The Zoellner Quartet: once trailblazing celebrities, then forgotten, now rediscovered.
“They were well known from coast to coast and they played at the highest level,” said Ann-Marie Barker Schwartz, violinist and founder of the Musicians of Ma’alwyck (MOM). “But I’d never heard of them. It’s unbelievable.”
Barker Schwartz is changing that. Along with MOM, she will present a lecture and performance Monday at SUNY Schenectady County Community College of some of the music the quartet regularly played.
The Zoellner Quartet was unlike most string quartets, even those of the present day. Founded in 1904 by violinist Joseph Zoellner Sr. in Brooklyn, where he had a music school, the other quartet members were his children: Antoinette, Amandus and Joseph Jr. But rather than leading the group as the first violinist, he put his daughter on first violin and his son Amandus on second violin. He himself played viola and Joseph Jr. was the cellist.
“A woman playing in public was something not done in those years,” Barker Schwartz said. “It says so much about them that he had confidence in her. The whole family were such fine players.”
Joseph Zoellner Sr. took them all to train in Belgium where they later concertized and were feted by royalty, including receiving a gold medal from the king and queen of Belgium specially created for the group. The quartet returned to the United States and began touring here and in Canada, playing in nearly constantly in concert halls, schools, at private parties, at conventions and for morning musical clubs to develop a broad range of repertoire and a huge following — all before air travel would allow for such tight schedules.
By 1921, the Zoellner Quartet had amassed more than 1,000 performances. Until then, the quartet had been based in New York City, but in 1922 Joseph Jr. married and chose to move to California. The rest of the family joined him and settled in Los Angeles, where they opened a conservatory, later branching out to Hollywood and Burbank.
They continued to tour until their retirement in 1925, meeting and playing for such notables as Helen Keller and great violinists such as Mischa Elman and Eugene Ysaye. In later years, the group occasionally played together at informal performances — such as with Alfred Einstein in 1931 — and continued to teach.
After Joseph Sr. died in 1950, Joseph Jr. started a second quartet with other players and continued to concertize until shortly before his death in 1964. Amandus died in 1955 and Antoinette in 1962.
Although the quartet had recorded a few cylinders — they were on “the cusp” of the recording industry for live performances, Barker Schwartz said — their celebrity was largely forgotten. All that changed three years ago when Lady Alexandra Foley, the maternal granddaughter of Joseph Jr., saw the archives that her uncle, Joseph Zoellner III, had stashed away in storage and in an abandoned barn north of San Francisco.
“I’d gradually learned about the quartet in my late teens from my mother and saw pictures of the quartet with Einstein and other treasures in her London flat,” Lady Alex said in an email. “I [also] met my grandfather when I was three years old and I remember him well.”
Although Lady Alex herself is not a musician, her father was. Known as the English Liberace, pianist Lord Adrian Foley — one of the barons originally from the Foley estate, Witley Court and Gardens in Worcestershire, England — made several recordings during the 1970s, and even appeared on Broadway in a production about “Jane Eyre.” He died in 2012.
It was Lady Alex’s friend, Liane Schirmer, however, who alerted her to the fact that the Zoellner archives were in the library at UCLA, having been donated by Amandus’ daughter, Ruth Jalof, in 1985. Lady Alex, who was in Las Vegas at the time, flew to L.A. and spent three days in the library.
There had been 50 cardboard boxes of material donated such as programs, pictures, press clippings, scores and memorabilia — including the gold medal. Over the next couple years, she digitized much of the material and began writing a book about the quartet, which is due out this fall.
But how she got connected to Barker Schwartz is another story. Chris Brellochs, the dean of music at SUNY Schenectady, was in Newport, Rhode Island, to give a lecture on the Gilded Age when he saw a familiar face in the hotel lobby: Julian Fellowes of “Downton Abbey” fame.
“None of this would have happened if I’d not seen him giving a lecture across the street,” Brellochs said, laughing.
Fellowes knew Lady Alex. And Brellochs, who knew of Barker Schwartz’s love of finding historical subjects with a musical connection, thought “It’s a really unique story told from a unique perspective.”
Barker Schwartz was immediately intrigued.
“I did some research. I listened to cylinders that Lady Alex provided. I did a Zoom meeting to help her with her book and I invited her to our Viennese Ball in February,” she said.
A concert of songs the quartet usually performed — most by composers long forgotten — seemed like the best way to showcase the story.
“It’s what was contemporary music then. . . . It formed a core of their programming,” Barker Schwartz said.
Beyond pieces from better-known composers such as Frank Bridge and Christian Sinding, the Musicians of Ma’alwyck will perform works by New Zealand composer Alfred Hill; Charles Skilton, who used Native American Indian themes of the Cheyenne tribe and dedicated the work to the quartet; Italian-Jewish composer Leone Sinigaglia; and Jan Brandts Buys, who wrote a “Romantic Serenade” that Barker Schwartz said she loved.
It’s all very exciting, especially for Lady Alex, who will be at the concert.
“It’s a calling for me. I feel a sense of awe, excited, and a sense of purpose to resurface a story,” she said. “It’s also made me feel proud of my heritage.”
MOM is also offering a free 45-minute preview at noon on Monday.
Musicians of Ma’alwyck
WHEN: Monday, Sept. 11 at 7:30 p.m.
WHERE: Taylor Auditorium, SUNY Schenectady County Community College
HOW MUCH: $10, $8 for students; $5 children 10 and younger
MORE INFO: musiciansofmaalyck.org; 518 512-9479
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