by Brian Hinrichs
On Saturday, March 24th, the Pro Arte Quartet will take the stage of the Union Theater for a free concert as part of the ensemble’s historic centennial season. While many concertgoers know that the Pro Arte Quartet has been in residence in the School of Music for over 70 years, the story of their arrival in Wisconsin is less well-known.
The Pro Arte Quartet—originally known as the Quatuor Pro Arte—was founded in 1912 by students at the Brussels Conservatory in Belgium. The ensemble continued to develop in Brussels and survived the upheaval of World War I to go on to thrive in the 1920s and 30s. Known as passionate advocates of the music of their time (Bartok dedicated his 4th quartet to them), the Quatuor Pro Arte toured widely and made significant early recordings at Abbey Road Studios in London. Having won the favor of famed American patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, their first US visit was in 1926 for the inauguration of the Coolidge Auditorium at the Library of Congress. From then on they returned to the States regularly, with Mills College in Oakland as a summer outpost throughout the 1930s.
In April 1939, the Pro Arte gave their first pair of concerts in Madison, after Mrs. Coolidge had arranged for them with the new chairman of the University of Wisconsin Music School, Carl Bricken. With their visit a success, Bricken began discussions with UW President Clarence Dykstra to establish a residency for the Pro Arte along the lines of those already established for painter John Steuart Curry at the College of Agriculture. Still, the Pro Arte continued their 1939 stateside visit with performances at the Belgian Pavilion for the World’s Fair in New York, before returning to Belgium.
In early 1940, as the Quatuor Pro Arte again prepared to sail for the US, war clouds were gathering across Europe. Longtime cellist Robert Maas had fallen ill, and Mrs. Coolidge scrambled to find a replacement in the British cellist C. Warwick Evans. It was shaping up to be an eventful journey.
|Formation that played the Wisconsin Union Theater|
The new Union Theater had opened in October 1939, and the Pro Arte’s May 1940 performances were part of the spring festival celebrating the new hall. The ensemble was set to perform the complete quartets of Beethoven over multiple concerts. On the night of May 10th, in the middle of the series, word of the Nazi invasion of Belgium began to spread, and an announcement was made from the stage. Stunned, and fearing for their colleague Maas back home, the Quatuor Pro Arte finished the concert. The next day, the Wisconsin State Journal reported on the incident and the “heavy hearts” of the Pro Arte members.
The dramatic events of May 10th, 1940 triggered Bricken and Dykstra to finalize their arrangements for a Pro Arte residency, and by the end of the month the Quatuor Pro Arte, the Court Quartet of Belgium, had become the Pro Arte Quartet of the University of Wisconsin, and Bricken’s idea for a one-year program began to look much longer. That the Pro Arte would arrive in Madison and thrive here for over 70 years no one could have predicted, but it is certainly worth celebrating.
For more information on the Pro Arte Quartet Centennial, visit www.proartequartet.org.