Whenever I would visit New York City in the 1990s and early 2000s, I made a point of shopping at that temple of classical-music commerce—the old Tower Records on the Upper West Side, not far from Lincoln Center. Once, while I was browsing, a woman asked a sales attendant if he could recommend a recording of Beethoven’s late string quartets. “Are you by chance familiar,” he said, his eyes lighting up, “with the Busch Quartet?” The evangelist had found his disciple. Then, as if disclosing the coordinates of some long-buried hoard of treasure, he told her all about that most revered of string quartets, before steering her toward the CDs that he suggested she buy.
That Tower Records staff was a knowledgeable bunch, so it was no surprise to hear such praise bestowed upon those magical recordings. Made in the 1930s, the Busch Quartet’s versions of Beethoven’s last five quartets are, to my taste, the most spiritual, deeply felt, and expressive interpretations available. It isn’t just the intensity, the purity of sound, the rhythmic incisiveness, and the kaleidoscopic range of colors that set the Busch Quartet apart. The musicians’ fidelity to Beethoven’s scores places us in the presence of the real thing—all art and so very little artifice. Listen, for example, to the way they play the slow movements of those quartets, taken at tempos that are almost impossibly broad, yet full of life. I am thinking of the cavatina from the Op. 130 quartet, wistful and blue, spun from a long and winding line. And the third movement of the Op. 132, the so-called “Heiliger Dankgesang,” in which the solemn music, full of pain and despair, is broken by the most joyous bursts of sonic light. And the third movement of the Op. 135, Beethoven’s “sweet song of rest, a song of peace” that, as interpreted by the Busch players, takes on a sense of exquisite, heavenly, eternal calm—it’s a hymn from the firmament, or the depths of the sea.
Although the members of the Busch Quartet changed over the years, the one constant was the ensemble’s first violinist and founder, Adolf Busch, perhaps the 20th century’s finest exemplar of the classical German tradition. He was born in 1891, in the Westphalian city of Siegen, into a family of remarkable talents: brothers Fritz and Herman would also become prominent musicians, and brother Willi made his mark on the theatrical stage. Adolf soon matured into a serious, intellectual musician who cared little for virtuosity for its own sake. Absent from his playing was any trace of showiness or vulgarity. He was a priestly artist, and his holy texts were the great works of the German canon, which he interpreted in a spirit as close to each composer’s intent as possible. He brought this ethos to all his work—as soloist, as leader of the string quartet that bore his name, founded soon after the First World War, and as collaborator with the pianist Rudolf Serkin.
Busch met Serkin, then only a teenager, in 1920. Soon, they were performing in the leading European concert halls and making a series of now legendary recordings. Despite the difference in age, theirs was a relationship of equals; Serkin was no mere accompanist but a true partner, and the pieces he and Busch excelled in reflected this democratic approach—sonatas by Bach, Handel, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, and Brahms. A favorite of mine is the duo’s recording of Schubert’s C Major Fantasy: rare are the musicians who can, as Busch and Serkin did, plunge to the bottom of that elusive, mercurial work and emerge with so profound and eloquent an account. When Serkin later married Busch’s daughter Irene, music became a family affair. For Busch, it was a fulfilling life, but the happiness didn’t last long.
In 1927, troubled by the ascendancy of the Nazis, Busch—who was not Jewish—left Germany, along with his brothers, for Switzerland. Six years later, with the Nazis now firmly in power, Busch learned that Serkin—who was a Jew—would not be allowed to perform at a Hamburg festival commemorating the centennial of Brahms’s birth. Busch canceled not only his own Hamburg recital, but all subsequent performances in Germany—both solo engagements and those scheduled for the Busch Quartet. His concert career continued to flourish elsewhere on the continent, and even upon taking Swiss citizenship in 1935, Busch remained as popular in his homeland as ever. The Germans tried to lure him back, suggesting that Serkin could resume his own career, too, if only Busch were to come home. The violinist’s response, however, was firm: “If you hang Hitler in the middle, with Goering on the left and Goebbels on the right, I’ll return to Germany.” With anti-Semitism becoming a continental scourge, Busch broke off ties with Italy, and then with Europe itself. The outbreak of war saw him and his family (including Serkin) leave for America, settling in idyllic Guilford, Vermont. This is where Busch’s fortunes took a dramatic turn.
He continued to perform, appearing as both soloist and chamber musician—the Busch Quartet was reconstituted, with all its members now in the States—and also as a conductor. Yet the greatest living German violinist found his appeal limited here. American audiences were less enamored of chamber music, and besides, Busch seemed to pale beside other established stars: he did not have the voluptuous tone of a Mischa Elman or the pyrotechnic abilities of a Jascha Heifetz. What Busch did have was the misfortune of being a musician’s musician at a time when a reputation of that sort was a hindrance and a burden. With a heart attack slowing him down further, he devoted most of his energy to the summer music school that he founded—with the help of Serkin, his brother Herman, and several other musicians who had fled Europe—at Vermont’s Marlboro College. Meanwhile, Serkin, championed by Arturo Toscanini and other notable conductors, saw his own career take off.
I have been thinking of Adolf Busch during the past several weeks, and not only because of his artistry. It’s easy to talk of leaving one’s country on principle, when the threat of authoritarianism mounts by the day—easy to talk of taking a moral stand. When Arnold Schoenberg had had enough of Germany and left, settling eventually in California, his former pupil and dear friend Anton Webern briefly toyed with the idea of moving to America, or somewhere else in Europe. But he could not imagine a life outside Austria, away from the mountains, lakes, and meadows he loved so much, or starting anew in a foreign land. So he put his head down and stayed, and had to live with the ethical consequences of that decision, which burdened his final years. Busch loved his homeland, too—he was German to the core—and he would bear the shame of the nation he departed, even in the sylvan setting of his new world, until his death in 1952, just two years after becoming an American citizen. He is buried in the cemetery in Guilford: a refugee, an exile, a German Gentile of courage and conscience who, during the madness of the last century, sacrificed his career for the sake of his morals.