The day Hitler invaded Belgium, the history of music in Madison changed.
Four of Europe’s most esteemed musicians — the world-famous Pro Arte Quartet — were in Madison in May 1940, performing at a celebration of the new Union Theater when it was announced from the stage that the Nazis invaded the Lowlands. The Belgian string players, suddenly stranded and unable to return home, nevertheless picked up their instruments and finished their all-Beethoven program.
And soon, the university’s president made a revolutionary announcement: The Pro Arte Quartet would have a new home at UW-Madison, making it the first university resident string quartet anywhere in the world.
Building on the concept of “artists-in-residence” — an idea pioneered in the United States at UW-Madison — the university essentially would employ the four musicians not only to teach, but to perform their art as a key part of their jobs.
It’s a model now copied at universities around the globe as a way for highly skilled musicians to make a living while enriching the communities in which they live.
The innovation also helped the Pro Arte Quartet endure: This year, the group turns 100, making it, by all accounts, the longest running string quartet in the United States.
“I think Madison can be proud and the university can be very, very proud of what it’s done, not only to preserve this group, to allow it to develop and mature, but also for the example it’s been able to set for the rest of the country,” said UW-Madison history professor emeritus John Barker, a longtime supporter who is writing a history of the group.
“It’s become a part of Madison’s musical life,” he said. “But there’s something important beyond that, and that is the whole idea of a string quartet as resident affiliated with a university.
“Chamber music is a precarious area of our musical life. The idea of four musicians who can make a living by being nothing but a string quartet — it works in Europe, but here it’s been more precarious but for the university affiliations. And that was the model that Wisconsin set.”
Since its founding in Brussels in the 1911-12 season, a who’s who of composers has written works for the Pro Arte: Stravinsky, Schoenberg and Bartok, to name a few.
Samuel Barber’s “Adagio for Strings,” the poignant melody so beloved outside classical music circles that it’s now part of mainstream American culture, was written for the Pro Arte Quartet.
A celebration of the group’s centennial, kicking off this month, is built around pieces commissioned from four famed American composers, plus concerts, lectures, exhibits and rehearsals that are open to the public — and all free of charge.
“That was a really important component to us — to make these absolutely accessible,” said the UW-Madison Arts Institute’s Sarah Schaffer, who is coordinating the celebration.
Through the years, the Pro Arte (pronounced pro-AHR-tay) has continued to embody the Wisconsin Idea, as intent on taking classical chamber music to rural communities as it is pioneering works by modern composers.
As faculty or academic staff at the university, the jobs of the four hand-picked musicians of the quartet combine teaching with a heavy performance schedule both in Madison and throughout the state. They rehearse as a group every weekday from 9 a.m. to noon.
Today’s Pro Arte Quartet — David Perry, first violin; Suzanne Beia, second violin; Sally Chisholm, viola; and Parry Karp, cello — has performed together for 17 years. In the past century, the group has had only four violas and six first violinists.
Cellist Karp, who won a coveted chair in the quartet right out of college in 1976, has been in the group longer than any member in its history.
“The ideal quartet has four strong musical personalities, four strong musicians,” he said. “One of the challenges of a quartet is that you all have to admire each other and work to come up with a cohesive style.
“Every time we’ve changed someone in the group when I’ve been in it, the group has changed dramatically, because you’re getting a different musician. And that’s how it should be. You have to sort of start over from scratch.”
The calendars of quartet members including teaching, long road trips, frequent radio appearances and other commitments. Second violinist Beia, for example, has a half-time appointment with the quartet, and is co-concertmaster of the Madison Symphony Orchestra, concertmaster of the Wisconsin Chamber Orchestra and Madison Opera, and first violinist for the MSO’s Rhapsodie String Quartet.
Two weeks after an audition that involved a six-hour rehearsal with the Pro Arte in 1995, she was invited to join the quartet, a group she grew up listening to, she said.
The fact that Madison can support a quartet such as Pro Arte plus others such as Rhapsodie and the Ancora String Quartet speaks well of the community, said historian Barker.
“People in Madison ought to feel very privileged,” agreed Tully Potter, an expert on string quartet history who will visit Wisconsin as part of the centennial celebration.
“To have a string quartet celebrating its centennial is as important to a community as, say, a baseball or basketball team marking such a milestone. Quartet playing demands extraordinary skill, precision and artistry, and should be respected purely in athletic terms.”
“We often use that word synergy, and a string quartet is perhaps the best example of it, four people all working together to one end,” Potter wrote in an email interview from England. “I wish my local town — which, incidentally, sent some of the original Mayflower Pilgrims to America — had a string quartet in residence.”
Planned to stretch over four years and involve CD recordings and an international tour, the quartet’s centennial is expected to cost around $500,000 paid for with donations and grants.
“That’s a lot of money in the arts,” Schaffer said. “This effort has already raised the profile of the Pro Arte Quartet. Scholars are coming out of the woodwork and talking to us.”
“I’ve always been very proud of the history of the group,” Karp said. “We’re trying to continue (the legacy of new music), and having these composers write for us is a wonderful thing.
“It’s very heartwarming to have all this support from the university and the community to make this all happen. We’re very thankful for that.”