The long legacy of string quartets at Curtis began  with the appointment of two former members of distinguished quartets.

A faculty quartet—the first to carry the school’s name—was formed to serve as a “living illustration of what [students] must strive for if they are to attain to the artistic ideals of the school.” This archival exhibit follows the history of quartet coaching and performance at Curtis, from the 1925–1926 school year to the rise of the Curtis String Quartet; and the influence of the Guarneri Quartet to today’s chamber music curriculum.

The beginning: Louis Bailly and the early string quartets

The first faculty members appointed to teach chamber music at Curtis were two violists: Louis Svecenski, a founding member of the Kneisel Quartet; and Louis Bailly, a former member of the Capet and Flonzaley quartets. During his first year Bailly and fellow faculty members Carl Flesch (violin), Emanuel Zetlin (violin), and Felix Salmond (cello) formed the Curtis Quartet. In addition to playing at faculty recitals, the quartet performed in major cities. “Not since the days of the Joachim Quartet has it been possible to assemble in a permanent organization four musicians of such pre-eminence,” a New York program boasted in 1927.

Although the quartet was meant to be an integral part of the school, it only existed through the 1929–30 school year. By the time it dissolved, Bailly was coaching two student ensembles: the Casimir Quartet, named after the school’s new concert hall; and the Swastika Quartet, named after the home of Mary Louise Curtis Bok at Merion, Pennsylvania.

Establishing a tradition: The Curtis String Quartet

Although Bailly initially rated the future Casimir Quartet more highly, it was the Swastika Quartet that would ultimately rise to fame. In 1932 Jascha Brodsky replaced Gama Gilbert and the quartet took the name of the school. (By this time the original name was closely associated with the rising power of the German Nazi Party, who had adopted the ancient Hindu symbol for good luck as their symbol. Mary Louise Curtis Bok and her husband also changed the name of their home.)

After all its members graduated in 1934, the Curtis String Quartet quickly became famous. On February 12, 1934, it performed in the White House; and in 1935 and 1936 it toured in Europe, the first American quartet to do so. In 1935 the group also made its first recording: a now-famous performance of Dover Beach by Samuel Barber (Composition ’34) in which Barber sang the vocal part. By this time, Charles Jaffe (Violin ’35), a former member of the Casimir Quartet, had replaced Benjamin Sharlip. In the next 25 years, until Jaffe retired in 1959, the group’s membership would remain constant. The quartet officially disbanded when Max Aronoff died in 1981.

The revival of chamber music: The Guarneri Quartet

In the mid 1950s Orlando Cole, Max Aronoff, and Jascha Brodsky returned to Curtis as members of the faculty, with Brodsky coaching chamber music. The subject had remained part of the curriculum since Bailly had left Curtis and Efrem Zimbalist had become director in 1941. Even after the new appointments, however, quartet playing was never seen as a future career.

Still, students were increasingly drawn to playing chamber music for its own sake. They found an outlet at the Marlboro Music School and Festival in Vermont, founded in 1951 by Rudolf Serkin—who had joined the Curtis piano faculty in 1939—and other European musicians. During the 1960s Marlboro became Curtis’s de facto summer program, with Serkin and violinist Felix Galimir as guiding spirits.

In 1964 John Dalley (Violin ’57), Arnold Steinhardt (Violin ’59), and Michael Tree (Violin ’55), whose passion for chamber music originated at Curtis, joined forces with veteran cellist David Soyer to become the Guarneri Quartet, the first of many quartets formed at Marlboro. In the subsequent decades the group became one of the leading American quartets, the subject of books and a documentary. When Soyer retired in 2001, his onetime student, Curtis faculty member Peter Wiley (Cello ’74), succeeded him. The Guarneri retired in 2009, after a remarkable 45-year career as full-time chamber musicians.

Passing on the tradition

When Rudolf Serkin succeeded Efrem Zimbalist as Curtis’s director in 1968, he appointed all four members of the Guarneri Quartet to the faculty of a new chamber music department headed by Jascha Brodsky. From 1972 to 1995  the department was under the direction of Felix Galimir. Since then, the Curtis faculty has included many distinguished chamber musicians, including Shmuel Ashkenasi, first violinist of the former Vermeer Quartet; and Steven Tenenbom, violist of the Orion Quartet, who has been strings chamber music coordinator at Curtis since 1996. In the last few decades alone a majority of major quartets in America have included at least one member who studied at Curtis.

In 2013 Curtis introduced a quartet in residence program, appointing the Dover Quartet, which formed at Curtis in 2008, as its first resident ensemble. The rehearsal studio assigned to the resident quartets is adorned by the painting of the Guarneri in rehearsal, displayed above. More than eighty years after Bailly posed with the early Curtis String Quartet in front of the Joachim Quartet etching, it still watches over the young quartets that rehearse here including the subsequent resident group, the Aizuri Quartet, and the current quartet in residence, the Zorá String Quartet.

Read Matthew Barker’s article about string quartets at Curtis in Overtones, Fall 2014
View recordings by the Curtis String Quartet in the Curtis library (for internal use only)
View recordings by the Guarneri Quartet in the Curtis library (for internal use only)

DISCLAIMER: The images and documents in this exhibit are made available for purposes of education and research. The Curtis Archives has made every attempt to determine the copyright status of materials displayed, but due to the nature of archival materials we are not always able to identify this information. We are eager to hear from any rights owners, so that we may obtain accurate information. Upon request, we will remove material from public view while we address a rights issue.