Schoenberg Quartet

Schönberg Kwartet




25 years book

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Air of another planet

'Quartetto Serioso' or 'Eiserne Brigade?

Henk Guittart

The Schoenberg Quartet bears the name Arnold Schoenberg with pride. We chose it as a matter of course, although at the time we were amazed to be the first ensemble to do so. It was certainly no marketing ploy! Over the past years, however, young string quartets have been eager to use Schoenberg’s name. We could have called ourselves Die eiserne Brigade, after a witty march Schoenberg wrote while serving in the Austrian army during the First World War, the Netherlands première of which we gave at our very first concert in Groningen in 1976. We have the impression that people sometimes regard us as an ‘iron brigade’, while we prefer to think of ourselves as a ‘quartetto serioso’, as Beethoven dubbed his String Quartet Op.95. Schoenberg’s famous reply “Einer hat’s sein müssen(…)” when asked whether he was the notorious composer Arnold Schoenberg, shows a striking similarity to Beethoven’s answer “Es muss sein” to his own question, “Muss es sein?”, posed in the score of the String Quartet Op.135. Both answers reflect the artistic attitude of the Schoenberg Quartet. In any case we are still performing Schoenberg’s works, and it is with conviction that we repeat the words of our beloved coach Eugene Lehner: we hope our audiences will experience some of the joy we feel when given the opportunity to play the music that is so dear to us.

Arnold Schoenberg endured much animosity throughout his life, perhaps more than any other composer. Many people, including musicians and composers, have held and still hold him responsible for the chasm that exists between audiences and new music. In our experience most of these negative opinions about Schoenberg spring from ignorance. All too often, outspoken opponents of Schoenberg’s music prove to be unable even to remember the title of a particular composition. The fact that there are still composers who publicly express their dislike of Schoenberg’s music only shows their incomprehension and lack of respect for their colleagues from the past. This stance is a far cry from Schoenberg’s own attitude towards earlier composers. Characteristic in this respect is the humility with which he described how he continued to learn from them. For example, in 1931 he wrote, “My teachers were primarily Bach and Mozart, and secondarily Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner (…) I also learned much from Schubert and Mahler, Strauss and Reger. I shut myself off from no one (…).” Five years later Schoenberg wrote about the future of his music: “I will have to wait another twenty years until music-lovers discover that this is music like other music and differs from other music only in so far from other music as one personality is different from another.”

During its twenty-five years – we started our life as a quartet in 1976, ignorant of the fact that Schoenberg had died exactly twenty-five years earlier – the Schoenberg Quartet has encountered its share of hostility. In the early days of our career we were told by the manager of a respected concert hall that with that hideous name we were not welcome, even with a Schubert programme. At times we have even been asked whether we actually enjoy playing Schoenberg, as if our only motive is money! Some have assumed we play nothing but Schoenberg. Fortunately times are changing and prejudices against Schoenberg are gradually fading. Listeners are discovering the beauty and quality of his oeuvre, thirteen works of which, dating from 1897 to 1949, we have in our repertoire. These thirteen compositions and the complete music for strings by Anton Webern, Alban Berg and Alexander Zemlinsky, form the major part of our repertoire, which in all comprises 165 compositions by 88 composers ranging from Brahms to George Crumb.

Much to our satisfaction there is a growing interest in and appreciation for the works of Webern, Berg and Schoenberg. However, the worldwide rediscovery of the music of Alexander Zemlinsky has been the most spectacular development to have taken place over the past 30 years. Whereas in the 1970s Zemlinsky’s music was almost forgotten, nowadays he is a highly rated composer whose entire output is available both in print and on compact disc.

The list of works performed by the Schoenberg Quartet, [link?] shows how often we have performed these works, although it does not reveal our constantly changing views on the choice of repertoire. Every season we are faced with the possibility of choosing between our ‘old’ repertoire, brand-new works, and works we have not yet studied. There are still many compositions we have not yet performed, but which we would like to give an airing at some time in the future.

