Book chronicles Pro Arte Quartet’s 100-plus years

World-renowned ensemble has long made Madison home
Book chronicles Pro Arte Quartet’s 100-plus years
Book cover courtesy of University of Rochester Press
John W. Barker, emeritus professor of history at University of Wisconsin–Madison, has written the definitive history of the 106-year-old, Madison-based Pro Arte Quartet.

Only one string quartet has operated continuously for more than a century: The Pro Arte Quartet. The resident ensemble of the University of Wisconsin-Madison actually celebrated its centennial year back in 2011 when it premiered four new compositions and held several special events. Now a long overdue book details the Pro Arte Quartet’s entire remarkable history.

“The Pro Arte Quartet: A Century of Musical Adventure on Two Continents,” published last December by University of Rochester Press, was written by John W. Barker, emeritus professor of history at UW-Madison. It’s hard to imagine a better chronicler for the ensemble.

Barker’s first review of a classical music recording appeared in American Record Guide in 1953. A long-time music critic locally, Barker has written principally for Isthmus. His knowledge of recorded music is truly encyclopedic, and until recently, he owned over 50,000 vinyl LPs and tens of thousands more CDs. He has also written two previous books about German opera composer Richard Wagner and the city of Venice.

In his new book, Barker writes about the Quatour Pro Arte — the original French name given to the group — formed in 1912 by four young men at the Brussels Conservatory of Music in Belgium. World War I stunted the early growth of the quartet, but within a year of that conflagration, the foursome was in place and ready to make history.

Between 1920 and 1940, the group became one of the most famous in Europe and had begun extensively touring the United States. They quartet made pioneering recordings, especially of Haydn, and developed ongoing relationships with many leading contemporary composers as they consistently championed their new works.

Barker catalogues exactly what the group did and when, despite many gaps in the record keeping of the time. He relays the circumstances leading to Pro Arte’s world premiere of Samuel Barber’s “String Quartet,” the second movement of which is the ubiquitous “Adagio for Strings.”

Barker also provides detailed portraits of such ancillary giants as Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, a principal patron of chamber music in the first half of the 20th century.

The heart of the book concerns the truly historic and dramatic move of the Pro Arte Quartet to UW-Madison. They group was in town for the second time in the spring of 1940, and made such an impression on Carl Bricken, the new head of the UW school of music, that he had started planning to make them a resident ensemble of the university.

Then on May 9, 1940, as the quartet prepared for their second concert at the new Union Theater, it was learned that Adolf Hitler had invaded Belgium, home to the players’ families (and where their regular cellist lay ill). Bricken announced from the stage that a way would be found to keep the group safe in Madison.

The quartet’s personnel configuration at that moment — so celebrated over the previous decade — would never play together again, yet the group was in Madison to stay. Within two years after the end of World War II, the Pro Arte lineup had no links to it’s Belgian origins. Yet the group was becoming one of the most compelling and effective exponents of the Wisconsin Idea.

Barker’s book is organized into eras defined by who served as first violinist. Of course there were other personnel changes, too, but not as many as you might expect. Only 27 musicians have been part of the group over it’s 106-year history, and Barker chronicles all of them — by the instruments they played.

The current personnel have been together since 1995 when first and second violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia joined. Violist Sally Chisholm came on board in 1991, and cellist Parry Karp holds the record for longevity having joined the group in 1976. This then is the lineup behind the quartet’s six world premieres — all recorded, thankfully — between 2011 and 2014, immortalized by a public television documentary on DVD and celebrated back in Belgium with a “Return to Our Roots” tour of the country in 2014.

As renowned and respected as the ensemble is, UW funding for the Pro Arte Quartet has long been precarious. The first steps toward setting up a privately funded endowment were only taken in the last year or so.

The 331-page book includes 16 pages of photographs and some fascinating appendices: The “mystery” over the 1936 recording session with Benny Goodman which never came off; and details about two unpublished novels by violist Bernard Milofsky and later his son, David, based on life in the quartet.

In short, the book is a painstakingly researched and loving tribute to a unique group that has long considered Madison its home.

Greg Hettmansberger covers opera, classical music and jazz for