What lover of chamber music in its more perfect dispensations is not familiar with the figure of Adolfo Betti, the guiding brain and bow of the Flonzaley Quartet? Born in Florence, he played his first public concert at the age of six, yet as a youth found it hard to choose between literature, for which he had decided aptitude,[A] and music. Fortunately for American concert audiences of to-day, he finally inclined to the latter. An exponent of what many consider the greatest of all violinistic schools, the Belgian, he studied for four years with Cesar Thomson at Liege, spent four more concertizing in Vienna and elsewhere, and returned to Thomson as the latter's assistant in the Brussels Conservatory, three years before he joined the Flonzaleys, in 1903. With pleasant recollections of earlier meetings with this gifted artist, the writer sought him out, and found him amiably willing to talk about the modern quartet and its ideals, ideals which he personally has done so much to realize.
[Footnote A: M. Betti has published a number of critical articles in the Guide Musical of Brussels, the Rivista Musicale of Turin, etc.]
The Modern Quartet
"You ask me how the modern quartet differs from its predecessors?" said Mr. Betti. "It differs in many ways. For one thing the modern quartet has developed in a way that makes its inner voices--second violin and viola--much more important than they used to be. Originally, as in Haydn's early quartets, we have a violin solo with three accompanying instruments. In Beethoven's last quartets the intermediate voices have already gained a freedom and individuality which before him had not even been suspected. In these last quartets Beethoven has already set forth the principle which was to become the basis of modern polyphony: '_first of all_ to allow each voice to express itself freely and fully, and _afterward_ to see what the relations were of one to the other.' In fact, no one has exercised a more revolutionary effect on the quartet than Beethoven--no one has made it attain so great a degree of progress. And surely the distance separating the quartet as Beethoven found it, from the quartet as he left it (Grand Fugue, Op. 131, Op. 132), is greater than that which lies between the Fugue Op. 132, and the most advanced modern quartet, let us say, for instance, Schonberg's Op. 7. Schonberg, by the way, has only applied and developed the principles established by Beethoven in the latter's last quartets. But in the
modern quartet we have a new element, one which tends more and more to
become preponderant, and which might be called _orchestral_ rather than
_da camera_. Smetana, Grieg, Tschaikovsky were the first to follow this
path, in which the majority of the moderns, including Franck and
Debussy, have followed them. And in addition, many among the most
advanced modern composers _strive for orchestral effects that often lie
outside the natural capabilities of the strings_!
[Illustration: ADOLFO BETTI, with hand-written note]
"For instance Stravinsky, in the first of his three impressionistic
sketches for quartet (which we have played), has the first violin play
_ponticello_ throughout, not the natural _ponticello_, but a quite
special one, to produce an effect of a bag-pipe sounding at a distance.
I had to try again and again till I found the right technical means to
produce the effect desired. Then, the 'cello is used to imitate the
drum; there are special technical problems for the second violin--a
single sustained D, with an accompanying _pizzicato_ on the open
strings--while the viola is required to suggest the tramp of marching
feet. And, again, in other modern quartets we find special technical
devices undreamt of in earlier days. Borodine, for instance, is the
first to systematically employ successions of harmonics. In the trio of
his first quartet the melody is successively introduced by the 'cello
and the first violin, altogether in harmonics.
THE MODERN QUARTET AND AMATEUR PLAYERS
"You ask me whether the average quartet of amateurs, of lovers of string
music, can get much out of the more modern quartets. I would say yes,
but with some serious reservations. There has been much beautiful music
written, but most of it is complicated. In the case of the older
quartets, Haydn, Mozart, etc., even if they are not played well, the
performers can still obtain an idea of the music, of its thought
content. But in the modern quartets, unless each individual player has
mastered every technical difficulty, the musical idea does not pierce
through, there is no effect.
