In the Key of Strawberry; The World of the String Quartet, by Arnold Steinhardt
Last year, the Curtis Institute of Music, where I was once a student and where I now teach, asked me to participate in an internet course about the string quartet. Curtis, partnering with the online educational platform Coursera, has already had impressive success with two previous online courses: a survey of classical music co-hosted by Curtis faculty members Jonathan Coopersmith, chair of Musical Studies, and composer David Ludwig, and an exploration of Beethoven piano sonatas hosted by pianist Jonathan Biss. Some 50,000 learners from all over the world have signed on.
The string quartet seems such a bare-boned and unpresuming group, inhabited by a mere four musicians. You might ask what one can say that would fill an entire course about the music played by such an insubstantial ensemble. It reminds me of the old joke about a lady who goes backstage to compliment a string quartet on its performance and then adds, “I hope your little orchestra will just grow and grow.”
On the other hand, Albert Einstein once said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.” That is the essence, the economy, and the power of the string quartet and is perhaps the reason why some of the world’s greatest composers have been drawn to it. There is, indeed, much to say about and to hear from the string quartet.
Writing material in an informative yet lively manner was challenging, and the idea of reading it off a teleprompter during filming—something I’ve never done before—gave me some pause. But the one thing I never questioned was my knowledge of the string quartet repertoire and everything associated with it. After all, I have been a member of the Guarneri String Quartet that has performed on the world’s concert stages with a repertoire of hundreds of works for 45 years. What wouldn’t I know about the string quartet?
In fact, quite a lot. Rather than be dismayed about the embarrassing holes in my knowledge, I was surprised, excited, and even tickled by some of the things I learned while doing research for the project. I felt as if I’d come upon glittering treasures both large and small.
For example, I learned that the Irish tenor Michael Kelly, who spent several years in Vienna, met composers Joseph Haydn, Johann Baptist Vanhall, Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart while living there. I read that Mozart and Kelly became fast friends and often dined together, but that Kelly invariably lost at billiards to Mozart. Apparently, composing wasn’t the only thing Mozart was good at. And speaking of string quartets, Kelly reported at a quartet party in his honor, that “the players were tolerable; not one of them excelled in the instrument they played, but there was a little science among them, which I dare say will be acknowledged when I name them:
Second violin….Baron Dittersdorf
Would I have loved to be a fly on the wall at that party!