I learned lots of things playing in the quartet, but my playing style and my musical aims remained pretty much the same." What are those aims? "I believe that music is meant to be heard and enjoyed by the listener, and the listener ought to be moved by music in one way or another. Music has the power of creating many different emotions in the listener, and it should be played in such a way that this can occur in the hearts of the audience. Unfortunately, today that idea is getting lost in the loud and fast and thoughtless."
But back to the idea of personal change through work in the Guarneri Quartet.
"I don't think you become a different player," says Dalley, "but you evolve as the group evolves. It was actually very good for us when Peter came in, even though the quartet field was new to him, having a new member of his caliber and without preconceived notions about how to play quartets. I think I learned more from Peter than he learned from us. He had a lot of good ideas that were brand new to us. We were set in our ways for 40 years, and when a new voice comes in, you have to reblend with that voice."
Says Wiley, "Their music making is very, very free; they encourage that with each other, so I'm sure that's rubbed off on me as well. When you sit next to the guys night after night in performance, you hear a new sort of inspiration coming from John or Michael or Arnold that you may not have rehearsed."
Tree says, "Playing quartets is a learning experience, in a personal sense as well as anything else. We hear differently as quartet players," he says, making reference to becoming acutely sensitive to balance issues.
"Playing chamber music and especially playing string quartets is a huge teacher about music and about working with people," adds Steinhardt. "You wear so many different hats when you're a string quartet player. The virtuoso element of each line is as challenging as anything in the solo repertoire. You have that hat, and you have the hat of humble accompanist, and along with that is the hat of a team player, where you're in precise lockstep with other members of your group. And to change hats so quickly, you have to listen to all the voices and understand the music inside and out to be successful at this. The people I've played with in this quartet are marvelous musicians; these are all players who have something to say as artists."
As a young man Steinhardt intended to be a virtuoso soloist and gave little thought to chamber music. "When I was growing up there were very few possibilities for playing string quartets," he recalls. "To seriously consider being a chamber musician as a living was a rare option, to put it mildly. I kind of backed into it. I didn't discover chamber music until I was in school and it was required, and at first I wasn't sure about it. But I fell in love with the repertoire and the social element, hanging out with friends and discussing music. Then I realized I would probably be most happy doing that."
Steinhardt put his solo career on the back burner, though he has never taken it off the heat entirely, nor have the other Guarneri members. Whatever plans they may have had as students, none will admit to having sacrificed anything to become quartet players.
Insists Tree, "I never thought of it in terms of sacrifice. As a young fellow just out of Curtis and having attended Marlboro just twice before we got together, I found chamber music so rewarding personally as well as musically. I remember one experience that both Arnold and I had with Josef Suk, a great violinist and a descendant of Dvo?ák. Here was a man who was playing concertos all over the world and recording a great deal. But when he started chatting with us about string quartet playing he got that far-away gaze and said, 'You gentlemen are the luckiest string players on earth.'
"He had us believing, at least for that moment, that string quartet playing was the highest calling for string players in terms of the repertoire, in terms of the limitless number of truly great works written for our type of group. Another violinist who added his own words to that was Nathan Milstein. Once Arnold and I found ourselves playing with him informally, and he swooned over the idea of devoting one's career to the study of the great quartet repertoire. Both men spoke almost enviously of that. It made us feel wonderful. We always felt that quartet playing was in its way equal to any other experience a musician could have."
For his part, Dalley has been satisfied literally playing second fiddle to Steinhardt, even though his earlier experience was as a first violinist. "I've always liked where I've been," he asserts.
"I was not really happy playing solos. It wasn't my bag."
Dalley's years with the Guarneri have allowed him, though, to play first from time to time; he and Steinhardt traded off participation in piano quartets with the likes of pianist Arthur Rubinstein. Later the group spent almost two seasons playing nothing but piano quartets, with Dalley in the violin seat while Steinhardt recovered from surgery on his arm. And upon his return Steinhardt sometimes played second violin until his endurance level was back up.
"That kind of arrangement probably wouldn't work all the time, or for a lot of other quartets," Dalley says. "It depends on your personality. Second violin takes a particular personality. I found the second violin role very exciting and satisfactory, because you can control a lot of things from that chair, you can do a lot of the leading, you can have a partnership with the viola as the middle members—you can change personalities depending on what the music is telling you at the time."
Soyer will admit to nothing but happiness during his decades with the quartet. "We played all over the world, and we played the greatest music ever written for years and years, which is pretty nice. It's not like being a soloist and having to deal with a bad orchestra playing some second-rate concerto over and over again.
"My years with the quartet were happy, productive, and satisfying. We played with great people—Rubinstein, Serkin, Horszowski, Alicia de Larrocha. Some of the older artists influenced us very deeply. Rudolf Serkin was a great influence on us musically, with his fierce integrity. Rubinstein was perhaps not as smart as Serkin, but he had warmth and generosity, musically speaking. Casals at Marlboro was a wonderful influence. And in the very beginning, the Budapest Quartet gave us great advice: respect each other, and don't make ritards when you don't have to."
Over the years, the Guarneri Quartet members performed most of the scores that interested them. Dalley regrets that they never managed to put the "other" Smetana quartet—the one that's not "From My Life"—on a program, and both Steinhardt and Tree are disappointed that they managed to get through merely two dozen of Haydn's quartets.
They don't have a sentimental attachment to any particular works to have programmed any special "farewell" pieces this season. The one exception may be the program they offer that pairs two late Beethoven quartets, because they have been so closely associated with that music.
But what of their legacy, a subject that pops up in reviews of their farewell concerts, with critics suggesting that the Guarneris are passing the torch to a younger generation? There's no question that its members have seen a tremendous increase in the numbers of American string quartets during the past 45 years—and good ones. Says Tree of the young players he encounters at Marlboro, "Let me tell you, they put us to the test. They're strong and they're fearless."
