At the Strindberg end of the spectrum lies (I would think it safe to assume) the US-based Audubon Quartet who have been involved in startling American-style litigation against one another – one ousted member attempting to have the court seize the assets – including the houses and instruments- of the others, and to impose fines and imprisonment on them. More than one quartet has reached the stage where all direct verbal communications between two members has been replaced by the intercession of a third thus – ” would you mind asking our esteemed second violinist to desist from rushing at letter B ? ” “Would you kindly tell our fine first violinist that it is he who is dragging?” And more than one quartet has had to survive the beginning, middle and end of romantic relationships within the group –complicating everything while they last, and threatening the group’s survival when they end. For example, the aptly-named Bohemian Quartet was somewhat discomfited when their violist, Oskar Nedbal, ran off with the first violinist’s wife in 1906 just prior to a British tour. Lionel Tertis filled in for Nedbal who was deemed by the press to be “indisposed”.
Towards the “sweetness and light” pole I would cite the Amadeus Quartet which may amuse them because it is no secret that in rehearsal they often argued absolutely ferociously. But they seemed to thrive on and relish this arguing, or at the very least be hardened to it, and there was undoubtedly enormous and genuine warmth and affection between them, sharing as they did their inexhaustible senses of humour and their charm and vitality, and also their strong affinities of background, both in their life-experiences and musical influences. (Three of them were born in Vienna in the 1920’s, and being Jewish, were forced to escape to Britain in the Nazi era, and were in internment camps in 1940.They studied with Max Rostal, who was also an important influence on Martin Lovett, their cellist whom they met in London. Lovett, also Jewish, married another Rostal student who was herself a refugee from Vienna.)
The backgrounds of the Endellions are a little less homogeneous. Our first violinist Andrew’s grandparents were two Christian missionaries in India and a fish merchant and his wife from Grimsby. Our second violinist Ralph’s maternal grandfather was Chinese – from a family of Cantonese traders and gold-smugglers, and his paternal grandfather a Goan Indian small landholder (but to judge from the heartfelt atheism of Ralph’s father, decidedly not one of the successes of the Watkinson missionaries!) Our violist Garfield’s grandfathers were respectively a Chief Stoker on a Royal Navy battleship (on a travelling schedule that makes any quartet’s itinerary look like a few brief holidays) and a Wiltshire man who spent many years working in Tripoli as a clerk of works. My own grandparents were poor Yiddish-speaking Jews from assorted Jewish shtetls in Berdichev (Russia, or present-day Ukraine) Lithuania, Lodz in Poland and Sunderland; the first three came to Britain as refugees from pogroms, persecution and poverty. It boggles the mind to imagine what sort of conversation these sixteen individuals would have if we could miraculously conjure them up together into the foyer of Wigmore Hall – which most of them would anyway find a bewilderingly alien place. On top of that, Andrew studied in Switzerland and Russia, Ralph in Philadelphia, and Garfield in London while I studied philosophy for six years at Cambridge and took cello lessons privately. For us, these pronounced differences of background and musical influence mean that our inputs have a rich variety out of which we somehow have to make a convincing synthesis in our ever-developing dialogue or “quatrologue” with one another and with the music we play.
In our rehearsals, the necessary balance between assertiveness and flexibility –between being a brick wall and a wet blanket – is something we have had to learn together. Sometimes it might seem tempting to fudge and avoid all potentially ‘dangerous’ individual criticisms, with the result that they are repressed or made mealy-mouthed. But if this happens, not only do standards become mediocre, but subterranean resentments simmer. (One famous quartet-leader gently reproved a guest violist, Atar Arad, who questioned some glaring inconsistencies in the quartet’s articulations, by patting his knee and making the unanswerable observation that “in this quartet, Atar, we live and let live.”!! The inconsistent articulations also lived on in the performance.)
Conversely, there is an obvious danger that individual criticisms can become destructively hurtful, personal and bitter. If they are voiced too harshly and personally, no-one ends up in a fit state to play. After all, the deep feelings conjured up when we play great music already make us feel particularly vulnerable; and also, virtually all playing requires maximum self-confidence and complete physical ease and relaxation, even (or especially) in music of great intensity and ardour, and in music which is rapturous or celebratory. So suggestions or criticisms ferociously barked at a colleague with an anger bordering on hatred, or with withering contempt, are likely to be counter-productive, and are preferably avoided if at all possible (not always easy!).
The intensity of the quartet relationships in rehearsal and performance is paralleled by the stresses of being “business partners” and travelling companions on tour. There seems to be a generation gap reflected in quartets’ attitudes towards their schedules and their Quartet commitment. Many of the previous generations of quartet players e.g. the Budapest, Amadeus and Guarneri quartets committed themselves to playing virtually exclusively in their quartet, especially in their earlier days. Today’s quartets often tend to take steps to minimise the inevitable intensity of their quartet existence principally by restricting their quartet’s season and encouraging one another to engage in different aspects of musical life. The Hagen and Alban Berg Quartets, for example, play together for only about 6 months of the year. The Endellions have between us always embraced a variety of solo concerts, teaching, chamber music with other groups and orchestral activities, whilst being clear that the quartet is our first priority. This tendency is if anything increasing. Excellent and serious new groups like the Zehetmair and the Quince Quartets are emerging which are part-time right from the outset, the latter distributed in four different countries. In many ways this is a return to the ethos of the 19th century in which full-time permanent quartets were almost unknown.
Travelling separately and staying at different hotels is also surprisingly common and not always by any means a sign of dysfunction – although this would feel very strange to me and my colleagues, pampered as we are by Garfield organising all that side of things for us, from flights to hire-cars to hotels – and doing most of the driving with his unerring memory and homing instinct for concert halls – making maps a dispensable luxury. (Only once was I slightly worried very late at night in the middle of nowhere in upstate New York. Garf was for once a little lost and hadn’t bothered to bring a map for the remote country cottage we were aiming for because after all, we had once before stayed there only 9 years earlier. Of course he found it soon enough.) Also it would be a sad day for us if on tour we did not go to Chinese restaurants together, leaving all the ordering to our food supremo, Ralph, who knows what we like , and orders half the menu – plus many a dish not on the menu- usually enough for an octet.
So there are different approaches to dealing with the intensities of the quartet relationship; but why do we really do it – and for so long? What is certain is that nobody plays quartets for financial gain. The old joke goes “how do you become a millionaire by playing quartets? Start out as a billionaire!”
No, the answer lies quite simply in the glorious miracle of the vast panorama of great masterpieces that is the quartet repertoire. It is the repository of the most intimate, heartfelt, imaginative, ever-fresh creations of most of the greatest composers of the last 250 years. It is a never-ending challenge and delight to try to deepen our grasp of these fathomless masterpieces; that is what lures all quartets on and keeps us happily – or unhappily – enthralled.