Music lovers have been enjoying performances at the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center (CMS) for nearly 50 years. But according to David Finckel, CMS co-artistic director, the origin of a series of chamber music concerts goes back two centuries. In the 1820s, violinist and impresario Ignaz Schuppanzigh launched a subscription series in Vienna. “He developed a kind of chamber music society with a regular roster of players,” Finckel says. “What Schuppanzigh created is like the great-great-great-grandfather of the Chamber Music Society.”
Recently, a cornucopia of information about Schuppanzigh’s concerts has been brought to light, primarily through the work of musicologists Christopher H. Gibbs and John Gingerich. For CMS’s Winter Festival, Finckel chose four of Schuppanzigh’s original programs, reproducing them exactly as they were in the 1820s. The selections by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert fit perfectly into CMS’s 2017–2018 season, entitled The Classical Style. “When I first saw all of this material, I thought, can we bring this to life somehow? And the best and most direct way was to simply perform these programs,” Finckel notes. The Winter Festival begins on March 13 with a program originally performed on November 11, 1827, and continues with concerts on March 18, 23, and 27, all at Alice Tully Hall. Each program features a renowned string quartet—the Juilliard, Miró, Escher, and Shanghai Quartets—joined by other acclaimed performers from the CMS roster.
Ignaz Schuppanzigh was a friend of Beethoven’s. As a violinist, he formed the first professional string quartet, which premiered many of Beethoven’s own quartets. Some of this music was very difficult to master, requiring extensive experience to play. “You had to have a formal group of professional musicians to learn this music,” Finckel explains. “That was a watershed moment in the history of the string quartet.” In the early 1800s, Schuppanzigh organized a subscription concert series to highlight Beethoven’s new quartets, the programs pairing older works by Haydn with brand new music. “It’s hard to fathom, but at the time, Schubert, Beethoven, and Spohr were contemporary composers,” says Finckel. “How amazing and exciting it must have been to attend premieres of their works.”
Prior to Schuppanzigh’s series, the experience of attending a concert was quite different, Finckel says: “In 18th-century Vienna, concerts were like circus acts—an orchestra would come out and play the first movement of a symphony, then there would be a poetry recitation or vocal performance, then a movement of another symphony, and there was eating and drinking and it would go on for hours. But Schuppanzigh’s were some of the first programs that were simply two hours of pure chamber music.” Schuppanzigh set his concerts in every conceivable venue: restaurants, ballrooms, private mansions, even outdoors in the park, according to Finckel. “He tried a lot of different things: for instance, he had concerts early on Sunday mornings one year. That apparently didn’t work very well, but he tried everything.” These were public performances, Finckel notes. “You didn’t have to be ‘somebody,’ you could just buy a ticket and get in.”
While the 19th-century program details were readily available, the 19th-century performers were, of course, not. However, the task of matching 21st-century players with the original programs was no problem at all. Simply put, Finckel says, “That’s what we do here. We know the core CMS artists and our guest artists very well. As soon as we scan our list of players, certain pieces jump out as just the right fit.” Finckel says that they also aim for a diverse collection of artists in the programs, by background, geography, or generation. Take, for instance, violinists Kristin Lee and Cho-Liang Lin, two of the artists performing Louis Spohr’s Double Quartet No. 1 on the program from January 23, 1825 (March 18). Though decades apart in age, Finckel emphasizes that they are closely linked as former students of the renowned pedagogue Dorothy DeLay.
Other performers have had a long absence from CMS programs. “It’s been a dream of mine to bring the Juilliard String Quartet back to the CMS stage,” Finckel says, speaking with enthusiasm about the November 11, 1827 program (March 13). It was an obvious choice: “They are right here in our building.” The CMS Winter Festival also highlights the return of the Miró Quartet (March 18) and bass player Edgar Meyer (March 23).
Finckel is especially excited about the Shanghai Quartet, which performs in the final concert of the festival, the program originally played on March 26, 1827 (March 27). “The Shanghai really is as fine a string quartet as one can hear. I’m very gratified that they’re coming to do this,” he says. There’s another notable aspect of this particular program: Beethoven died the same day.
The last piece on the program is Beethoven’s Piano Trio in G major, Op. 1, No. 2. “This was one of the works that Beethoven officially introduced himself to Vienna, his first published work,” says Finckel. “He decided to make a go of chamber music as his way to put his foot forward.”
Finckel says that the slow movement of this trio is sublimely beautiful and ethereal. “The most amazing coincidence about this piece is that it’s likely that Beethoven, on the other side of town, actually passed away at the very same moment that movement was played,” said Finckel. “Ever since I learned that, I’ve never been able to play or hear that movement without thinking of the moment of Beethoven’s death.”
Audiences can enrich the experience of stepping back into 1820s Vienna with two pre-concert events. Christopher H. Gibbs, the scholar who brought details of Schuppanzigh’s concert series to light, gives a talk before the March 13 performance. And before the March 18 concert, noted archaeologist John R. Hale discusses the unique environment in early 19th-century Vienna fostering such enormous musical creativity.