Top Five Quarreling Quartets

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

The Budapest quartet’s cellist, Mischa Schneider, once said, "No artist can do what we are doing—it's dangerous." That’s because a string quartet isn't just a delicate balance between two violins, a viola and cello, but also among the musicians’ personalities.

The quartet has been compared to a marriage among four people. Like matrimony, infighting, clashing personalities and disparate ambitions are just a few causes for strife, break-ups, but also beautiful music. Here are our top five quarreling string quartets:

1. The Audubon Quartet suffered a public and painful break-up. Founded in 1974, the quartet quickly rose to the top of the American classical scene. By the 1980s, the award-winning ensemble had played for Jimmy Carter and landed a prestigious residency at Virginia Tech. Then things started to sour. In 2000, three of the members jointly decided to fire the fourth, violinist David Ehrlich. Ehrilich sued. After a bitter legal battle, Ehrlich was able to force the other members to buy him out of the group for $600,000.

2. Over its 50 years, the Budapest Quartet became one of the most successful string quartets in history, but socially the group did not mix. They famously traveled separately and ate at different tables within the same restaurant. Their mutual avoidance of each other was one way they preserved their artistic collaboration, even as personnel changed. However, personal differences and failing health caused the quartet to disband in the 1960s.

3. As the Budapest Quartet was playing its final concerts, the ensemble passed on its no-fraternization legacy to the Guarneri Quartet. The 1988 documentary High Fidelity: The Adventures of the Guarneri Quartet captured the foursome’s notoriously argumentative rehearsals, during which they bicker about everything from tempo to program selection. After 45 years of playing together, the group parted ways in 2009.

4. The Chicago String Quartet also found itself in the midst of a break-up in 2000 when the group decided to part ways with second violinist Stefan Hersh. Though the quartet described the circumstances as amicable, Hersh said he left with “mixed feelings” and admitted that he wouldn’t miss “the daily grind of coming up this hard against three other people.”

5. The drama of four passionate musicians forced to perform as one is compelling enough to inspire Michael Hollinger’s play Opus. The plot centers on the fictional Lazara Quartet, which fires its first violinist days before a televised White House concert. The new member, a young woman, forces rifts among the remaining forty-something male members. The play was produced in New York City as part of Primary Stages’ 2007 season.


More in:

Comments [8]

Michael Renardy from Blacksburg, VA

I seem to be lacking the special knowledge of music that Mr. Edwards alludes to, but I know a few facts about the case. One of which is that Mr. Shaw represented, to both the courts and the university, that he "dismissed" Mr. Ehrlich on the basis of his authority as president of "Audubon Quartet Inc." So if his supporters now complain that the quartet was treated like a corporation, I find this interesting to say the least. Also, contrary what Mr. Edwards says, Shaw and Lederer actually kept the use of their instruments in the end, although they lost ownership.

Aug. 11 2013 11:00 AM
Robert Edwards from NYC

re: Audubon Quartet. Reporting that Mr. Ehrlich forced them to buy him out hardly expresses reality. He was fired because he refused to balance with the other players. The judge in the case knew nothing about music and treated the case as if they were a corporation. No "at will" law, so he ruled Mr. Ehrlich was fired illegally. They lost their houses, retirement funds, and their instruments. This man's refusal to blend with the group followed by his subsequent suit destroyed all they had worked for and saved as well as their ability to earn a living with their instruments.

Jul. 22 2013 10:29 PM
Alan Van Poznak from Tenafly NJ

My uncle played in a quartet where each of the members weighed over 200 pounds.
At a total weight of about 1000 pounds, they played as the Afton Quartet. (Get it?)

Apr. 12 2011 07:26 PM
Wayne Wells

I just wanted to say that it is an honor to work at Shenandoah Conservatory with three members of the fabulous Audubon String Quartet (the fourth lives in Turkey). Their superb musicianship, passion for teaching, and above all, their supportive, collegial attitudes make them a pleasure to collaborate with. Should they ever disband as an ensemble, they will be sorely missed.

Apr. 08 2011 09:08 AM
Tim Carter from Stewart Manor, NY

Regrading the Audubon, which is happily still in existence, the little sketch fails to mention the huge toll this protracted breakup took on all the parties, pretty much consuming their lives for the better part of a decade. Very sad. But I also want to add that the (recent) picture includes the "new" violinist, and I believe that good days are again the norm.

-from a former board member, Audubon Quartet, Inc.

Apr. 07 2011 07:01 PM


You're correct - the quartet was together for 45 years. We've updated the article. Thank you!

Apr. 07 2011 11:51 AM
Michael from Manhattan

Actually, the Guarneri retired after 45 years, not 35. When I was a kid, I witnessed an argument between the Schneider brothers of the Budapest Qt. while playing a concert - while arguing they kept right on playing.

Apr. 06 2011 04:18 PM
geoh777 from Hyde Park NY

Wow. String quartet gossip.

Apr. 06 2011 03:38 PM

Leave a Comment

Email addresses are required but never displayed.

The WQXR e-newsletter. Show highlights, links to music news, on-demand concerts, events from The Greene Space and more.

Follow WQXR 







About Top 5 @ 105

WQXR helps you make the most of the New York City’s classical music scene.

Our "Top 5 at 105 " features can't-miss experiences: the best concerts, books and films about music, places to eat before and after shows, and more.