High Fidelity - The Adventures of the Guarneri String Quartet

Excerpts from a Documentary Film, 1989
Directed and Produced by Allan Miller


The Guarneri String Quartet, the preeminent quartet of its time, was formed at the Marlboro Music Festival in 1964, and played until its retirement in 2009. David Soyer, the quartet's cellist, was older than the other three, who had met as students at the Curtis Institute of Music in the 1950's. Soyer retired in 2002 and died in 2010. (Peter Wiley took over the cello role during the Guarneri's last years.)

The following are verbatim remarks made by the members of the original quartet, drawn from the documentary film I made. They are transcribed from rehearsals, interviews, and conversations with each other. In some cases I have rearranged the order of the comments to give them a coherence they would otherwise lack without the context of the musical and other scenes to which they were attached.


Audience member: “What is it that keeps you together as a group? Why do you all stay together?

David - Well, we manage it somehow. It certainly...

John - Money.

Michael - Never hurts, eh? But we are the oldest in America, aren't we? twenty-three years.

John – There are thousands of reasons to stay together and thousands of reasons to break up.

Arnold - Well, I think there are two main reasons, aside from money. And those are, number one, that we love playing quartets still, we still love playing quartets, and the repertoire, and number two I think people are hiring us to play concerts and so I think the success and the activity just oils the machinery.

Michael – Yeah, but a lot of other quartets have had changes – equally successful quartets have had many changes along the way. Frankly I don’t know why it is that we haven’t changed members. 

Arnold – Are you about to announce your resignation?

Michael - This would be a perfect time and place – no that’s a tough one to answer. 


Michael - I don't think any non-quartet player has the least idea of what quartet playing is in terms of commitment and flexibility and compromise and all of the things personal and musical that make up a quartet.

Arnold - It's been said often that, my gosh, how can you play in a string quartet? You can't do what you want.

John - The minute you put yourself down in a quartet situation there are certain constraints that operate immediately on you as a player.

David - It's a difficult situation with the jealous guarding of one’s own personal opinions about music which are always up for defense.

John - You have to almost completely give up your own personality but you have to retain it at the same time.

David - I had the experience of playing in string quartets, and I know that as far as the personality problems are concerned, quartets break up usually because of personal problems, not musical problems. There's, you know, the quarreling and fighting among the four, and sometimes a perfectly good quartet in a musical sense - fine players - but they very often don't last because they don't get along.

Michael - We are mindful of the fact that we are today the oldest original quartet in the world and we're proud of it. I think we have tremendous pride in the fact that we've managed to overcome personal difficulties and occasional problems and make it work, because we see so many casualties along the way.



Michael – Arnold, you put a dot like an accent – that’s better but it still sounds like you have a dot over the note.

Arnold - David, you bolted at Letter D and I could hardly keep up with you.

David – If you don’t want to change the tempo at D - yes, but by this time it's already much slower – by now its not even the tempo of the opening any more. Now, if you want to keep the same tempo, what tempo do you want to play it in?

Michael – a little bit faster – we do that in every-

David - from Letter A to Letter D it gets very much slower, which is all right in itself - I don’t mind that.

Arnold – I don’t think it gets at all slower between A and D. I think it’s the identical tempo. (Arnold plays, then David plays.)

David – That’s the tempo we’ve been playing. If you want me to play faster I will. I'd prefer to. But I’ll play it the same tempo – that’s it.

Arnold – it could move a little bit, afterwards.

David – That’s what I was doing.

Arnold – It should move.

David - That's what I was doing, but now you're complaining it was going too fast.

John – Each entrance should have the impression of going ahead.

Michael – Let’s be reasonable.

David- I thought that was reasonable.

Michael – Its melody...

Arnold - I think that's a good tempo.

Arnold - You're either running or we're holding back.

David - You're getting ahead of us.

Arnold - No, no. It's always been that way.


Arnold – You’d think that after all these years we’d pretty much fall into a certain groove and agree on things, but no, that doesn’t happen.

