String Quartets in America
Haydn wrote his first string quartets in 1755-1757 and certainly by 1776 it’s at least possible that some American music enthusiast would have acquired a score and found three friends to try playing a quartet. We know, for example, that Thomas Jefferson was musically inclined, played the violin, and had Haydn scores in his library -- but don't know if he ever took part in a string quartet performance. We also know that a quartet from England, led by violinist James Hewitt gave a series of 6 subscription concerts in New York city, probably in 1792. In 1849, the Mendelssohn Quintette Club was formed in Boston. The group undertook a number of tours, including one to California and Hawaii.
American String Quartet Composers
Even if we don’t know much about early string quartet performances, we can approach the subject in other ways. For example, we can examine early string quartet composers and string quartet groups. Wikipedia has an extensive, but still incomplete list of string quartet composers. If we look at that list, we find the following American composers on the list:
John Frederick Peter (1746-1813) a Dutch-born member of the Moravian sect, wrote a set of six string quartets in 1789.
Edward Mollenhauser (1827-1914). United States composer born in Prussia. His best known compositions were string quartets.
George Whitefield Chadwick (1854-1931). Studied in Germany and then returned to the US and taught and later directed the New England Conservatory of Music. He wrote 5 string quartets.
Charles Ives (1874-1954). Ives wrote two string quartets (1896 and 1913), the first entitled “From the Salvation Army.”
Walter Piston (1894-1976). Wrote five string quartets between 1933 to 1962.
Virgil Thomson (1896-1989). Wrote two strong quartets, in 1931 and in 1932.
Henry Cowell (1897-1965). Wrote four string quartets while living in Menlo Park California.
George Gershwin (1898-1937). Wrote Lullaby in 1919 for a string quartet.
Randall Thompson (1899-1984) Harvard music teacher who wrote two quartets, in D minor (1941) and in G Major in 1967.
Aaron Copland (1900-1990). Wrote four pieces for string quartet (1921, 1923, 1923 and 1928).
Ruth Crawford Seeger (1901-1953). The mother of the folk singer Pete Seeger was a compuser who wrote an important early Modern string quartet in 1931.
Elliott Carter (1908-2012). Wrote five string quartets in the second half of the 20th Century. The second won the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 1960 and the third quartet won the prize in 1973.
John Cage (1912-1992). Wrote several pieces for string quartets between 1950 and 1988.
I won’t continue the list, but suffice to say that the number of American composers of string quartets grows rapidly following World War II.
In keeping with European stylistic traditions, it’s probably safe to assume that Peter, Mollenhauser and Chadwick wrote more or less romantic compositions, while Ives and those that followed worked primarily in the Modern mode.
The other composer that plays a major role in the history of American string quartets, is, of course, the great Romantic Czech composer , Antonin Dvorak (1841-1904). Dvorak moved to the United States in 1892 to become director of the National Conservatory of Music of America in New York City. The Conservatory, endowed by a wealthy New Yorker, Jeannette Thurber, was open to both men and women and to both black and white students making it very progressive for the times. The goal Dvorak set for himself, while he was in the US, was to discover the roots of “American music,” in native music forms, as he had previously done with Czech music in Eastern Europe. Thus, he studied both Native and African-American music, as well as spirituals and popular folksongs. In the winter Dvorak worked in New York -- he wrote his "New World" symphony in NYC. In the summer, Dvorak traveled to Spillville, Iowa, a largely Czech-speaking community where cousins lived. While in Spillville he wrote string quartets, including both his String Quartet in F (the “American” string quartet) and his String Quartet in E-flat.
Unfortunately for the US, by 1895, Dvorak's reputation in Europe had become such that he was soon offered a position in Vienna and decided to return to Europe, ending his brief American interlude. He did leave behind a great essay urging Americans to create their own music by drawing on native sources of inspiration, much as Ralph Waldo Emerson had previously called on American’s to create their own literature by turning from European to native sources.
In an article on American Masterpieces (discussing works that the American String Quartet champions), Daniel Avshalomov explains that Dvorak's essay split American composers into two camps. One camp wanted to follow Brahms or Elgar and write more formally, while a second camp accepted Dvorak's challenge and wanted to write something "more American." "Among those who accepted the challenge," according to Avshalomov, "were the composers Arthur William Foote (1853-1937), Daniel Gregory Mason (1873-1953) and Charles Tomlinson Griffes (1884-1920). Foote's String Quartet No. 3 in D Major, Mason's Quartet on Negro Themes, and Griffes's Two Sketches Based on Indian Themes all emerged in response to Dvorak." (To read Avshalomov's entire essay, see www.americanstringquartet.com/essay.htm)
Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge (1864-1953)
No history of the string quartet in America is complete without mention of Elizabeth Coolidge. She was born Elizabeth Penn Sprague, was the daughter of a wealthy wholesale dealer in Chicago, and studied piano in her youth. She married a physician, Frederic Shurtleff Coolidge, and when he died at an early age, she decided to focus her considerable fortune on promoting chamber music in the United States. In the early years of the 20th Century, she encouraged the formation of several string quartet groups, although none of them lasted very long. She established the Berkshire Music Festival in Massachusetts, which grew into the Tanglewood Festival. In 1932 she provided funds for the Coolidge Medal to be awarded by the US Congress for “eminent services to chamber music." (The prize was discontinued in 1949 when congressmen became concerned that they might mistakenly recognize a composer who was “un-American.”) She also funded the building of the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress, and encouraged the Library of Congress to maintain a resident String Quartet. Perhaps her greatest accomplishment was a string of commissions she provided to encourage composers to write string quartets. Among the musicians she commissioned were Barber, Bartok, Britten, Copland, Prokofiev, Respighi, Schoenberg, and Webern. As you can see, she felt that the best string quartet composers still resided in Europe.
