The HART HOUSE QUARTET
The story of the four fiddlers of Hart House whose playing has brought fame to themselves and renown to their country
A. RAYMOND MULLENS
THE music critic of the London (Eng.) Daily Express once delivered himself of the statement, “there are only a handful of string quartets in the whole wide world.” A rather sweeping assertion, but on the whole a true one. Of course, wherever violinists, violists, and cellists live there are attempts at string-quartet playing. What the Express writer meant was that there are only a handful of first-rate quartets. And Canada has produced one of them; in the opinion of this writer, the greatest of them, now that the Flonzaley Quartet is but a memory.
Which is a somewhat staggering statement. Let us consider for a moment what is implied in it.
Despite the blow dealt to music as a profession by the disappearance of the theatre orchestra, the tremendous popularity of radio, the gradual decline in the pulling
power of the virtuoso, there still are some hundreds of thousands of men and women earning their living by playing the violin; some thousands who rely on “the fiddle with the dropsy”—the viola; and as many more who rely upon the nasal but soulful cello. Yet from out this horde only about half a dozen great string quartets have evolved.
And, as I mentioned a moment ago, one of the greatest of them was born, reared and is doing its principal work in Canada; in Canada the materialistic, Canada the uncouth, Canada the paradise of the sodbasting agriculturist and the soulless industrialist. To phrase the question in the vernacular of the street: How come?
First of all let me say that the description of Canada just given was “writ sarcastic”although it is not a very exaggerated statement of the conception current in the minds of some millions of Europeans. Canada is, and must be, a puzzle to the visitor from across the water. Its area is enormous and its population small. Which means that the basiness of carrying on the daily affairs of life—building, growing food and transporting people— is of infinite importance. But what the tourist who attempts to “do” Canada in a few weeks utterly fails to perceive is the passionate desire of the Canadian for that solace of work-bedevilled humans known as Art.
The history of the Hart House String Quartet illustrates the point admirably.
In 1911 a family of very distinguished musicians left London for Toronto, Canada. Professor Michael Ham-
bourg was one of the best known piano teachers in Europe. His sons, Boris and Jan, had already made a name for themselves as virtuosi of the type sometimes termed “musicians' musicians;” that is, they possessed superb technique and refused to use it for purposes of mere display.
They founded the Hambourg Conservatory of Music, and Torontoall Canada, in fact—was not slow to recognize that there had arrived musicians who deserved recognition and support. But Boris Hambourg, an exquisite cellist, had a hobby—the playing of chamber music—and he found that in Toronto this hobby was hard to ride. Also, the young conservatory badly needed a violinist of international renown to head its violin department.
So Geza de Kresz, concert-master for Arthur Nikisch, conductor of the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, was invited to the new land.
While students at Brussels, de Kresz and Hambourg had been members of the same string quartet, a quartet organized and paternally encouraged by Ysaye, one of the greatest violinists ever to wield a bow.
It so happened that residing in Toronto were a violist, Milton Blackstone, and a very ardent young violinist, Harry Adaskin. These instrumentalists also had played together in ensemble. They were invited to make music with de Kresz and Hambourg: and, as Milton Blackstone puts it, “we played all the pent-up chamber music out of our systems.”
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The Hart House Quartet
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Comparative satiety having been reached, it was only natural that the quartet should wish to test its powers upon an audience. But how? It so happened that an organization known as the Toronto Chamber Music Society had been claimed by the Grim Reaper. Was it possible for a hitherto unknown body of players to fill the spot left vacant in Toronto’s musical life?
Honorable Vincent Massey, then Dean of Residence of Victoria College, University of Toronto, was approached. Mr. Massey was, and is, a remarkable man. A scholar in the best sense of that stale word, he was an amateur actor of more than ordinary talent, a man profoundly
interested in Canadian art, and a cool and purposeful executive.
Dean Massey suggested that the quartet should play for an audience composed of the most musically discerning in Toronto. It did. A few days later the future minister to the United States offered the four players a chance to appear before a larger audience in Hart House Theatre. This was announced as “a concert of chamber music to be given by a quartet composed of Geza de Kresz, Harry Adaskin, Milton Blackstone, and Boris Hambourg.”
