Schoenberg Quartet

Schönberg Kwartet




25 years book

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Air of another planet

A quarter century of musical conviction

The Schoenberg Quartet celebrates a milestone

Niek Nelissen

"Miserable salaries" a fact of life

As mentioned above the 72,000 guilder grant that the Schoenberg Quartet applied for at the beginning of the 1993-1996 arts plan was under threat. On May 16 1992 Jannetje Koelewijn published in Vrij Nederland a lucid account of the grants discussions entitled “The total arbitrariness of music subsidies”. Even after the threat had ebbed away the quartet’s earnings continued to be meagre. Year in and year out Ad ‘s-Gravesande impressed upon the Ministry the fact of the “miserable salaries earned by the quartet members”. In 1997 he passed the torch to his successor Jan Wolter Wabeke. Calculations were made demonstrating that the take-home pay of each quartet member was far below that of a rank-and-file string player in a provincial orchestra. Even though their fringe benefits were not particularly generous either, devoid as they were of any pension provisions, their absurdly low income was the main stumbling block for the quartet. Appreciation of the quartet’s specialised accomplishments has therefore always been sorely lacking, claims ‘s-Gravesande. “I’ve occasionally told Henk just to give it up. It really got me down, especially when you see how hard they work for next to nothing. But they just can’t let go. They’re completely driven by the repertoire and their work together and the atmosphere is extremely positive.”

The dependence of the quartet’s continued existence on their drive is a problem shared by the Mondriaan Quartet, the other string quartet subsidised by the government. That the climate in the Netherlands is unfavourable to string quartets has been demonstrated time and again, for instance by the premature folding of the Orlando Quartet. In 1999, sponsored by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, an enquiry was held into the footing of Dutch string quartets. The investigators Philomeen Lelieveldt and Wilma Tichelaar articulated a number of issues among which were the lack of a manager who could see to it that fewer concerts both at home and abroad would be missed, that higher buyout sums would be negotiated, and more efforts would be made to obtain financial support from local authorities, private trusts, sponsors and donors. The most obvious way forward, according to one of the recommendations of the report, was a structural improvement to the material circumstances of both quartets and direct subsidy. An increase in the state subsidy of 150,000 guilders per quartet was considered to be urgently required. In 2000 the Arts Council had recommended an increase of less than one third of that amount. Having taken note of that advice the Ministry initially awarded just 30,000 guilders, just one fifth of the amount proposed by the enquiry report. Ultimately the grant was raised by 70,000 to 161,000 guilders per year for the duration of the new arts plan.

Another problematic issue dealt with by the report, the lack of a manager, was something the Schoenberg Quartet had felt for quite some time. As early as 1993 Henk Guittart had informed the board he was spending too much time dealing with the quartet’s administrative affairs. At the same time he felt the need for a network of agents. A manager would be able to address that issue and in that way be able to secure tours and individual concerts that the quartet was missing. In 1999 the Schoenberg Quartet took on Hans Meijer, relieving Henk Guittart of some of his tasks. Meijer mediated in the Chandos project and organised the jubilee season with 43 concerts.

Despite all this the grant issue had by no means faded away. The excitement surrounding the Silver Jubilee is therefore somewhat tempered by the continued existence of serious financial shortfalls. Jan Wolter Wabeke finds this extremely disappointing. “It is astounding and painful to have to see musicians of this level being forced to keep drudging away. They earn a quarter of the salaries of string players who occupy comparable positions in any one of the large orchestras. That means they have to teach and take on other jobs in order to make ends meet. In this way the quartet, a really top-notch ensemble, manages to find the time to maintain its standing despite the fact that the money is so dismal. It is practically unbelievable that they don’t simply throw in the towel. The fact is they’re subsidising themselves. This jubilee would have been an ideal opportunity for the Ministry to make a generous gesture. Everyone knows that extra funds are necessary when, especially to celebrate a jubilee, you tour the country complete with guest musicians. If the Schoenberg Quartet were considered mediocre the situation would be very different. However it simply seems there is next to no money available for supporting and maintaining quality.”