The Busch Quartet was a string quartet founded by Adolf Busch in 1919 that was particularly noted for its interpretations of the Classical and Romantic quartet repertoire. The group's recordings of Beethoven's Late String Quartets are especially revered.
In the summer of 1912 the position of first leader of the Wiener Konzertvereinorchester fell vacant. The 21-year-old German violinist and composer Adolf Busch was recommended for the role by numerous people, among them the principal viola Karl Doktor and principal cello Paul Grümmer. Following Busch's appointment as leader, conductor Ferdinand Löwe and the directors of the new Konzerthaus wanted to start a string quartet based on the orchestra's principals, and as Busch was known to be planning his own ensemble it seemed an ideal arrangement. He accepted Doktor and Grümmer as quartet partners but brought in Fritz Rothschild as second violinist.
After intensive rehearsals, the Wiener Konzertvereinquartett was first heard on 25 May 1913, playing Haydn in a private concert in Eisenstadt. Its official debut came on 3 August at Lilli Lehmann's Salzburg Festival with Beethoven's F major Quartet, Op. 59 No. 1, and Schumann's A minor Quartet, Op. 41 No. 1. The new ensemble received immediate acclaim, with critics comparing it with the Joachim Quartet. The concerts which followed were equally successful; however, Rothschild was dismissed shortly before the outbreak of war in the summer of 1914, while in early 1915 Doktor was called up. A year later the replacement second violinist Emil Hauser was also commandeered by the army. Busch and Grümmer, both unfit for military service, kept the quartet going until the end of the 1916-17 season with a revolving cast of players.
On 27 May 1919 the Busch Quartet was founded in Berlin, where Busch was now professor at the Hochschule. Grümmer remained the cellist, but as Doktor had not yet been demobilised, the budding conductor and composer Emil Bohnke stood in for him on viola. The temporary second violinist was Karl Reitz, a friend and colleague from Busch's student quartets in Cologne, who was really a specialist violist. The ensemble began rehearsals on 1 July and made a quiet début on 21 October in the Rittersaal at Düsseldorf, with further appearances that year in Cologne, Bonn, Breslau and Frankfurt. By the next season, when they gave their first of many Beethoven cycles - beginning with one in the composer's birthplace, Bonn - Reitz and Bohnke had dropped out and the inner parts were being played by Busch's Swedish pupil Gösta Andreasson and the stop-gap violist Ernst Groell. At the end of November 1920, visiting Vienna for a series of concerts, Busch and Andreasson found time to rehearse with the Vienna-based Doktor and Grümmer, and on 6 December the Busch Quartet, with Doktor at last back in the fold, began a Netherlands tour at the Kleine Zaal of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw. This first programme by the group's classic 1920s formation, featuring music by Mozart, Reger and Beethoven, was given a tumultuous ovation. Early the next year the four made their first tour of Italy.
Although Germany in the interwar years boasted many excellent quartets - including the Klingler, Wendling, Dresden, Gewandhaus, Gürzenich, Havemann, Deman, Amar and Guarneri Quartets - Busch and his colleagues quickly established themselves as the best. All four members of Busch's ensemble were soloists in their own right, with a large repertoire of concertos and sonatas, and their fees reflected this status. However, impresarios all over Europe found that an entire subscription series could be sold through the inclusion of the Busch Quartet. Engagements followed one another with dizzying rapidity, especially for the leader, who had the busiest solo career.
Over the course of the 1920s the Busch Quartet steadily built a reputation as the finest string quartet in Europe and, in effect, the world. Among European chamber-music aficionados, the Quartet's performances acquired an almost mystical aura. For the likes of Isaiah Berlin, their performances had a philosophical force over and above purely musical considerations. They were particularly successful in Italy, where they toured at least once a year, playing Schubert for Eleonora Duse, Dvořák for Maxim Gorky and Beethoven for Arturo Toscanini; they even gave a command performance for Pope Pius XI. Their other main centres of activity were Germany, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands, although they roamed fairly freely across Europe. One of their greatest fans in Berlin was Albert Einstein, who never missed a Busch Quartet concert if he could help it.
Yet there were tensions with Grümmer and in the summer of 1930 he was replaced by Busch's younger brother Herman (né Hermann). This change ushered in the most successful period the four men were to know. On 24 October 1930 they made their British debut in Oxford, and in September 1932 they began their series of celebrated HMV recordings at Abbey Road Studios in London, recordings which have never since left the catalogue. Soon the Busch Quartet became virtually a London institution, its recitals frequented by the likes of Samuel Beckett, Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Victor Gollancz and Michael Tippett.
The War Years
It should have been a notable era for the Quartet in Germany, too, but the rise of Nazism had already caused Adolf and Frieda Busch to move to Basel in 1927. By the time Hitler came to power in 1933, the four men found themselves in an agonising situation. On 1 April, the day of the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses, they played Haydn's Seven Last Words in a Berlin church, and afterwards decided unanimously that they had given their last concert in Nazi Germany. In spite of the enormous losses this decision entailed, not least in revenue, they never regretted it. Two weeks later they were off on a brief American tour, making their US debut in the Coolidge Chamber Music Festival at the Library of Congress, and on their return Andreasson and Herman Busch also moved to Basel. After this the foursome confined their activities mainly to Britain, Austria, Italy and Switzerland.