At the conclusion of the evening’s programme Mr. Massey announced that
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the new organization would be known as the Hart House Quartet; and to the quartet he imparted the cheery news that he had made a few guarded enquiries and already had $4,000 on hand. Whereat the newly-born quartet was not a little encouraged.
usic for the Music Hungry
FOLLOWED a series of concerts in Toronto which were exceedingly popular. Then Dean Massey decided that it would be an interesting experiment to send the quartet on a tour from the Maritime Provinces to British Columbia. He wanted to see what impression the purest form of musical art made upon the Canadian people. Perhaps it should be explained that, since the quartet’s birth, Massey had become president of the Massey Foundation and the Hart House Quartet was duly incorporated therein.
The coast-to-coast tour was a wonderful adventure. On the off chance that any reader of this article has never heard a string quartet, it may be stated that chamber music, while a sheer delight to those who, as Dr. Ernest McMillan recently and wittily said “take their music seriously but not solemnly,” requires a certain amount of intellectual co-operation on the part of the listener. Was this to be forthcoming?
This is the way Milton Blackstone described the tour:
“The Maritime towns seemed a little dazed by our music making; a little bewildered by it. We were not at all dismayed. We knew that a few more concerts would make many converts - as they have. The East—well, the East felt itself a little blasé. It was the home of Canada’s culture and it knew all about string quartets—even if many of its residents had never heard one. But the West! Here was a Canada which hungered for the pure tone of a string quartet;4a Canada of British and European immigrants, people who knew what chamber music was and had longed for it. Why, time and again, when we came on the platform with our instruments, the applause was deafening.” There is a moral in Blackstone’s comment, but I haven’t quite the temerity to point it. Suffice to say that, had not this first and subsequent tours demonstrated beyond cavil that Canada greatly liked the chaste and completely unsensational music a string quartet can offer, the subsequent triumphs of the Hart House players would not have been possible.
Triumphs! To recount them fully would give this article an unpleasant flavor of gross adulation. Just some of the highlights, then.
ON NOVEMBER 28, 1925, the quartet made its first bow to a New York ! audience. Since that first concert the ! quartet has played in the American metropolis sixteen times. The concert ! was given in Aeolian Hall, and the pro: gramme was particularly exacting; The Bela Bartok Quarte Quartet, the Debussy, and the baffling Beethoven F major, opus 135. The critics were unwontedly enthusiastic. In Boston, Philip Hale, an extremely learned and not very enthusiastic reviewer of concerts, said: ^“The visitors are serious musicians. Their playing of the third movement of the Debussy was enchanting.”
'After a triumphal progress through the ! cities of the Eastern States, the quartet wended its way to California, playing in every city of importance in the course of their journey.
The United States having emphatically set the seal of its approval on the Canadian organization, the opinion of Europe was sought. The British Broadcasting ! Company was particularly anxious to ! hear this Canadian quartet, and so in ! October, 1929, the little band of players ¡ crossed the Atlantic.
Ernest Newman, probably the most feared as he is the most respected writer on musical subjects in Great Britain, said in the course of a review: “We shall all be glad to hear these people play again, for their tone steals agreeably upon the ear and they have a firm musical grasp upon whatever they undertake.” The leading French musical journal, Monde Musical, said: “They immediately established themselves as one of the best quartets in the world.” And there was this delightful appreciation from the mighty Ysaye, published in L’Action Musicale, of Brussels: “The Hart House String Quartet of Toronto, Canada, while passing through Belgium on their way home after a concert tour, stopped off at Brussels expressly for the purpose of giving me the joy to hear again the quartets by Franck and Debussy (two pillars of my faith) and to which these artists added the 15th quartet by Beethoven !. . . It became an evening of enchantment for me, and I will never forget the profound sensation I experienced in listening to these works played with an incomparable mastery, an ensemble of an almost unique perfection, which one would have to go back to the time of Joachim’s original quartet to equal it. The perfect taste, the style, strict observance of the prescribed nuances, the rhythm, warmth, clarity, power —nothing was lacking. As the members of this quartet are in the fullness of their youth, my enthusiasm equalled my surprise, for I feared that the tempering, control, and forethought might be lacking, but fortunately, these indispensable qualifications were all present. Whether it was the first violin, or the answers and imitations of the others, I could but applaud and thank them for the joy they gave me and for the memories awakened in me through their masterly interpretation. I do not cite these impressions for the sake of advertising these superb artists on their career, which foretells itself brilliantly, and which they do not need; but I do it because the spirit of Beethoven, Franck and Debussy was there—and to speak about them—evoking and exalting their genius, which does me good, and consoles me in my old age.”
