From refugees to masters of the repertoire

On 10 January 1948 a long queue formed outside London’s Wigmore Hall: that afternoon’s concert was the professional debut of four young men calling themselves the “Amadeus Quartet”. Those lucky enough to gain admission enjoyed a feast of great music outstandingly played. The foursome started with the Mozart D minor quartet (K 421) and followed this with the Verdi, a tricky piece that, according to one critic, placed the Amadeus “right at the top of the tree technically, intellectually and musically”. They brought things to a close with Beethoven’s “Razumovsky” Quartet No. 3, throwing themselves into its Allegro molto finale with an energetic burst of truly virtuosic playing. That afternoon, the Amadeus Quartet was triumphantly launched on a career that was to continue, its personnel unchanged, for nearly forty years. 

“We met in prison!” they used to joke. Three of the quartet had come to Britain in the late 1930s as Jewish émigrés from Nazi Central Europe. Norbert Brainin, born in Vienna in 1923, developed an early love of music and considerable talent as a violinist. In March 1938 Hitler’s troops marched into Vienna and Austria promptly became part of the Third Reich. One of Brainin’s uncles was in London at the time and, in due course, Brainin was able to emigrate to England, where he was lucky enough to receive good schooling – and violin lessons from that master teacher Carl Flesch. War broke out in 1939 and the following year Brainin, like so many who had sought refuge from the Third Reich, was taken away from London and interned.

Siegmund Nissel, born in Munich in 1922 to parents who had moved from Vienna, began playing the violin at the age of six. In 1931 Nissel’s mother died and his father took the nine-year-old Sigi “back” to live in Vienna, where he continued his studies. Nissel always retained vivid memories of the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna in spring 1938 and his realization that no career, in music or anything else, would be possible for him there. He too was among the lucky ones, sailing to England courtesy of the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport) scheme. In 1940, along with many other “Hitler émigrés”, Nissel was interned by the British as an “enemy alien”. On the Isle of Man he befriended Hans Schidlof, another Austrian refugee and budding musician. Schidlof was born six months after Nissel and, following the Anschluss, he too was sent to England, where he disembarked in late 1938, a bewildered teenager with no connections and knowing no English. But at least he had his beloved violin with him. After war broke out, he was sent off to internment (“Don’t forget your tennis racket,” said a friendly policeman), initially to Prees Heath in Shropshire, thence to Lancashire and finally across the water to the Isle of Man. While in Prees Heath, he became friendly with a fellow prisoner, Norbert Brainin, and they passed the time playing violin duets together.

All three were soon released, and often encountered one another in wartime London. Thanks to a recommendation from Flesch, they were able to pursue their musical studies with his young assistant, Max Rostal, who was to prove an inspiring and generous teacher and longtime friend. They also began to find themselves invited to perform, often in the homes of kindly people who organized soirées for their music-loving friends. Here, the three future quartet members became acquainted with others from the refugee community, such as the Hungarian-born violinist Suzanne Rozsa. One day, Susi contacted Schidlof (now calling himself Peter) to say she had to withdraw from a Wigmore Hall concert at which she was due to play a violin and cello duo with Martin Lovett, a talented young cellist born in London in 1927 (and later Susi’s husband). Could Peter stand in for her and do the violin part? He could, and did. Thus the two boys who were destined to spend so much of their lives together gave their first joint concert.

By the end of the war, Brainin, Nissel, Schidlof and Lovett had come to know and value each other’s musicianship, and would get together every now and then to play their way through a string quartet or two, Schidlof and Brainin taking turns at trying out the viola part. By spring 1947 they were getting down to serious work, Schidlof agreeing to subordinate his principal instrument to the less familiar one. That summer, Imogen Holst invited them to try out a concert at Dartington Hall in Devon; it proved a great success and, with her encouragement, the boys decided to book the Wigmore Hall the following January and launch themselves officially, in London. It was Nissel who first came up with “Amadeus”. It sounded nice, embraced the ideas of love and God, and was Mozart’s middle name. “OK,” they agreed, days before the posters had to be printed, “let’s be the Amadeus!”

London was the perfect place from which to set out on their career. Much of Europe had been under the control of the Third Reich during the war and countless cities severely bombed. In Britain, despite the horrors and privations of war, many felt that now was the time to build on the civilized values for which “we” had fought. Covent Garden reopened to opera and ballet, the Arts Council was established to provide public funds for music and the arts, and the BBC established the Third Programme, a radio network devoted to high-quality music and culture. In spring 1951 the Festival of Britain opened on the south bank of the River Thames and ran throughout the summer – the festival site was then demolished, except for its proud centrepiece, the Royal Festival Hall. Audiences to classical music were everywhere boosted by members of the émigré community eager to recapture something of the cultural life they had been forced to flee. Meanwhile, many leading recording companies (soon to replace old-fashioned gramophone records with the latest “LPs”) were setting up in London, where the city’s orchestral musicians were thought to be the world’s best sight-readers. One way and another, London was becoming the centre of the musical world. Literally so: former musical capitals such as Berlin, Munich, Vienna, Prague or Budapest, struggling to shake off the debris of war, found themselves on the frontiers of the emerging Cold War, while the introduction of the jet plane soon enabled London to be reached from New York in a mere seven hours.

