The Florence Four
Violinist Jean Becker must have liked a challenge. During the same year that he founded his own string quartet—1866—a similar ensemble saw half its audience walk out during a performance! The problem? In Italy, home to both quartets, many people who were used to opera’s short arias felt that a half-hour instrumental piece was just too hard to follow.
Luckily for Jean Becker, though, audiences didn’t walk out on his “Florentine Quartet,” and the group grew famous across all Europe. Fifty years later, a concert tour by a chamber group would be nothing remarkable. Fifty years earlier, a man like Becker would more likely tour as a soloist, join an opera orchestra, or find work as a court musician. In the 1860s, though, the idea of a professional quartet was an innovation. Other Italian cities started quartets, too—always two violins, a viola, and a cello. Only Becker’s group, named for its hometown of Florence, met international success.
Jean Becker did not start out a chamber player. German by birth, the gifted violinist led the Mannheim Orchestra as a youth, then toured Europe as a virtuoso soloist. He owned instruments by Nicolò Amati, Guarneri del Gesù and Antonio Stradivari—some of the greatest violinmakers ever. His Guarneri and Strad still exist today and are both named for Becker.
Settling in Florence, Becker organized his quartet with two Italian players and a German cellist. To improve the group’s sound, Becker presented his second violinist with a better violin, also by Stadivari. The years that followed saw a new role for quartet music. Much of it had been written for royalty to hear or for wealthy (and mostly male) amateurs to play in private. Now public concerts drew women and middle-class listeners, too. Some chamber groups even held free concerts to reach the working-class. To help the new audience understand the music, program notes began. Quartets reached into the past to develop a “standard repertoire”—heavy in Haydn, Boccherini, Mozart, and Beethoven. Some of this music, in fact, had not been written to be heard again and again, year after year.
Concert organizers liked the money they saved by hiring just four players, instead of a whole orchestra, but professionals like Becker’s Florentine Quartet faced a problem: how to make drawing-room music sound good in a big space? One answer was to commission new works with bolder gestures—and commercial appeal. Young Antonin Dvorak had a new hit in 1878 with his Slavonic Dances piano duet, so Becker asked him to write something similar for his group. The result, Dvorak’s “Slavonic” quartet No. 10, Opus 51, was popular with the Florentine Quartet until Becker’s retirement ended the ensemble in 1880.
Becker himself wrote very little music, though Suzuki students know him by his Gavotte in Book 3. His true legacy, though, is today’s wealth of great string quartets. Many like the Emerson and Tokyo quartets celebrate the standard repertoire. Others like the Kronos and Turtle Island quartets emphasize newer music.
© Andrew Campbell