In Vienna they had been the de facto resident ensemble at the Konzerthaus since 1919, giving regular recitals in the middle-sized room now known as the Mozartsaal, but following the rise of Nazism in that city they quietly withdrew after 1935. From 1938, with the Anschluss in Austria and the adoption of anti-Semitic laws in Italy, the Quartet officially boycotted those countries. They led the string sections in the elite orchestra at the Lucerne Festivals of 1938 and 1939 and in the latter year travelled to America, giving four recitals - each including a late Beethoven quartet - in the chamber music room of Carnegie Hall. The success of this visit was a factor in Busch's decision to emigrate to the USA when war came, the four having been disappointed in their attempts to come to Britain. After several setbacks they were reunited in New York in June 1940, but Busch's heart attack later that year forced his colleagues to take orchestral and teaching jobs. They resumed concerts and recordings in 1941 and had further successes in both spheres, before Andreasson's teaching commitments and the illnesses of both Dokter and Frieda Busch caused the ensemble to lapse in 1944. For the 1943-44 season the ailing Doktor was replaced by the sole woman to play in the group, Viennese-born Lotte Hammerschlag.
Post-War and Dissolution
In 1946 Adolf and Herman Busch started a new Busch Quartet with Ernest Drucker (father of future Emerson String Quartet violinist Eugene Drucker) as second violinist and Hugo Gottesmann as violist. Their first public engagement was a Beethoven cycle at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In 1947, despite Busch's ill health, they made a triumphant tour of Britain and renewed acquaintance with Switzerland and Italy, before visiting Iceland. Drucker had to leave the Quartet that summer for family reasons, but by the end of the year they had replaced him with Bruno Straumann and were able to give a concert with Rudolf Serkin in New York. Thereafter they divided their activity between the United States and Europe, appearing at the Strasbourg and Edinburgh Festivals in 1949. A European tour early in 1950 had to be cancelled because of Busch's illness but that September the Quartet visited South America. In January 1951 they finally made an emotional return to Germany, touring for a month and giving twenty concerts, including one in Basel.
Their last Beethoven cycles followed in April and May 1951 in Italy and England, and they finished their career as they had started it 38 years earlier: a private reading of a Haydn quartet, this time at the home of English friends. There was however a coda, a single performance in Vermont for which Philipp Naegele stood in for Gottesmann. A long German tour was planned for 1952 but at the end of 1951, Busch's retirement due to illness brought the end of one of the finest string quartets of all time.
The Busch Quartet's playing represented a transition between the earlier style of the Joachim, Ysaÿe or Rosé Quartets, in which the leader was paramount, and the more modern approach exemplified by the Budapest or Smetana Quartets, in which every player had an equal role. However Busch still dominated his colleagues to an extent, through both his strength of personality and the sheer weight and quality of his tone.
This move towards a more egalitarian approach was reflected in the Quartet's seating arrangements. The classic seating plan for a quartet, typified by the Joachim Quartet, was to have the two violinists facing one another, with the cellist and violist to the rear. The Busch Quartet originally favoured this scheme but by 1930 had changed to the layout with the second violinist on the leader's left, the cellist at the back and the violist facing the leader. This formation prevented the slower-speaking viola from being heard fractionally after the bass line, as could occur when the cello was placed at the front.
A reflection of an earlier musical style was the Busch players' use of portamento, although they were less liberal in its application than the Rosé, Bohemian or Léner ensembles. In rehearsal they concentrated on intonation, balance, precision of ensemble, rhythm and articulation, leaving phrasing and fingering at least partly to the inspiration of the concert hall. For instance, when it came to a recital or recording session, one member of the Quartet might make a spontaneous portamento but the player of the answering phrase might not, because it did not occur to him to do so at that moment.
In spite of such hangovers from the 19th century, Busch and his colleagues were pioneers in their day, bringing a new forcefulness to bear on the music of Beethoven, Brahms and Schubert, and bowing very much 'into the string', with more vibrato than had been typical at the time. They were adept at intensifying or withdrawing vibrato to mark the entry of a new voice in a contrapuntal texture, and could play without vibrato like the Capet Quartet where it seemed appropriate, for instance in a chorale passage. Another trademark was their vast range of dynamics, but although they had the tonal wherewithal to command a large space, they preferred to play rooms which bore some relation to those that Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven might have known.
The Busch Quartet commanded a vast repertoire. Although its members shared a conservative taste in music, they included virtually all the Classical masterpieces in their repertoire, including at least 30 Haydn works, more Mozart than any of their contemporaries, and all of the Beethoven quartets. With pianist Rudolf Serkin adding a 'perfect fifth' to their group, they were able to expand their programmes even further: for instance, the ensemble's only interwar appearance at the Salzburg Festival was an all-Mozart programme consisting of a violin sonata, a piano quartet and a string quartet. Other concerts might include works for solo violin or piano, duos, trios or piano quintets; and if extra players were recruited, string quintets, sextets, or even the Beethoven Septet and Schubert Octet might be played.
Beyond the core Classical repertoire, the Quartet performed a fair amount from the Romantic era, especially Brahms and Dvořák, while modern music was represented by Reger, Tovey, Suter, Walker, Andreae, and Busch himself. They performed no Bartók, Hindemith, Kodály, or Smetana, no Russian music, virtually no Nordic music (although they briefly explored Stenhammar and Sibelius), and no French music apart from rare outings of the Debussy and Ravel quartets. They all liked Italian music: the Verdi E minor Quartet featured prominently in their programmes, and they played Viotti and Boccherini and premiered the Pizzetti D major Quartet. They disliked atonal and twelve-tone music but made up for their lack of fashion-consciousness by their depth of knowledge of their chosen repertoire and their mastery in playing it.