The Coolidge Quartet

William Kroll, first violin
Nicolai Berezowsky, second violin Nicholas Moldavan, viola
Victor Gottlieb, cello

These were the founding members of the Coolidge Quartet, which was founded in 1936 as the resident quartet of the Coolidge Foundation of the Library of Congress. Mrs. Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge, the well- known patron of the arts who established the Coolidge Foundation, introduced the group in a 1936 radio broadcast with a speech:

“My pleasure is augmented by pride in the fact that these four young artists have chosen to call themselves ‘the Coolidge Quartet.’ No sweeter honor could befall me, because, to the high artistic esteem in which I hold them, I feel a real family relationship – stronger, perhaps, than some of those of blood. In adopting my name they seem almost to have become my adopted children.”

Mrs. Coolidge is said to have referred to the group, somewhat humorously, as “the four horsemen of the ApoCoolidge.”

The Coolidge Quartet was not the only group to be formed under Mrs. Coolidge’s aegis. Earlier ones had included the Berkshire String Quartet, founded in 1916, and the Elshuco Trio (its unusual name taken from the first syllables of Mrs. Coolidge’s names, i.e., ELizabeth SHUrtleff COolidge, Shurtleff being her husband’s middle name), founded in 1918. The Elshuco Trio made a handful of recordings for Brunswick in the early 1920s, mostly of salon pieces.

New York-born William Kroll (1901-1980) was a violin student of Henri Marteau at the Berlin Hochschule für Musik, and later of Franz Kneisel in New York. From 1922 to 1929 he played in the Elshuco Trio, and he was the first violinist in the Coolidge Quartet for its entire existence, from 1936 to 1944. Then he founded the Kroll Quartet, which lasted until 1969, making a number of LPs for Epic. (In fact, it may be that the Coolidge Quartet morphed into the Kroll Quartet; this is suggested by the fact that the Coolidge’s last known second violinist, Louis Graeler, then became the second violinist in the Kroll Quartet.) By all accounts Kroll was not easy to work with; indeed, all the other positions in the Coolidge Quartet changed hands several times! Kroll was also a composer of note, his best-known piece being “Banjo and Fiddle” for violin and piano, which was recorded by many violinists, including Jascha Heifetz. Besides his quartet work, Kroll can be heard on record in the first recording ever made of Bach’s Triple Concerto in A minor, BWV 1044, made for Victor in 1938 (⦿ set M-544), with harpsichordist Yella Pessl and flutist Francis Blaisdell.

Nicolai Berezowsky (1900-1953) was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, and escaped from the Soviet Union in 1922, settling in New York where he studied violin with Paul Kochanski and composition with Rubin Goldmark (George Gershwin’s teacher). He played in the New York Philharmonic for seven seasons, and was in the Coolidge Quartet until 1940. He had a certain amount of success as a composer, with Serge Koussevitzky and Gregor Piatigorsky championing his work. He wrote four symphonies, several concertos and much chamber music (the Coolidge Quartet, in fact, recorded his First String Quartet while he was their second violinist). He also conducted; he can be heard in this capacity on Alexander Kipnis’ 1945 recording of excerpts from Moussorgsky’s “Boris Godunov” (⦿ Victor M-1000).

Nicholas Moldavan (1891-1974) was born in Kremenetz, Russia, and studied viola at the St. Petersburg Conservatory, graduating in 1912. After the Russian Revolution he undertook a tour of the Far East in 1918 and never returned, settling in the USA. In 1925 he joined the world-famous Flonzaley Quartet, and can be heard on all their electrical Victor recordings. After the Flonzaleys disbanded in 1929, he, along with their leader, Alfred Pochon, founded the Stradivarius Quartet, with which he remained until 1935. He then became the founding violist of the Coolidge Quartet, remaining at least through the 1940-41 season. (The Coolidge Quartet’s subsequent violists were David Dawson and Jascha Veissi.)

I can find little about Victor Gottlieb, the founding cellist of the Coolidge Quartet, not even the year of his birth, but photographs suggest that he was the youngest of the Quartet’s original members. After his service with the group, he moved to California with his wife, violinist Eudice Shapiro. Together they founded the American Art Quartet in 1943 (with violinist Robert Sushel and violist Virginia Majewski), a group that specialized in contemporary music; they were both also active in Hollywood studio orchestras. Victor Gottlieb died in 1963. (The Coolidge Quartet’s subsequent cellists were Naoum Benditzky and Daniel Saidenberg.)

Jack Pepper, another musician about whom I can find little information, save that he seems also to have been later active in Hollywood, replaced Berezowsky in the second violin chair at the start of the 1940-41 season. He was the only non-founding member to play on a Coolidge Quartet recording – their last two sessions, in September, 1940. (He was then replaced as second violinist by the aforementioned Louis Graeler.)

By the third year of its existence, 1938, the Coolidge Quartet was making recordings for Victor in New York, beginning with a very fine recording of Hindemith’s Quartet, Op.22 (in those days known as “Quartet No.3,” but since renumbered as “No.4” due to the discovery and publication of an earlier quartet, Op.2, which has become the official “No.1”). This set the tone for further issues, because, even though it was not a première recording of the work, for American record buyers at the time it might as well have been, since the previous one, an early electric Polydor set by the Amar Quartet (of which Hindemith himself was the violist) was long out-of-print. All subsequent recordings by the Coolidge Quartet were, except for their Beethoven series, world première recordings, and included numerous works by American composers, both post-Romantic and contemporary (including collaborations with composers or their wives), as well as hitherto neglected Classical-period quartets (Schubert, Hummel). The importance of the Coolidge Quartet’s recordings, therefore, lies in their sense of discovery.