Within a couple of years of its debut the Amadeus Quartet was getting regular engagements in Britain and abroad, and by the time of its tenth anniversary it was in the midst of an eight-month world tour that took it right across the USA and on to Hawaii, Japan, Hong Kong, New Zealand, Australia and South Africa. Like a number of refugees from Nazism, the members of the Amadeus were keen to help rebuild the nations from which they had fled, and they frequently performed in Germany and Austria. Their principal recording company for much of their career was Deutsche Grammophon, and their repertoire consisted primarily of the great Austro-German classics by Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Brahms. Discerning listeners claimed to find a “Viennese” quality in the Amadeus sound, perhaps arising from the broad vibrato sometimes adopted, or the warm sense of rubato that enabled the foursome, as with a single voice, to effect subtle variations of tempo the way a singer might do in a Schubert song.

Such nuances were worked out in minute detail in rehearsal, and the Amadeus, like any such ensemble, was not devoid of controversy, sometimes heated. “Das ist zu loud!” Brainin might yell to his colleagues. A portly, larger-than-life character with a thick mop of hair, pugnacious chin and a volatile and expressive temperament, Brainin nonetheless produced a steady stream of the most mellifluous sound and a sense of leadership and authority that set the tone for the whole ensemble. Alongside him – often an adjudicating force, the voice of reason, of practicality – sat Nissel, an unassuming-looking man whose tranquil appearance belied an exceptionally powerful and articulate personality. It was often Nissel who was the most concerned with delicacies of balance and shading. Schidlof, tall and elegant, had a supreme capacity to meld the subtle tone of his instrument with that produced by his colleagues. “If you gave Peter a cigar box on which to play,” said Nissel appreciatively, “he would still manage to coax from it the most incomparably beautiful sound.” A de facto division of labour gradually developed, with Nissel effectively the manager of the group, adept at arranging the best contract the quartet could obtain for a concert or recording, or the complex logistics of an upcoming tour, while Schidlof tended to organize the group’s travel arrangements and Lovett everything to do with publicity. Although younger than the others and not a native German speaker, Lovett soon found himself adjusting to the personalities and musicianship of his colleagues and, like them, was never slow to express his mind.

 If the Amadeus repertoire centred on the great Austro-German classics, it was not limited to these. They would sometimes play music by more recent composers such as Bartók, Shostakovich and Britten (whose final quartet was written for them) and, especially during their early years together, Peter Racine Fricker or Priaulx Rainier. In October 1979 I spent a few days with them in Munich, where they were recording two quartets for DG. The composers? Tchaikovsky and Verdi.

Their “studio” was the Alter Herkulessaal (Hercules Hall, now Max-Joseph-Saal) in the royal palace complex known as the Residenz, and the aim was to complete one movement per session. The Tchaikovsky was fairly easily accomplished; the Verdi, predictably, proved harder. At one session, Lovett thought Schidlof was rushing his semiquavers and getting ahead of Brainin; another was interrupted by the noise of a police helicopter flying overhead. After recording a couple of takes of the cello solo in the third movement, Lovett found the first preferable, more expressive, while Brainin thought it vulgar, “like a provincial Italian opera singer with no sense of refinement”. Back to the Saal they went to do yet another take. Between sessions, the foursome would relax, often over a good, bibulous and laughter-packed meal in a typical Bavarian restaurant. All were blessed with an outrageous sense of humour, and I dare not repeat some of their jokes here...

Inevitably, the quartet encountered occasional problems. Most were trivial and transient: a late train or plane, a broken string in mid-performance, or someone succumbing to a heavy cold or a bout of flu. One time, Brainin sat accidentally on his left hand, temporarily injuring his fingering capacity. Did any of them ever harbour hopes of going off to pursue a solo career? Absolutely not, they all insisted. “Why submit yourself to having to play, again and again, a dozen or fifteen well-known concertos,” said one, “when the chamber repertoire offers more like a hundred incomparable masterpieces?” The worst crisis occurred in 1960, when Nissel began to experience severe headaches and a growing incapacity to concentrate and even to wield his bow properly. It transpired that he had a brain tumour. Fortunately, this was removed and in due course he made a full recovery. But, for a while, the whole future of the Amadeus Quartet seemed under threat. Would they ever have considered bringing in a replacement? No. The Amadeus were adamant: we are who we are, all four agreed – and, when we have to stop, we will stop.

This they did when, on 16 August 1987, Peter Schidlof died. By now, all four had begun to teach the younger generation of players, something Brainin, Nissel and Lovett continued to do for a further decade and more. Gradually, quartets such as the Chilingirian and the Belcea acknowledged the help and inspiration they had received from members of the Amadeus. But things moved on, the rich “Viennese style” associated with the Amadeus came to seem a little over-indulgent to many, and their legendary performances began to slip out of memory and into history. It is high time to revive their incomparable recorded legacy!

Daniel Snowman is a social and cultural historian. His books include The Amadeus Quartet: The Men and the Music, The Hitler Émigrés: The Cultural Impact on Britain of Refugees from Nazism and The Gilded Stage: A Social History of Opera (

Photo credits: Lotte Meitner-Graf,  Lothar Winkler