The Quartet in Residence
The classical music Quatuor Pro Arte was once the court quartet to the Queen of Belgium.
But thanks to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea and a moment of triumph over a dark time in world history, the world-renowned ensemble of violin, viola, and violoncello now known as the Pro Arte Quartet has made its home at the University of Wisconsin for more than 75 years.
Four Belgian music conservatory students founded the ensemble in 1912, touring Europe to great acclaim. They became known for performing contemporary arrangements at a time when most chamber musicians were faithful to centuries-old works. In 1925, the well-traveled ensemble made its American debut at a Library of Congress celebration.
The quartet first performed in Madison in April 1939, and it returned in May 1940 to perform Beethoven quartets as part of a festival at the new Wisconsin Union Theater. Mid-concert on the evening of May 10, it was announced from the stage that the Nazis had invaded Belgium.
Upon hearing the news, and already greatly impressed with the ensemble, School of Music School chair Carl Bricken and UW president Clarence Dykstra accelerated a plan to invite Pro Arte to become UW artists-in-residence. The quartet accepted a one-year invitation, establishing one of the first such residency programs at an American university.
As the agreement extended from months to decades, Pro Arte’s commitment has always fulfilled the Wisconsin Idea. Members have taught student musicians, performed weekly concerts on campus, and shared their talents with Wisconsin and the world via radio broadcasts and global tours.
In 2011, when Pro Arte became the world’s first string quartet to mark its 100th anniversary, a multiyear celebration included a wealth of local performances and the commissioning of six original works.
In its history, the quartet’s members have changed just 19 times, with the current ensemble together since 1995: violinists David Perry and Suzanne Beia; violist Sally Chisholm; and cellist Parry Karp MM 1977, the longest-serving member in Pro Arte’s history.
“There needs to be a ‘quartet philosophy,’” Perry has said. “Undergraduates need to have opportunities to play in their own quartets. For audiences, they need to know that the string quartet remains a viable ensemble. … And I think now we touch and influence more people than ever before.”