Working together

Most clichés about string quartets are, of course, true. “A quartet is like a marriage”, to name one. It goes without saying that the Schoenberg Quartet’s experience has not been confined entirely to the sunny side of quartet life. Nonetheless, when you choose to be part of a string quartet, the fact that the four of you are jointly responsible for everything has an undeniable appeal. This has to do with issues such as the musicians you choose to play with, what you play, how and when you play it as well as how and when you rehearse. We are still in the process of finding the most efficient way of reaching consensus on matters like these, as well as on practicalities such as the choice of hotels, trains, planes, restaurants etcetera. Helped along by mutual respect and armed with considerable flexibility and a sense of humour we keep striving for a satisfactory way of rehearsing and to develop exciting new plans regarding new repertoire. Extended tours in particular, which we still love to do, provide excellent opportunities for making plans.

Our joint efforts culminate in concert performances of sometimes fiendishly difficult though wonderful compositions, for which we try to put the very best case possible. This can be highly rewarding, especially when we feel we have succeeded in achieving our aims. That this collaboration is characterised by great fragility and a high degree of interdependence is attested to by the fact that de Dutch Industrial Insurance Office (GAK) has given us a risk rating equal to that of circus acrobats.

Apart from playing as a quartet, we also find it important and inspiring to play with guest musicians on a regular basis. Overviews to be found elsewhere on this website reveal that half of our concerts have included guest performers. For this and other reasons we have decided to celebrate our anniversary with some of our favourite colleagues. A special form of collaboration occurs when we make compact disc recordings, when Bob Zimmerman as a critical listener becomes a non-performing ‘fifth member’, whose influence on the final result is considerable. The same applies to Adriaan Verstijnen, whose familiarity with our ideas on sound and knowledge of the characteristics of our instruments enables him to concoct the kind of sound we love. All this takes place in a comfortable atmosphere.

Eugene Lehner

Arnold Schoenberg considered the musicians of the Kolisch Quartet the ideal interpreters of his chamber music, a view he also expressed clearly in the dedication on the title-page of his Fourth Quartet. The Schoenberg Quartet has had the privilege of spending countless hours with Eugene Lehner (born in Hungary in 1906 as Jenö Lehner), violist of the Kolisch Quartet from 1926 until 1939. This phenomenal musician has helped us to a better understanding of the music of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg and he has freed us of many shackles.

He once described his attitude as a performer: “A masterwork, no matter where or when it was written, is a world for itself, is uncategorizable, a singular wonder which has to be newly discovered and felt for each time. All our studying seeks to understand and to spiritualize such a work’s content, mind, nature and character as exactly as possible in order to be able to present it with awe, convincing eloquence and utmost lucidity.”

Although Lehner was a personal friend of the composers of the Second Viennese School and had studied their works in close contact with them, he never labelled his suggestions “authentic”. Exceptions were certain details, such as Schoenberg’s wish for a moment’s pause before the word wunschlos in the Second String Quartet, Webern’s insistence on the importance of initial rests and silences in his music and his own radical, uncharacteristically adamant rejection of the inclusion of a soprano part in the sixth movement of Berg’s Lyrical Suite, a view which he based on convincing arguments. Lehner was primarily concerned with issues such as melos, tempo, expression, rhetorics, rubato and phrasing. We were often challenged to break new ground and he inspired us to try out various ways of playing and consider different views on the music. More often than we had expected Lehner encouraged us to become four relatively independent voices. It has been of immeasurable value to us to have had the opportunity of studying these works with such an incorruptible and erudite musician who so deeply loved the music we played for him and who continued to make new discoveries, incessantly reading the scores he knew so well. Not only playing for him and talking about works we had performed, but also studying with him deeply affected our views on how this repertoire ought to be performed.

