To understand this week’s record, you first have to imagine the piece the way any normal 21st-century musician would read it. The work in question is the scherzo from a string quartet by Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842), composer of Medée and thirty-something other operas, author of one of the many informative “how-to-sing” books that proliferated in his lifetime. Here’s a score to follow if desired, and here’s the opening as performed by the first-rate Quartetto Savinio in 2008.
Now the disc up for examination today:
The first obvious contrast is speed (slower!) and pacing (flexible!). First mental question: Scherzo generally means a very fast piece in ¾ time, but did it always? Second: what’s a tempo anyway? The Klingler players do the beginning at about mm=72 (but slower on the first beat), while by bar nine they are up to mm=108, and both those extremes will be visited again.
Beyond this, there are differences of detail in practically every bar. It doesn’t take long to sense something else arching over the measurable contrasts: the Klingler players seem to be portraying something, like actors in a scene. Those open fifths in the cello part - maybe a folk-instrument with a drone pipe? The wayward melodic line - maybe what someone might have called “gypsy” fiddling?
We’re not asking whether Cherubini had this in mind - maybe he did, maybe not. The question is what Karl Klingler, Richard Heber, Fridolin Klingler, and Ernst Silberstein had in mind. One way or another, it seems clear that they are working from special information of some kind. Not just from the score.
This is true in other ways as well. When the running passages arrive, why is the first note in each group longer than the other three? We don’t read them that way now, and haven’t within living memory (turning here to legendary Melos Quartet’s interpretation from 1976 for comparison)
In the final wisp of melody, why are some eighth-notes so much longer than others, and why is the first violin so far out of sync with the others?
Were the Klinglers privy to an otherwise-lost 19th-century point of view about the tempo of a “Scherzo”? No, probably not - as we see from the printed edition, some 19th-century editor saw fit to suggest a metronome mark much closer to the Savinio’s tempo. Did they have personal experience with gypsy bands, and in general with folk and popular music-making in styles that have since evaporated? Yes, almost certainly, but how would we know for sure whether this was influential on their playing of Cherubini? (Further study question: was the “moderato” after “Allegro” added by Cherubini or the editor? And how could the latter have thought mm=126 went with “moderato”?)
It’s also possible that the players were simply passing along an interpretation that had inspired them. The piece had been in the repertory of the Joachim Quartet, one of Europe’s most celebrated ensembles from 1869 to 1907, and the Klingler Quartet was founded in 1905 with the explicit mission of carrying on the older group’s traditions.
Joachim (1831-1908) was the most important violinist in the German-speaking world for some sixty years (more about him in another post), and both Karl Klingler and Richard Heber had been his students. So was the group’s previous second violinist, Josef Ryvkind. Fridolin Klingler, Karl’s younger brother, was the violist throughout the quartet’s thirty-year existence and may have studied with Joachim too. The original cellist, Arthur Williams, had actually subbed for years in Joachim’s own quartet when its permanent cellist, his teacher Robert Hausmann, was engaged elsewhere. Hausmann himself was engaged as a coach to help the new group replicate the sound and style of their celebrated predecessors. The Klinglers made records as early as 1911, but nobody really thought yet in terms of preservation through recording - the way to preserve a tradition was to emulate it in live performance.
The Klingler Quartet disbanded twice, first in 1914 because Williams was suddenly an enemy alien; again in 1936 because the new cellist (Silberstein, the one heard in Cherubini) was a Jew. The Klinglers preferred to dissolve the quartet at the height of its fame rather than bow to the demand for an all-Aryan roster. At the same time Karl was forced into early retirement from the Berlin Hochschule professorship he had inherited directly from Joachim, for protesting the removal of Jewish musicians’ portraits. (One of his pupils from the 1920s went on to have a profound impact on the violin world: Shinichi Suzuki.)
Sometimes we think of it as positive to search for our interpretations in the score and only the score - but that is never really the whole story. The closer we come to trying to make it the whole story, the more we are bound to the blunt arithmetic of our notational system, which can represent only defined fractions of defined units of time. Everything lying “in the cracks” between those defined fractions has to come from “musicality” - in other words, from whatever we have absorbed from the way we’ve heard others play. Consciously or not. And composers knew this; after all, they were performers too. Sometimes we need to liberate ourselves from tradition - from traditions we might be following unthinkingly, or whose content we have some reason to question. But if we reject tradition altogether we are rejecting a big part of music itself. So relics like the Klinglers’ are precious links to information we have little other way to access.