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
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.
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.
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
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 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