Although Lehner was no longer able to teach us after 1991, we nevertheless maintained close contact with him until his death in 1997. Cassette tapes of live performances, discs or videos we sent to him (he was a great admirer of Hans Hulscher’s whimsical camera work in the Schoenberg quartets we recorded for television) prompted extensive comments and suggestions which he would communicate to us by post or telephone. A similar exchange also took place between Lehner and Robert Mann about the interpretations of the Juilliard Quartet. With his humble attitude Jenö Lehner was a shining example to us and to many other musicians. To him composers were the true artists and he intensely disliked the attention lavished on performers, which exaggerates their importance. The Schoenberg Quartet is extremely grateful for his generous help and his special friendship; to his memory we dedicate the five discs containing the music of Arnold Schoenberg, the music that he loved.

Performance practice?

The term ‘performance practice’ has by now become just as charged and easily misunderstood as the word ‘authentic’. When considering the various performance practices of early twentieth-century compositions by early twenty-first-century performers it is hard to find a common denominator. Even when identical sources (scores and professional literature) are consulted, essentially different interpretations will emerge. Interpretations are the result of a wide variety of complex, often indefinable factors that are part of the highly subjective make-up of each individual musician. The interpretation of a composition by a string quartet is, by definition, the fusion of ideas of four individuals. It has been suggested that the Schoenberg Quartet aims for a playing style that could be identified as ‘authentic’. This is not the case. As for possibly ‘historical’ aspects of our performance practice, only our positioning with regard to one another, the occasional use of special mutes and certain views on vibrato could be said to hark back to the past. In our sessions with Eugene Lehner we never attempted to play like the Kolisch Quartet. Incidentally, Kolisch and Lehner were quite dissatisfied anyway with their recordings of the Schoenberg quartets, which were recently released on compact disc with the word ‘authentic’ – so hated by the Kolisch Quartet – slapped on them. In our view, their interpretation is still unsurpassed, and it is hard to imagine anyone trying to imitate their style, let alone succeeding in doing so. We do know for sure that Schoenberg was very pleased with their interpretation, as he was with the playing style of the young Juilliard Quartet, who played the quartets for him in the late 1940s.

In our opinion it is very important to find the most reliable editions of the works we play. This is easier said than done, for the quality of editions varies widely. For example, Janácek’s First String Quartet has been edited in an exemplary manner by Milan Skampa, violist of the Smetana Quartet, but we are still impatiently awaiting the appearance of his revised edition of the same composer’s Second String Quartet, Intimate Letters. Reliable editions of the quartets of Debussy and Ravel – part of the mainstream repertoire for a over a century now – simply do not exist. In the score and especially the parts for Ravel’s quartet we have six hundred major and minor corrections, mainly as a result of discrepancies between score and parts. Sometimes the printed parts prove more useful than the score, in most cases it is the other way round. The composers often had no opportunity to see their works through to a second edition. In such cases the annotated scores found in the composers’ estates often turn out to be quite enlightening.

Early teachers of the members of the Schoenberg Quartet such as Frans Vester, Frans Brüggen, Anner Bijlsma and Sigiswald Kuijken instilled in us a healthy dose of suspicion with regard to printed music and encouraged us to critically study all sources available to us. Even within the oeuvre of a single composer there may be significant distinctions: for example, in the case of Webern’s works that have opus numbers there is hardly a misprint to be found; the editions of his posthumously published works, however, are shambolic and the only available option is meticulous study of the manuscripts, which are kept in libraries in Basle, New York, Washington and several other cities. That way wrong notes, wrong clefs, missing dynamic markings, phrasings and even missing measures soon come to light.

The study of Schoenberg’s music for strings is also problematic. Although several editions of a work often exist, in many cases the parts are available only in first editions, some of them a hundred years old. In general the Gesamtausgabe of Schoenberg’s works offer better scores but, alas, no parts. Moreover, even these scores are far from faultless, not to mention the dubious practice of correcting notes of dodecaphonic works according to numerical tables, even though Schoenberg himself did not correct them. Lehner once told us that Schoenberg, whenever asked about a possible mistake, always stuck by the notes in his manuscript. The Schoenberg Quartet use their own ‘editions’ that are mainly based on manuscripts and the Gesamtausgabe. Thus we make our own decisions about how to deal with the problematic passages of each composition. In the case of Verklärte Nacht, for instance, the painstaking comparison of the version for sextet and the 1943 orchestral version proved extremely fruitful. Also of great interest to us was the score of the Second String Quartet in the Gesamtausgabe – which includes instructions by Schoenberg intended for a performance by a string quartet that was unknown to him. It is fascinating to see the composer change tempi and phrasings soon after composing the work, and to read his extremely precise explanations as to how he wished his music to be played.