David - One of the things you get in a quartet rehearsal is the fact that you're criticizing and getting criticized. Many players can't take that. It's one of the things that creates great sensitivity, raw spots. If someone is told, “That's out of tune,” the attitude has to be, “OK, that's out of tune and I'll fix it.”

Michael – We’re very, very lucky to be doing what we’re doing and we'd be damn fools if we let personal issues, no matter how serious, interfere with the whole. Frustrating, but wonderfully challenging.

Arnold – There has to be candor in a quartet for it to survive.  

David - Sometimes the problems are never resolved, and there are situations today, I mean, when one of us would say: “I’ve never agreed with that, I still don’t agree with it, I probably never will and I’ll go to my grave not agreeing with it."  But we do it that way. Ok, well, maybe that’s a compromise, I guess.


Arnold - It’s not our style to say, “Gee, Arnold, that was really beautiful.”

David - But I think if you saw some other quartet rehearsal you would find a great difference. Their manner is, “Uh – that was wonderful – it sounded so beautiful. Uh, I really hate to say anything about it at all – it was really beautiful; but do you suppose it could, oh, no, no, it was really too nice. No, never mind, but could you possibly play it a little faster, or louder, or softer, or slower, or whatever it might be - or more in tune?”

Michael - I think all of us have felt leaned on or possibly persecuted at times, but then that feeling passes from one to the other just as a melody would within a quartet.


David – It’s nitpicking, hair splitting and sounds like SHIT.

Michael - How can nitpicking be done over ten bars?

David - Easily: that's what you're doing...Literalism is not my bag.

Michael - Aw shit.

Arnold - Sometimes I think we should travel with a Talmudic scholar to figure out all the decisions we have to make.

Michael – Strength, individuality, and a feeling that each of our voices can be easily set in relief from the others. And yet, of course, at moments it’s important that we do play in a more concerted way, and that we blend our musical ideas, and that we compromise and make adjustments – all of that happening at the same time.

Me, off camera – That’s impossible.

Michael – It’s impossible.


Michael - We've always been a leaderless quartet or put it this way: we're a quartet of four leaders, four strong, assertive individuals and that implies a certain give and take, a certain democratic way of doing things.

David - What happens at rehearsals is not compromise, but you begin to see it in another way because you couldn’t, as I say, play with any conviction at all if it goes against the grain and against your desires and against your whole concept. It wouldn’t be possible.

Michael - We know that there's nothing in the world more bulky and time-wasting than a democracy, and in a quartet it makes for endless discussion and disagreement and sometimes dissension - but that's a democracy. 



Michael - No, Arnold, you're doing something - you're making a glissando that isn't very nice.

Arnold - Why do we make that accent?

David - What accent?

Arnold - 1-2-3-4- in the change. (plays).

David - Written. It's written - (plays).

Arnold - That's the one I don’t think should have an accent.

David - That's the one that should have it - definitely should have it - should be a big production on that note.

Arnold - That is the softest...

David - No, but it's the only change that occurs – (plays).

John - Yeah, but not there, Arnold.

Michael - David's right - a big change from minor to major. We've been playing - (plays).

Arnold - I feel like...

David - It's gotta be there.

Arnold - We should do it not with the bow, but with vibrato.

Michael - I agree. It shouldn’t be a “pow!” but there's something special happening on that note.

John - No, the accents are gone. (all play).

Michael - Well, let me tell you what I have before the end.

John - No, but let me tell you what I have, which is not an accent.

Michael - OK, but you don’t have also have anything of interest, John.

John - Sure I do - (plays).

Michael - Yeah, but before that G-sharp of yours, I have- (plays). I think that's four times.

John - Why would you make an accent on a note...

Michael – Obvious, if you're playing the viola part (plays).

Arnold - Can't you do it less?

Michael - Oh, one could, but he makes an accent on it. If that's the original marking, he obviously wanted that minor-to-major highlighted.

(They Play.)

David - That solves it because there is a huge diminuendo and that won’t make a big accent and it works out.



John - Our paths crossed at the Marlboro Music Festival in, I think, '62.