Professional String Quartets in America
We have no idea which was the first professional string quartet in the US. Clearly with compositions being written in the late Nineteenth Century, there must have been groups, at least in schools, who could play the music.
The first professional US string quartet that is widely recognized is the Kneisel String Quartet, a group established in Boston, and named after its first violinist. The Kneisel performed from 1885 to 1917. The group toured in both the US and in Europe.
Charles Ives reportedly heard a performance of the Kneisel Quartet, regarded the quartet as “effeminate,” and resolved to write a more "virile" quartet, which became his String Quartet No. 2.
The Kneisel Quartet became the resident quartet of the New York Institute of Music Art in the year it was founded, in 1905. The Institute later merged with its graduate school, the Juilliard school, to become the Juilliard Academy of Music in 1946.
European Quartets on Tour
During the years between the two world wars, several European string quartets came to the US to tour. Among the best known were the Pro Arte and the Budapest quartets, who each held brief residencies, funded by Ms. Coolidge, at the Library of Congress. In 1932 the Pro Arte began a summer residency program at Mills College in Oakland California. (This arrangement was set up, in part, by Ms. Coolidge.) It was World War II, however, that really began to shift established string quartets to the United States. Both the Pro Arte and the Budapest, for example, chose to remain in the US rather than return to central Europe as the war broke out. The Pro Arte became the full-time resident quartet at the University of Wisconsin, while the Budapest became the summer resident quartet at Mills College in Oakland.
In a recent book, The LaSalle Quartet, Walter Levin, who was to form that quartet in 1946, tells of how his family fled Germany, just before World War II began, and settled in Palestine. Thereafter, as he grew up, he dreamed of going to the Juilliard in New York to study music. In any earlier era, a violin prodigy like Levin would have undoubtedly dreamed of studying in Vienna, Paris or Berlin. As it was, he chose, instead, to study in New York, to form a string quartet group while in attendance at the Juilliard school, and to move, with his fellow quartet members, first to Colorado Springs and then to settle at Cincinnati. There, the LaSalle Quartet established itself as one of the leading string quartets promoting modern music. (Their multi-disc set of the string quartets of the Second Viennese School -- Schoenberg, Berg, Webern -- is still considered definitive.)
In a similar way, the students of those who made up the Kneisel Quartet became the founders of the Juilliard String Quartet, their successor as resident quartet at the Juilliard School, and another of the great US string quartets that blossomed in the post World War II years. The members of the Juilliard Quartet, in turn, were among those who tutored the members of the LaSalle Quartet, as well as other US string quartets, like the American, Emerson, and Brentano, beginning an American string quartet tradition.
String Quartets in the US Today
The major US professional organization that string players join, is Chamber Music America (CMA). Not all string quartets are members of CMA, but most that have professional careers are. The annual CMA conference is a good place, for example, for quartets to arrange meetings between themselves and the agents that represent and market quartets. Each year CMA publishes a Membership Directory. Going through the 2016 issue, and counting the string quartets listed in the Ensembles section of the directory, I arrived at these numbers:
New York -- 27 string quartets
California -- 15 string quartets (9 from the Bay Area, 6 from LA/San Diego)
Mass. and Penn. each have 5 string quartets listed. Texas has 4.
Georga, Indiana, and Ohio each have 3 string quartets listed.
Connecticut, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, and Tennessee each have 2, while the rest have either 1 or 0.
6 quartets list Canada as their home.
Some of these numbers may be a bit off. I noticed that Pacifica Quartet wasn't listed for Indiana, and I'm sure there are several groups that play locally but aren't members of the CMA. (I could add 4-5 quartets from the Bay Area that aren't listed as members of CMA.) On the other hand, this gives you a good idea of where there is a lot of string quartet activity, and where professional groups prefer to hang out.
To make things a little more informative, the population of the New York area is 19 million people, while the population of the SF Bay area is about 7 million. If we divide each area's population by the number of string quartets in the CMA directory, then New York has one string quartet per 703,000 people, while the Bay Area has one string quartet per 770,000 people -- which suggests that there is very nearly the same interest in string quartets in the Bay Area as in the greater New York area. No other city would come close to these two metropolitan areas. Greater Boston, for example, with a population of some 7.6 million people, supports 5 string quartets according to the CMA, which means Boston has 1 string quartet per 1,520,000 people.
As you can see from this brief review of string quartet composers and some selected string quartet groups, there was at least an academic interest in string quartet music in the US between the late Nineteenth Century and the Second World War. After World War II, driven by immigration from Europe, the arts in general, and string quartets in particular, became established in the US as they had not been, previously. After a period of early growth, string quartets groups seemed to flower in the Sixties and their numbers have continued to grow and expand ever since.
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