The most rewarding performance practice arises when we have the privilege of working together with a composer. We often find that composers have a free approach towards their work and sometimes such collaboration leads to a revision of certain tempi, phrasings, bowing indications and the spacing of chords. These inspiring processes as well as Lehner’s useful advice have often led us to decide – though not without some reserve – to rearrange certain unfortunate spacings in, for instance, works by Debussy and Schoenberg.

A good example of what we consider a successful performance practice was the quartet’s revised reading of Schoenberg’s Ode to Napoleon Buonaparte. Since the very first performances of this anti-dictatorial masterpiece the reciter’s part has invariably been rendered by singers (Schoenberg wrote mockingly to Kolisch that a ‘musical singer’ was required for the part!). In our view the expressive recitation of Byron’s poems according to Schoenberg’s concept of ‘Sprechgesang’ can only be accomplished by an English actor. Moreover, a Dutch translation of the text as well as extensive programme notes elucidating the work’s many references to rulers from the past are absolutely essential. The efforts and achievements of the actor Michael Grandage and Byron expert Joop van Helmond in this project exceeded our wildest expectations. The whole process proved once again that it is rewarding not to choose the path of least resistance. In other words, although opting to do without a conductor and employing an actor instead of a singer may have increased our difficulties, we did come much nearer to realizing our ideals.

Looking back

Looking back on 30 years of not only turbulence but achievements as well, and considering the facts and figures listed elsewhere on this website, there are still a few considerations and unanswered questions regarding issues that are seldom if ever raised.

The Schoenberg Quartet is a string quartet with a satisfactory career, although we have never taken part in any competition. We did need a long running-in period, in fact in the first years of our existence we did little else but rehearse, with only occasional concerts. In later years things would not have gone so well if it had not been for those who right at the start put their faith in us, such as Piet Veenstra and Ben van der Meer, who arranged guest performances with the Residentie Orchestra, or the concert managers who engaged us on their own initiative, or the indefatigable Jan van Waveren, director of the Nederlands Impresariaat during its heyday, who has always supported us. The nine television programmes devoted to Schoenberg, made by the NOS broadcasting organisation, would never have materialised without the efforts of Stefan Felsenthal; and without our manager Hans Meijer our jubilee season would not have been so special.

Over the past twenty years we have ‘existed’ for four to six months each season. Our decision to work ‘part-time’ was a conscious one. This is in fact quite a common phenomenon in the international music world: the Hagen Quartet, for example, restricts its activities to a period of three months a year.

Norbert Brainin, leader of the renowned Amadeus Quartet, once remarked acidly that though some quartets survive for twenty-five years, their membership changes so frequently they seem more like football teams. With just one replacement so far the Schoenberg Quartet has not done too badly.

Yes, we have had enormous pleasure playing Mozart’s double viola string quintets informally, these get-togethers being at the request of violists Jenö Lehner and Lodewijk de Boer.

How inspiring and formative it has been to have had lessons from – as well as to have played with and listened to – our immediate predecessors in the Netherlands: the Röntgen Quartet, the Netherlands String Quartet, the Gaudeamus Quartet, the Amati Quartet and the Amsterdam String Quartet.

Without the initiative and encouragement of Gidon Kremer (through none other than Luigi Nono!) the Schoenberg Quartet would never have been closely involved in the early nineties with the ‘discovery’, in this country, of Erwin Schulhoff’s music. Our heartfelt thanks go to Jan Wolff, director of Music Centre De IJsbreker, who reacted with instant enthusiasm.

Yes, we intend to extend our life as a quartet beyond this silver jubilee. We have plans for new repertoire covering the next three seasons.

Muse Translations: Caecile de Hoog