As for the Beethoven series, this commenced in 1939 with the first quartet of Op.18, and the remaining quartets of Opus 18 were recorded and issued in order, and the first two of Op.59, before the Coolidge Quartet’s recording career fizzled. The intent, made clear in Victor’s entry for the ensemble in their 1940 Catalog, was to record them all, but this remained unrealized. There are two possible reasons for this. First, the critical response for these Beethoven recordings was lukewarm, given the existence of competing versions by established groups such as the Budapest, Busch and Léner Quartets. Second, the price differential which existed between the Coolidges’ Beethoven series and the competing versions was erased in 1940. It must be remembered that until then, there were two classes of Victor Red Seal Records – the 11000-and-up series priced at $1.50 per disc, and the 14000-and-up series priced at $2.00. The Coolidges’ Beethoven series were placed in the lower-priced category, and all their non-Beethoven recordings in the higher. Most of the other string quartet records in Victor’s catalog were also in the higher-priced category, which alone made the Coolidge Quartet’s versions of Beethoven a more attractive prospect for the record buyer. Then in the summer of 1940, Columbia, which had a similar two-tiered pricing system, suddenly lowered the prices of all Masterworks records to $1 per disc, and Victor had no choice but to follow suit. Overnight, the prices of all versions of Beethoven quartets dropped; as an example, the Coolidges’ version of Op.18, No.1 had cost $4.50 as opposed to the Busch Quartet’s $6.50, but under the new pricing both sets now cost $3.50.

The Coolidge Quartet’s Victor recordings are very rare today, because, during the lean years of the Second World War with its shortages of shellac, most of them were deleted from the catalog. Only two remain listed in the 1948 RCA Victor Catalog: the last two of their Beethoven series (Op.59, Nos.1 and 2), which are in many ways the least representative of the group’s abilities. Irving Kolodin, writing in his “Guide to Recorded Music” (Doubleday, 1941), said of the Op.59, No. 1 recording:

“The suspicion presented by the Coolidges’ playing of the Opus 18 quartets (that they were essentially a neat, fluent ensemble with a special affinity for these works) is unfortunately substantiated by this performance.”

Yet the Opus 18 recordings were all deleted, while the Opus 59, being more salable, remained available.

I cannot claim to have compiled a complete discography of the Coolidge Quartet; that will have to wait for the happy day when the online Encyclopaedic Discography of Victor Recordings at (www.adp.library.ucsb.edu) has reached through the end of 1940 and perhaps beyond (as of this writing, the latest Victor sessions detailed in that very valuable resource are those of October 1932), when a complete discography with details of takes and unissued sides can be extrapolated. As it is, I do have Michael Gray’s outstanding online resource (www.classical-discography.org), which does give recording dates and matrix numbers (the latter are sometimes, but not always, visible on the labels of the discs), so I can give a fairly accurate picture of the order in which the issued recordings were made.

My discography is divided into three sections:

  1. an alphabetical listing by composer;
  2. a chronological issue history, with side layouts for multi-movement works;
  3. a short listing of the recordings in the order that they occurred. All record numbers given are U.S. Victor issues unless otherwise indicated.

A brief note about Victor set numbers, which for Red Seal “Musical Masterpiece” sets used three different prefixes: M, AM and DM. Those with “M” prefixes were standard manual couplings, with side 2 on the reverse of side 1, side 4 on the reverse of side 3, etc. Those with “AM” prefixes were in “slide” automatic sequence for older-style record changers, where a set of four records, for example, would have sides 1 and 5 coupled, 2 and 6, etc. It is called “slide” because the records were placed on the turntable before play with side 1 on top, and the records allowed to slide off after play into a padded drawer, until they were all finished, then the stack retrieved and turned over with side 5 on top. The sets with “DM” prefixes were in “drop” automatic sequence for newer changers, where the same set of four records would have sides 1 and 8 coupled, 2 and 7, 3 and 6, and 4 and 5. The records would drop from a higher point onto the turntable, and after play, the stack would be turned over and played in reverse order. Until 1940, Victor pressed most of its album sets in M and AM couplings; then, later in 1940, reissued many sets in its back catalog as DM couplings. For a while, new sets were issued in all three couplings, then in 1941 the AM sets were phased out.

Victor records with an -S suffix were single-sided records, the blank reverse side being graced with an ornate design. These are found only in sets devoted to works requiring an odd number of sides, with the last side being on the single-sided record. No less than seven Coolidge Quartet sets were issued this way; only two sets with works requiring an odd number of sides had filler couplings for the last side.

Of the 105 issued sides by the Coolidge Quartet, I have about half, and these I have made available for download on my blog, www.shellackophile.blogspot.com; they are also available for listening on YouTube. I have indicated their availability in the following discography, with footnotes containing links to the relevant blog articles. A couple of other recordings are available for listening online through other sources, and these I have also indicated in the appropriate places.