More Americana this week – this time in the form of German-American composer/violinist Charles Martin Loeffler and an original set of 78 rpm recordings made for RCA Victor by the legendary Coolidge String Quartet (William Kroll – Nicholas Berezowsky, Violins – Nicolas Moldovan, viola and Victor Gottlieb, cello), in this recording made on May 27, 1938 of his Music For Four Stringed Instruments. It was released in 1939.
Throughout his career, Loeffler claimed to have been born in Mulhouse, Alsace and almost all music encyclopedias give this fabricated information. In his lifetime, articles were published dissecting his “typically Alsatian” temperament. In fact, as his biographer Ellen Knight has established, he was German—indeed a Prussian, and a Berliner on both sides of his family, born Martin Karl Löffler in Schöneberg near Berlin. He turned against Germany when the Prussian authorities imprisoned his father, an agricultural chemist and author of Republican ideals. (Loeffler senior wrote journalism under the name ‘Tornov’ or ‘Tornow’, and his son sometimes used this as one of his middle names.) Loeffler was only about 12 when his father was sent to prison, where the man died of stroke before he was to be released. Before his father’s arrest the family had moved around a good deal, including a period in Alsace, and then to Smiela near Kiev, while Loeffler was still a small child. Soon thereafter the family moved from Kiev to a small town in Hungary, Debreczin, where father taught at the Royal Academy of Agriculture. Later they lived in Hungary and Switzerland.
Loeffler decided to become a violinist and studied in Berlin with Joseph Joachim, Friedrich Kiel and Woldemar Bargiel, then with Joseph Massart (and composition with Ernest Guiraud) in Paris. He played with the Pasdeloup Orchestra and in 1881 emigrated to the United States, where he joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and shared the first desk with the concertmaster from 1882 to 1903. He was on the board of directors of the Boston Opera Company when it started operations in 1908.
He first appeared as a violinist-composer with the orchestra in 1891 with the performance of his suite Les Vieilles d’Ukraine, and his works were performed regularly by the Boston Symphony (and by other American orchestra) for the rest of his life.
Loeffler became a U.S. citizen in 1887 and eventually resigned from the orchestra to devote himself to composition. He was a friend of Eugène Ysaÿe, Dennis Miller Bunker, and John Singer Sargent (who painted his portrait), also of Gabriel Fauré and Ferruccio Busoni (both of whom dedicated works to him), and later of George Gershwin. A man of wide culture and refined taste, he developed an idiom deeply influenced by contemporary French and Russian music, in the traditions of César Franck, Ernest Chausson and Claude Debussy, and also by Symbolist and “decadent” literature. Loeffler often cultivated unusual combinations of instruments, and was one of the earliest modern enthusiasts for the viola d’amore, which he discovered in 1894 and wrote parts for in several scores as well as arranging much music for it. In his later years he also, unexpectedly, became deeply interested in jazz, and wrote some works for jazz band.
His notable students include Arthur Hartmann, Kay Swift, Samuel Gardner and Francis Judd Cooke, who studied with him for two years in Medfield, Massachusetts. Loeffler died in Medfield the age of 74.
The Coolidge String Quartet, was an ensemble of first-rank musicians assembled by Elizabeth Coolidge for her tireless promotion of chamber music. Although the quartet existed in name for several years the membership changed regularly. Of particular note here is the composer, conductor and violinist Nicolai Berezowsky (1900-1953).
“Music for Four Stringed Instruments was composed in 1917 at the height of the First World War and was dedicated to the memory of Victor Chapman, the son of a close friend and the first American airman killed in the conflict. Plainchant is used decisively in the structure of the work, the Resurrexi figuring prominently throughout the quartet. The Resurrexi becomes a secondary motif to the Victimae paschali in the second movement (subtitled “Easter Sunday”) but regains preeminence in the climactic third movement to affirm spiritual victory over earthly sorrow. A Lorraine march tune also appears briefly in the third movement, which is highly programmatic. Largely Impressionistic, the quartet also is infused with rich Romantic harmonies that reveal a cosmopolitan approach to compositional structure.”
If you aren’t already familiar, by all means, hit the Play button and make a discovery.