"I remember when we rehearsed the first Schˆnberg quartet. It was in
1913, at a Chicago hotel, and we had no score, but only the separate
parts. The results, at our first attempt, were so dreadful that we
stopped after a few pages. It was not till I had secured a score,
studied it and again tried it that we began to see a light. Finally
there was not one measure which we did not understand. But Schˆnberg,
Reger, Ravel quartets make too great a demand on the technical ability
of the average quartet amateur.
THE TECHNIC OF QUARTET PLAYING
"Naturally, the first violin is the leader, the Conductor of the
quartet, as in its early days, although the 'star' system, with one
virtuose player and three satellites, has disappeared. Now the quartet
as a whole has established itself in the _virtuoso_ field--using the
word _virtuoso_ in its best sense. The M¸ller quartet (Hanover),
1845-1850, was the first to travel as a chamber music organization, and
the famous _Florentiner_ Quartet the first to realize what could be
done in the way of finish in playing. As _premier violiniste_ of the
Flonzaley's I study and prepare the interpretation of the works we are
to play before any rehearsing is done.
"While the first violin still holds first place in the modern quartet,
the second violin has become much more important than formerly; it has
gained in individuality. In many of the newer quartets it is quite as
important as the first. In Hugo Wolf's quartet, for example, first and
second violins are employed as though in a concerto for two violins.
"The viola, especially in modern French works--Ravel, Debussy,
Samazeuil--has a prominent part. In the older quartets one reason the
viola parts are simple is because the alto players as a rule were
technically less skillful. As a general thing they were violinists who
had failed--'the refugees of the G clef,' as Edouard Colonne, the
eminent conductor, once wittily said. But the reason modern French
composers give the viola special attention is because France now is
ahead of the other nations in virtuose viola playing. It is practically
the only country which may be said to have a 'school' of viola playing.
In the Smetana quartet the viola plays a most important part, and
Dvor·k, who himself played viola, emphasized the instrument in his
"Mozart showed what the 'cello was able to do in the quartets he
dedicated to the ''cellist king,' Frederick William of Prussia. And
then, the 'cello has always the musical importance which attaches to it
as the lower of the two 'outer voices' of the quartet _ensemble_. Like
the second violin and viola, it has experienced a technical and musical
development beyond anything Haydn or Mozart would have dared to write.
"Realization of the Art aims of the modern quartet calls for endless
rehearsal. Few people realize the hard work and concentrated effort
entailed. And there are always new problems to solve. After preparing a
new score in advance, we meet and establish its general idea, its broad
outlines in actual playing. And then, gradually, we fill in the details.
Ordinarily we rehearse three hours a day, less during the concert
season, of course; but always enough to keep absolutely in trim. And we
vary our practice programs in order to keep mentally fresh as well as
"Perfect intonation is a great problem--one practically unknown to the
average amateur quartet player. Four players may each one of them be
playing in tune, in pitch; yet their chords may not be truly in tune,
because of the individual bias--a trifle sharp, a trifle flat--in
interpreting pitch. This individual bias may be caused by the attraction
existing between certain notes, by differences of register and _timbre_,
or any number of other reasons--too many to recount. The true beauty of
the quartet tone cannot be obtained unless there is an exact adjustment,
a tempering of the individual pitch of each instrument, till perfect
accordance exists. This is far more difficult and complicated than one
might at first believe. For example, let us take one of the simplest
violin chords," said Mr. Betti [and he rapidly set it down in pencil].
[Illustration: Musical Notation]
"Now let us begin by fixing the B so that it is perfectly in tune with
the E, then _without at all changing_ the B, take the interval D-B. You
will see that the sixth will not be in tune. Repeat the experiment,
inverting the notes: the result will still be the same. Try it yourself
some time," added Mr. Betti with a smile, "and you will see. What is the
reason? It is because the middle B has not been adjusted, tempered! Give
the same notes to the first and second violins and the viola and you
will have the same result. Then, when the 'cello is added, the problem
is still more complicated, owing to the difference in _timbre_ and
register. Yet it is a problem which can be solved, and is solved in
practically everything we play.