Steinhardt has overheard students saying that the last thing they want to do is form a string quartet—not because it's an obscure pursuit, as it was considered in the 1960s, but for the opposite reason: There are now too many. But Steinhardt doesn't want young chamber-music aspirants to be discouraged. "People are always looking for something special and outstanding," he says. "So at the top, you can always find a toehold even in a crowded field."
The Guarneri Quartet members have been partly responsible for this chamber-music boom, and not just by setting an example. They have always spent a great deal of time teaching—at Marlboro, at Curtis, and elsewhere. "There was always an excitement in the air at Curtis when they were about to show up," recalls Lucy Chapman Stoltzman, who studied particularly with Steinhardt, often in lessons lasting more than two hours. "I would play something and he would start by saying, 'What do you want to do here?' I never answered even if I had an idea, because I was afraid I might be wrong, but he kept asking me, and he instilled in me the habit of asking that question—he encouraged me to search for something. Something else he would say frequently was, 'That is beautiful, Lucy, but it's not magic yet.'
"He would work on the process of getting it from beautiful to magical."
Says Steinhardt, "Teaching forces you to distill your ideas. It's easy to be undisciplined and vague if you're just practicing for yourself, but if you have to explain something to someone else, you have to have a broader sense of how that idea fits into larger ideas. So teaching has made music and playing my instrument clear to me, and it's helped me move in whatever direction I'm tying to move in quickly and more successfully."
Stoltzman was captivated by the Guarneri Quartet as a student, listening obsessively to their recordings of Mendelssohn and Grieg, and of Tchaikovsky's Souvenir de Florence. "It was the pure beauty of their sound and legato, and the sense of the inner voices was so strong, the sense of every voice being important in the way you want it to be," she says. "The Guarneri brought it to some new level that I hadn't heard before."
As a violinist, she worked diligently to reproduce the sound she heard from the Guarneris, but the group's own members were working even more.
"Playing string quartets is so hard," says Steinhardt. "It's hard to play together, hard to play with a good solid intonation, and so hard to have the same ideas, that the danger is when you do those things you come out with a sterile product. The music doesn't jump off the page; it remains contained and static. So we strive to play well together in a cohesive manner. But our top priority is to try and deliver the essence of the music and create goosebumps—give a performance that will be as memorable and vital and energetic as possible," he adds. "I'd like to think we set caution slightly to the side in favor of emotional impact."
The other members have similar ideas about what the quartet will be remembered for. Dalley suggests it will be for giving the impression that "you heard four individual voices rather than four people trying to play alike. We liked to stand out individually in the quartet rather than play in a unified way. We wanted to have our own personalities come through rather than be submissive."
According to Tree, "I think in view of many of our colleagues we'll be best known for never making a fuss about playing the same bowings. Some players would come backstage and wonder if we were fighting, because our bowings were different. We were unorthodox from the beginning, having a strong notion that we should play as best we can individually in our own comfort zone in terms of bowings and fingerings and so forth."
"Freedom, virtuosity, clarity, and beauty" are what impressed Peter Wiley about the Guarneri Quartet even before he joined it. His predecessor, David Soyer, points to elements both artistic and practical. "Instrumental excellence and musical integrity," are elements Soyer identifies as the group's artistic profile. "And we established an economic standard, setting certain fees for concerts, and we stuck to those rules; we didn't get into playing a concert for half price close by if we happened to be in Saskatchewan, because when you start making those concessions it's difficult to make a living at this," he says.
As the Guarneri prepares for its final concerts, its members have no intention of packing up their instruments for good. They will continue to teach; they'll perform individually, and they anticipate playing together in various combinations and circumstances in the future. Steinhardt, who says he's been bitten by the writing bug, even maintains a thoughtful blog ( arnoldsteinhardt.com).
The players say they haven't yet sorted out their emotions about disbanding, much less their legacy as a chamber ensemble, but Steinhardt's remark about the end of the Guarneri Quartet is typical of his companions': "I don't have any regrets. I have only a profound sense of gratitude that I found the calling I did."
Read about the Guarneri String Quartet's instruments on allthingsstrings.com.
WHAT THE GUARNERIS PLAY
The group's name was more a marketing decision than a reflection of what the members played. A couple of Guarneri instruments did pass through the ensemble over the years, but it was never actually a quartet of Guarneris. "When we started, we couldn't afford them," Steinhardt says. Boris Kroyt, of the Budapest Quartet, had played in a German string quartet called Guarneri between the two world wars; that group had disbanded, and Kroyt bequeathed the name to the young Americans he'd taken under his wing.
Arnold Steinhardt plays a Lorenzo Storioni violin from Cremona, Italy, late-18th century, a viola that was cut down to become a violin. "Essentially it had a sex-change operation," he says. "It retains some of the original viola sound, rather dark and interesting." He also plays a modern violin by Samuel Zygmuntowicz.
John Dalley plays a Nicholas Lupot violin from France, 1810. "It's a great friend," he says.
Michael Tree plays a Domenicus Busan viola, ca. 1750, from Venice, Italy, and violas of the modern Japanese-American luthier Hiroshi Iizuka. "At the moment I'm giving the Busan a long-deserved rest because I've spent 35 or more years playing it," he says. "The Iizuka has a wonderful, dark, viola-like quality, but with no sacrifice of brilliance, and it has the ability to compete with the violins, to merge with them at least, and yet when it comes to the darker sonorities between the viola and cello it can also adapt to that."
Peter Wiley plays a Venetian Matteo Gofriller cello, ca. 1700. "It has a dark, chocolately, marvelous bass."
David Soyer plays a 1778 Gagliano cello from Naples, Italy.