London fêted the Canadian organization royally thereby climaxing a notable tour.
I think I have said enough to convey the impression that Canada’s string quartet is one of the greatest in the world. The next question, a very interesting one, is what makes it so?
In search of an answer, let us briefly review the history of its members.
Blending of Temperament
THE first violin, De Kresz, was born in Budapest, the son of one of Hungary’s most distinguished surgeons. Young De Kresz decided to follow in his father’s footsteps. But after a year or two he found the atmosphere of the concert hall decidedly more alluring than that of the dissecting room. So he studied the violin with Hubay and Ysaye, and a very brilliant student he was. His studies completed, he was appointed court violinist to Carmen Sylva, then Queen of Roumania. In passing, it may be mentioned that when Queen Marie was in Canada she met De Kresz and told him what great pleasure she had derived from the music he and his associates made when she was a young princess attending concerts in different parts of England.
Later Arthur Nikisch offered him the post of concertmaster with his Berlin orchestra; one of the juiciest plums any violinist can be offered. This post he held for seven years, appearing weekly as soloist at the Sunday concerts. Then he sought the invigorating air of an up-andcoming country, Canada.
The viola player, Milton Blackstone, was born in New York City. He won
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scholarships entitling him to study with that grand old pioneer of chamber music in America, Franz Kneisel, and with Schradieck, whose book of scales has caused more tears and made more fine fiddlers than any similar work ever published. Mr. Blackstone came to Canada to play with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He has set the feet of many Canadian violinists in the way they should go and—I hope I’m not divulging something I shouldn’t—means to give Canada a new idea of the possibilities of the viola i as a solo instrument.
Harry Adaskin, the second violin, was born in Riga, on the Baltic. He was I brought to Canada when he was eighteen : months old. Strangely enough, his viewpoint on things in general is more Canadian than Slavic. His first violin lessons . were received from Mrs. Adamson, of Toronto. Later Adaskin studied with Von j Kunits, and, in Paris, with the great French teachers, Chailly and Sametini. I remember his English debut and what a sensation his playing caused.
Boris Hambourg, cellist, was born in Voronesh, Russia, December 27, 1884. When he was a child the Hambourg family trekked to London. Anyone who knows anything about music knows that Boris is one of the few great cellists of the world. His influence on the musical life of Canada cannot properly be estimated.
This history of the four members of the quartet partly explains why the organization plays so large a part in the musical history of our time. Here we have a blending of three distinct temperaments; the Hungarian, the Slavic, and the Jewish. Each supplements the other. The fiery Hungarian is sobered by the essentially melancholy Slav; the ultraemotional Jew is controlled and refined by ,both.
More than a blending of racial temperaments, however, is required to produce a first-rate quartet. If this were not the case, any symphony orchestra ought to breed at least a dozen. Not an orchestra of note but has in its ranks players born in several of the European countries. Yet from no symphony orchestra has come a truly great quartet. Something else Is needed; a great love of and gift for chamber-music playing.