"Another difficulty, especially in the case of some of the _very daring_
chords encountered in modern compositions, is the matter of balance
between the individual notes. There are chords which only _sound well_
if certain notes are thrown into relief; and others only if played very
softly (almost as though they were overtones). To overcome such
difficulties means a great deal of work, real musical instinct and,
above all, great familiarity with the composer's harmonic processes. Yet
with time and patience the true balance of tone can be obtained.
"All four individual players must be able to _feel_ the tempo they are
playing in the same way. I believe it was Mahler who once gave out a
beat very distinctly--one, two, three--told his orchestra players to
count the beat silently for twenty measures and then stop. As each
_felt_ the beat differently from the other, every one of them stopped at
a different time. So _tempo_, just like intonation, must be 'tempered'
by the four quartet players in order to secure perfect rhythmic
"Modern composers have wonderfully improved dynamic expression. Every
little shade of meaning they make clear with great distinctness. The
older composers, and occasionally a modern like Emanuel Moor, do not use
expression marks. Moor says, 'If the performers really have something to
put into my work the signs are not needed.' Yet this has its
disadvantages. I once had an entirely unmarked Sonata by Sammartini. As
most first movements in the sonatas of that composer are _allegros_ I
tried the beginning several times as an _allegro_, but it sounded
radically wrong. Then, at last, it occurred to me to try it as a _largo_
and, behold, it was beautiful!
"If the leader of the quartet has lived himself into and mastered a
composition, together with his associates, the result is sure. I must
live in the music I play just as an actor must live the character he
represents. All higher interpretation depends on solving technical
problems in a way which is not narrowly mechanical. And while the
_ensemble_ spirit must be preserved, the freedom of the individual
should not be too much restrained. Once the style and manner of a modern
composer are familiar, it is easier to present his works: when we first
played the Reger quartet here some twenty years ago, we found pages
which at first we could not at all understand. If one has fathomed
Debussy, it is easier to play Milhaud, Roger-Ducasse, Samazeuil--for the
music of the modern French school has much in common. One great cultural
value the professional quartet has for the musical community is the fact
that it gives a large circle a measure of acquaintance with the mode of
thought and style of composers whose symphonic and larger works are
often an unknown quantity. This applies to Debussy, Reger, the modern
Russians, Bloch and others. When we played the Stravinsky pieces here,
for instance, his _PÈtrouschka_ and _Firebird_ had not yet been heard.
"We try, as an organization, to be absolutely catholic in taste. Nor do
we neglect the older music, because we play so much of the new. This
year we are devoting special attention to the American composers.
Formerly the Kneisels took care of them, and now we feel that we should
assume this legacy. We have already played Daniel Gregory Mason's fine
_Intermezzo_, and the other American numbers we have played include
David Stanley Smith's _Second Quartet_, and movements from quartets by
Victor Kolar and Samuel Gardner. We are also going to revive Charles
Martin Loeffler's _Rhapsodies_ for viola, oboe and piano.
"I have been for some time making a collection of sonatas _a tre_, two
violins and 'cello--delightful old things by Sammartini, Leclair, the
Englishman Boyce, Friedemann Bach and others. This is material from
which the amateur could derive real enjoyment and profit. The Leclair
sonata in D minor we have played some three hundred times; and its slow
movement is one of the most beautiful _largos_ I know of in all chamber
music. The same thing could be done in the way of transcription for
chamber music which Kreisler has already done so charmingly for the solo
violin. And I would dearly love to do it! There are certain 'primitives'
of the quartet--Johann Christian Bach, Gossec, Telemann, Michel
Haydn--who have written music full of the rarest melodic charm and
freshness. I have much excellent material laid by, but as you know,"
concluded Mr. Betti with a sigh, "one has so little time for anything in