Last October a letter was written to the Music Division of the Library of Congress (with a copy to me) protesting the use of the piano together with the string quartet at one of the library concerts. Since the issue has stuck in my mind ever since, it seemed a good idea to try to dispel its troubledspirit.
The letter made certain specific points, one of which said, "Strings should tune in unison before going on stage." This stern admonition raises some tough problems. Marian Herter Norton, in her excellent guidebook for string quartet players, suggests that a quartet can tune up offstage and that little if any further tuning is needed once the four players are seated. She does, however, note wisely that "a change of atmosphere of if someone has a new string" can change this happy plan.
What nearly ever listener to the Juilliard Quartet programs at the Library of Congress knows is that those priceless Stradivarius instruments are more temperamental about their tuning than many other violins violas and cellos. And since there is quite often a marked difference between the temperatures backstage and onstage at the library, the players are only taking very reasonable precautions in tuning after they are seated.
The second point in the October letter really shook me up: "A piano has no place in a performance for a string quarter." Now it's undeniable that a lot of string quartet players get very steamed up about the purity of their special foursome and like to talk about the "absolute supremacy" of music written for two violins, one viola and one cello. Some even suggest that the string quartet is the highest form of musical art.
But to deny the piano a place together with the string quartet, or two or three of its players, is to throw out the window certain masterworks by men who were just not bright enough to realize that the piano could never get along amicably with those strings. Like Mozart, for instance, who wrote those two enchanting piano quartets; and Schumann and Brahms and Dvorak and Franck and Tchaikovsky and Faure and Bruckner and all the others who wrote piano trios, quartets and quintets. True, the piano demands a different kind of tuning from stringed instruments - it is called "mean tuning."
However, generations have managed to handle the situation. Again Marian Norton puts things in good perspective: "Some ardent quartet devotees like to think that the piano can never enter the sacred precincts of their own art and there is something to be said for the theory. But they would adhere to this prejudice at the cost of missing some of the finest chamber music literature ever composed." Fine! But watch out! Norton, after admitting the existence of this great music, continues with a stern admonition: " . . . the noble purpose of the gathered performers will be more easily and sympathetically achieved if he (the pianist) will consider the strings: Put a book under the lid (if his piano must be open), spare the pedal and observe dynamic marks!"
Gee whiz, Norton, there are passages in the grand quintets by Schumann and Brahms, the "Archduke" Trio of Beethoven, the Franck Quintet and the C Minor Piano Quartet of Faure where to spare the pedal is to spoil the music. And the dynamic marks, if properly applied by everyone, are likely to keep the balance close to the composer's intentions. Those fellows wwere nearly all top pianists as well as composers. They knew how to match their own instruments with the four strings.
Since the writer of the October letter said she was offering her suggestions "in memory of Gertrude Clarke Whittall," this is the place to recall a further facet of her boundless generosity to the library's Music Division. Not only were its resident string quartet programs played under the auspices of her own foundation, and on the Strads she gave the library, but she frequently and open-handedly wrote out checks to cover the added expense of engaging Rudolf Serkin, Clifford Curzon, Arthur Rubinstein, GeorgeSzell, Rudolf Firkusny and dozens of other superb pianists to play at the library with its resident quartets. And on many of those occasions, depending of course on the music to be played, audiences have seen one of these great artists playing with the piano lid all the way up! But so idealy and precisely did they modulate their own tone that they made matchless ensembles. The tone of a piano being played quietly with the lid down is a very different, and quite often far too muted a sound to match accompanying strings. The greater art, practiced by pianists often heard at the library, was that of producing playing, loud or soft, that had the vitality of the open tone without ever threatening to cover the strings. Rather than any danger, the piano adds a unique glory to the sonorities of the strings, precisely as the great composers of that literature knew it would.