Playing Death and the Maiden at age 13

Playing Death and the Maiden at age 13


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2023

Do we always know what we ask from our children? This is the third of Anthea Kreston’s tributes to the influence of the Emerson Quartet, who are making their farewell tour:

As I enter into another week of performances of Schubert’s monumental string quartet, “Death and the Maiden”, I am struck by the thread which weaves in and out of this work. The thread of memory – some as sharp as a cold stone in the hand, and some just a wisp of something – a ghost. I first played Death and the Maiden (more probably butchered it) as a 13 year old member of my youth orchestra quartet in Chicago. We were always either rushing uncontrollably, slowing down inexplicably, or taking turns just laying down the occasional, embarrassing tonal faux pas. But, we loved it, and always had a good giggle and laugh after each honorably attempted but ultimately failed go.

As a younger college student, I played everything but the Death and the Maiden – perhaps the sting of failure was too sharp. But, later, as a student in Jerusalem at Isaac Stern’s Encounters, and later that very summer as a student at Aspen, I was able to learn this piece as an observer – from the outside – and it opened my eyes to a new perspective.

The Emerson Quartet started to make more and more frequent intersections with my life. I was lucky enough to be in situations where their teachings of other quartets were in open masterclass form – I could hear what their suggestions did, in real time, with a quartet, and hear multiple performances of the student quartets as they progressed. When you are inside of a quartet, it is almost impossible to tell what it sounds like from the outside, and this summer helped me to be able to start to hear myself objectively, from an audience’s perspective.

The Miro Quartet, a group of our friends and acquaintances, was in our same bubble of festivals, competitions, and residencies. In Jerusalem, when I arrived every morning at the music school, they would already be there, playing scales slowly in unison and then in harmony. They were and are an impressively strong group – and through that summer, I would see them rise to a level that was spectacular, breathtaking.

They were preparing for the Banff Competition, one of the most competitive and grueling of the quartet competition circuit. And my quartet was preparing as well.

During coachings, often more than 1 Emerson would be there – and if lucky, all 4 would be coaching the quartet at the same time. What would begin with an individual voicing a polite suggestion, would eventually turn into the entire Emerson quartet on stage with the student quartet, all in a flurry of conversation and playing – trying out a new fingering or bowing – a cacophony which would gradually disperse and the new web of ideas tried out simultaneously. The Emerson simply couldn’t stay in their chairs – they had to come up, see for themselves, show and try things out.

Some of those ideas – starting the Schubert on a dramatic, whipped up bow, second violin solo at the beginning of the development all on the G string – these were tried out and played with such daring-do by the Miro Quartet – the first violin cadenzas in the first movement so touching and yet sassy – it was no wonder that they swept the prizes later that year at Banff – their career was launched.

It was this confidence, this combination of personal responsibility to your line, combined with the time-consuming depth of true ensemble work, which I saw the Emerson foster in many quartets over the years. There is probably no professional quartet today which has not been mentored by them at some point, such is their dedication to the art form. And, as they go their own separate ways, this influence will only be spread further as each member expands into his own territory.

It is no wonder, looking back at that summer, that not only careers were started with the Avalon and Miro Quartets, but also 3 marriages and 6 children. Truly a labor of love.


  • NYMike says:

    The superb Escher Qt. plays octets and other pieces today in Easton, PA with their former Emerson Qt. mentors.