David - I met Arnold and Michael and John there. I hadn't known them before. It's a pool of musicians who get together in various chamber works and play in various combinations, and we got to know each other musically and personally as well. 

Arnold - Well, we'd get together at Marlboro Music Festival (run by pianist Rudolf Serkin) and say, “Wouldn't it be nice to play string quartets for a living?”

Michael - The string quartet literature is so— sublime. It's fabulous. It has inspired the greatest composers to write their greatest music.

Arnold - And so, I think we found ourselves as a quartet through some kind of lucky series of events.

John - To the best of my recollection, I do remember walking down the path in front of one of the buildings at Marlboro with Arnold. He mentioned to me that the idea of forming a quartet had been put to him by Alexander Schneider.

Arnold - And Schneider at Marlboro was not just another fine musician, but a great mover of people: a person with ideas, a doer, a person of great energy, a great force in music. 

Schneider - I thought that all four of them would make up a good string quartet, because they had good education, and the one thing they had to learn is to respect each other and accept each together. Bless them, they have been twenty-two years together (at the time of making the film). There must be something which holds them together - no doubt.

Arnold - Well, then came the moment when we decided, “Yes, we could play together,” and we were going to try and make a go of it. And we sat down and we played the d-minor Mozart.

John - We must have sounded like four wild horses or four broncos. But there was a certain excitement about the first time and I think we realized that we didn't feel there were any major drawbacks or any reasons we shouldn't form a quartet.

Arnold - It was an unforgettable moment for me, something so right - as if you'd come home. Maybe you didn't know what home was before, but now you've found it.


Arnold - I think there were a lot more arguments in the early years than there are now - on all fronts.

Arnold - I know we used to spend a lot more time arguing about music. We'd just tear our hair out over a note...If I'm pressed I'd have to say, there are certain things that don't get said, and nobody hangs around to talk about those things, so the opportunity simply doesn't exist. We run to our private lives.


Michael - Imagine if you were suddenly a member of a string quartet and the livelihood of three other families relied on you as much as you depended on them. It is a commitment that is all-embracing. Our commitment to each other carries over into everyday life in my house.


David - Well, I think perhaps to be a performer you have to be somewhat neurotic. The drive for improvement, perfection - the time, the hours - the drudgery, never being quite satisfied - if we were it would go downhill. You can't very well sit in your studio and play to yourself. You've got to go out on a platform and play for public approval. I think if one was perfectly healthy you wouldn't be a professional cellist or violinist. It's the only life I can imagine for myself - I must be very neurotic.



David - You get feedback from an audience and there's no getting around that, and that affects a performance.

Arnold - You can talk till you're blue in the face about doing a phrase a certain way, and then you walk out on the stage and it all has changed. I don't know why that should be. But with bodies breathing and listening in the audience, everything is different.


Michael - Today, there's been an explosion of chamber music - a willingness to acknowledge that quartets are popular - that they are enjoyed by young people, older people, and there's nothing so precious - it's not just for the rich and Viennese to enjoy.

David - That was something we never dreamed of - making a comfortable living playing string quartets. That in itself is fantastically amazing.

John - It's the music - it's absolutely the music: hundreds and hundreds of great masterworks. They have a great impact on you. They stay with you. It's a never-ending study. They never grow stale.

John - It's the feeling that you're playing great music and you will continue to play great music and try to find something in it the day after tomorrow that you didn't sense today. That's what really sustains me.

Arnold - But in addition to that, I think there is a social aspect that's not only different but ever fascinating, in the give and take of the quartet itself.

David - Chamber music playing is a reactive art. You have to relate to three other people - very complicated relationships. 

Arnold - No matter how well people know one another as friends or colleagues, there's a certain distance that is naturally a part of life - in any kind of relationship, whether it's a friendship or a marriage, or business. But the very process of bringing your music together artistically with your colleagues brings you incredibly close. For those moments you have a kind of magic intimacy. You are transformed, almost like alchemy, into not just a single unit, but some kind of artistic whole. And I find that a miracle when it happens, and something to really cherish.