Three Played by Four

Juilliard String Quartet Opens CAMA’s Masterseries at the Lobero Season

by James Hanley Donelan

On Friday, Mozart will conduct the Juilliard String Quartet at the Lobero — at least in spirit. Quartets usually conduct themselves anyway, and this quartet — a distinguished 60-year-old institution — has recently had direct access to the autograph manuscripts of some of the most important works ever written for four strings: Mozart’s E-flat Major, D Minor, and C Major quartets — three of the six he dedicated to Franz Joseph Haydn. As the personal composer to a prince of the Habsburg Empire and the inventor of the genre, Haydn certainly deserved this tribute, but Mozart’s skillful references to Haydn’s works were so astonishing that Haydn changed his own style in response. The Juilliard String Quartet has a gift for bringing out these nuances in performance, as well as for finding new beauty in familiar works and rediscovering nearly forgotten masterpieces. I recently spoke to Samuel Rhodes, the group’s violist and senior member, from his home in New York.

Tell us about these Mozart manuscripts. What did you learn from them? Well, it’s complicated  — Mozart first wrote these quartets, and later made corrections, so you have to look at both the manuscripts and the corrections to see how they should be played. It’s difficult to figure out exactly what he meant, but it’s wonderful to have these manuscripts available. The chairman of the board at the Juilliard School collected manuscripts and first editions, and he recently gave his entire collection to the school, including these editions of Mozart’s six “Haydn” quartets, so that scholars could work with them. They’ve got their own room in the library there, along with Mozart’s handwritten wind parts for the last scene of The Marriage of Figaro, and a number of other things.

So performing with your group involves some serious scholarship. Absolutely. We’ve been the quartet-in-residence at the Library of Congress for forty years, and we’ve been able to play their matched set of Stradivarius instruments from the Whittall collection — they’re wonderful. We also had a chance last year to play another set of Stradivarius instruments when we went to Madrid, a beautiful set in the royal collection of Spain. They were originally commissioned by a Spanish king, and they’re beautifully inlaid. All these instruments have to be played once in while to keep them sounding the way they should, so that when we play these instruments, we’re not just performing with them, we’re also keeping them alive.

The quartet has been responsible for keeping a number of works alive too, hasn’t it? Yes, we’ve always been proud of the way we’ve been able to revive works that have fallen out of the repertory, as well as our ability to play works in contexts that give them new meaning and depth. For instance, our group was one of the first to play the entire Beethoven cycle in the 20th century — and now, any quartet of any stature must play Beethoven. His quartets have absolutely fantastic artistic range.

I noticed that on your last recording of a Beethoven quartet, No. 13, you played the extremely challenging Grosse Fuge for the finale, rather than its far easier alternate ending. What was your thinking behind that? That finale, the Grosse Fuge, is one of the most difficult works ever written for string quartet, but it’s the ending that Beethoven really meant the work to have — his publisher insisted on the easier, alternate version. Still, that part of the work was almost never played late in the 19th century and early in the 20th. For instance, the Budapest String Quartet, our predecessors as the string quartet-in-residence at Juilliard, never played No. 13 with the Grosse Fuge finale; for them, the Grosse Fuge was a separate work. Beethoven had written it as an answer to people who said that he didn’t write counterpoint well, and he rose to the challenge magnificently. It really belongs to the rest of the work organically, but the other finale, the rondo, is great, too, so we play it on alternating performances of the work. I’ve heard that Beethoven’s late quartets had a strong influence on 20th-century quartet composition — do you find that when you perform those works? Yes, definitely. Schönberg’s quartets represent a similar pioneering spirit, and we like to bring that out. We’ve also done a lot with Bartók, performing seven complete cycles of his quartets — we were the first to do so when we played them at Tanglewood in 1948. It’s all part of a living tradition.

We’re looking forward to your concert here in Santa Barbara. Do you have anything to add? The three Mozart quartets that we’re playing in Santa Barbara are some of the wonders of the world, and we always love playing there. We’re looking forward to it, too.

The Juilliard String Quartet will appear at the Lobero Theatre on Friday, November 17 at 8 p.m. Call 963-0761 or visit

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