In solo playing the instrumentalist who finds written for him an effective passage is expected to do full justice to it. If it is a brilliant one he is entitled to show his audience how superlatively trained his fingers are; if it is a melody of warm emotion he endeavors to make it glow with all the color and warmth he can put into it. But in string quartet playing this is not invariably the case. Any one of the four instruments encounters again and
again passages which fairly cry for personal display. But very often a certain passage is merely a thread in the pattern of a composition, and the player to whom it is assigned must play it with due regard for its place in the tonal unity of the whole. Quartet playing calls for the utmost in musical expression and the total abnegation of self.
A Quartet Rehearsal
’ I '0 DESCRIBE just the qualities which go to make up fine quartet playing is difficult if non-technical language is to be used. A glimpse of the Hart House Quartet at rehearsal may help to make the matter clearer.
The rehearsal is held in one of the class rooms of the Hambourg Conservatory. Two of the players clear the decks for action by stripping off their coats. The student of psychology would find interesting material for study in the appearance and demeanor of the four artists. It is easy to believe that De Kresz is a doctor’s son. He is grave, kindly, and has rather more than a touch of the bedside manner. Hambourg is his direct antithesis. Dark and jaunty, he is also airy, whimsical and gay—until the business of music making is toward.
Milton Blackstone is businesslike and a little worried. Plainly he considers himself the “do it now” member of the quartet. Harry Adaskin—he looks like an early portrait of Richard Wagner—is pale and ardently enthusiastic; very much the musician of the fiction writer.
The four sit down at their respective desks and glance at the music resting on them. The first number to be rehearsed is a quartet arrangement based on FrenchCanadian songs. It was written by Miss Pargeta and won first prize in a competition conducted by the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. The music starts. It sounds very charming, very scintillant and conducive to toe-tapping. Only a few bars have been played before De Kresz stops.
“No, no,” he says with a frowning smile, “we are too serious. This should be gay.” He makes a gesture with his bow which suggests “whoopee” and plays a passage or two. The three other players smile and the music making is resumed. But this time it is gay. Gone from it is the slight touch of austerity which had characterized it before.
This is music that the Hart House Players have played many times before, but once again nearly every phrase is analyzed before its interpreters are content.
A public rehearsal would give many music lovers an insight into the innumerable difficulties accompanying the playing of chamber music. Tempering of pitch,
for instance—how important it is and yet how difficult to explain. Most of us have “piano ears.” If we want to play C we strike a certain note on the keyboard. If B sharp is desired the same key is struck; D double flat the same. But with string instruments the three notes are actually three different notes, and with four instruments playing together many adjustments have to be made. To a trained musician this explanation will sound crude, but unless very technical language is used it must serve.
A^ QUARTET can only do its best
^ work if it has fine instruments on which to play; and fine fiddles cost a lot of money. De Kresz plays a Pietra Guarnerius violin. It has been pronounced the finest example of this maker’s work in existence, and the first violinist of the Hart House Quartet has recently refused $20,000 for it. Adaskin is proud of his sonorous Moryoni, and Milton Blackstone of a superb Gagliano and a splendid Testori. Boris Hambourg plays a Ruggieri. These instruments were valued by William Hill of London recently, with the result that the four players would not sell them for $50,000.
The Hart House Quartet is only six years old, yet its influence is felt wherever musicians exist. No publisher brings out a string quartet without sending the members a copy in the hope that they will play it at one of their concerts. And they have played an astonishing number of works which North America would not otherwise have heard.
This missionary zeal has brought them letters from many great musicians. Delius has written acknowledging the service they have done him in the four performances of his quartet which they have given. A performance of a quartet of Fritz Kreizler’s elicited a delightfully whimsical letter from that very great violinist. In it he speaks affectionately of each member of the quartet and thanks them for the playing of his beschiedenes music. A hard word to translate; how will “humble” do?
But far more than these tributes from the musically elect, the quartet treasures the affection in which they are held by the people of Canada, an affection expressed by crowded houses and an enthusiastic reception of their playing. Canada’s love of what is the finest in art made the existence of this quartet possible. Canada gave the four musicians who comprise it their opportunity, and in return they are all Canadian citizens.
All of which suggests the thought that the Dominion is not as materialistic as some of its critics affirm.