It can be tough to get a word in edgewise when you sit around with four men who have known each other as long as these guys have. They interrupt, they rib, they criticize, they finish each other's sentences and each other's notes.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #1: To me, that sounds unmusical.

ROBERTS: They're the Guarneri String Quartet and they've been together for 45 years, which makes them one of the longest-lasting and most respected quartets in the world, and they're calling it quits in a few months, at the end of this concert season.

Three of them, Arnold Steinhardt, Michael Tree and John Dalley have been together since the beginning - well, actually, since before the beginning. They got to know each other in music school and formed the quartet in 1964. Their fourth member, Peter Wiley, was once their student. He replaced the original Guarneri cellist in 2001.

I caught up with the foursome rehearsing on stage at the University of Maryland before one of the concerts on their farewell tour.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: I think it's remarkable in any business to have the same colleagues for 45 years, even if it's not music that you're playing.

Mr. JOHN DALLEY (Violinist, Guarneri String Quartet): Mm-hmm. True.

ROBERTS: And especially if you all even knew each other before that as teenagers, if you were music students. How have you seen each other change, and how have your friendships evolved?

John, let me start with you. Why don't you tell me a story about one of these guys.

Mr. DALLEY: You're not starting with me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERTS: Tell me a story about one of them.

Mr. DALLEY: I'm not answering that question.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #2: Next question.

ROBERTS: Chicken.

Mr. DALLEY: It's certainly not a disadvantage to have been very, very close friends, and we were confident enough at the very, very start in thinking that the personal questions would be of no consequence.

Unidentified Man #2: You really knew that?

Mr. DALLEY: I did.

Unidentified Man #2: I didn't know that.

Unidentified Man #3: I didn't know that either.

Unidentified Man #2: Yeah.

Unidentified Man #3: Hope for the best.

Mr. ARNOLD STEINHARDT (Violinist, Guarneri String Quartet): Yeah, yeah. I mean, you never know - well, I don't have to tell you, you never know because the intensity and the stress of always traveling together, rehearsing together, going to parties together, you know, you might have been sick and tired of me. Maybe you're sick and tired of me.

Mr. DALLEY: Oh, don't answer that.

(Soundbite of song, "String Quartet No. 13")

ROBERTS: The Guarneri Quartet has made dozens of recordings. This is the Dvorak "String Quartet No. 13" from an album the foursome released in 1972. It's just been re-released on CD, along with seven other vintage Guarneri recordings.

On the cover, they're doing a send-up of another fab four's album, "Abbey Road" by The Beatles. The Guarneri guys are a little greyer now, but their sense of humor is just as sharp. Maybe that's the key to their endurance?

Mr. MICHAEL TREE (Violist, Guarneri String Quartet): We're often asked how do you account for such longevity, and really, I don't think we've ever come up with an intelligent answer to that. First of all, there are certain things that are quite obvious. We all have to have respect, mutual respect for each other, and we have to have a certain sameness, I think, of tastes.

For example, if there was someone in the group that were just gung-ho to play very, very experimental, avant-garde music, and that could cause a little bit of dissention because that's an entirely different outlook.

I think we all basically agreed on just about everything except when it came down to the nitty-gritty of rehearsing, and that's when that question of mutual respect I think comes into play, and it becomes very important.

Mr. STEINHARDT: But I'll tell another secret, if there's a secret to our longevity. When guest artists come to play with us, we are like four brothers in a family, and we are not shy about saying, that was too loud, or, you know, we've got to fix that intonation there, or, why such a quick tempo? You know, Mozart didn't write a quick tempo. So we're, you know, we're above-board about all these things, really like people in a family who can dismiss all the polite stuff, you know, and the guest artists will say, oh, they're fighting. They're going to break up, and it's not the case. We're just very open and frank, and sometimes, blunt.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: Oh, isn't that too much accent though? In the middle of one, two, three, four bars. That's just a little accent even it's (unintelligible).

Unidentified Man #5: One, two, three, four...

Unidentified Man #4: two bars later. That's right. I thought, now...

Unidentified Man #5: Is this too much?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #4: That's fine with me.

Unidentified Man #5: That's it. I'm leaving. I've had enough.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #6: Mozart?

Unidentified Man #4: That's the one.

ROBERTS: How did the decision to retire come about?

Mr. STEINHARDT: Well, I think we all know people in a lot of fields who have been good at what they've done and then not been so good at what they've done after a certain amount of time. And I think we felt that it will be better to retire when we're still playing pretty well. You know, I think probably, that was the basis of it.

You know, a lot of people come backstage and say, oh, you shouldn't retire, the concert was great. Well, I always think that's the time to retire. So, you know, 45 years is a fantastic run. Let's not be too greedy.

ROBERTS: Was there much discussion about that?

Mr. DALLEY: Oh, I think we had about four minutes in which to decide because we had to be on stage. This was backstage at a concert in New York, and we had no trouble agreeing immediately.

Mr. STEINHARDT: No, well, we said, well, let's sleep on it. So the four-minute discussion stopped, and then the next time we had the discussion, I don't think it was even four minutes. We agreed.

Mr. DALLEY: You know, one thing we might say is that travel has become very complicated. Try getting on planes with these big, bulky instruments. We've had colleagues that were even ordered off the planes even with a ticket for the cello.

Unidentified Man #7: You just don't want to pay $2 for a cup of coffee. That's the real reason that he won't go.

Mr. DALLEY: Well, that I resent terribly, but theā€¦

Unidentified Man #7: But, in fact, I guess it's true.

Mr. DALLEY: Yeah. No, it's - well, you don't have to be a musician to agree that travel has changed considerably over the past 10 years, and I think it's compounded with our situation because of the instruments, and we really truthfully don't know for sure that we'll actually make it to where we're going, and we might very easily have a concert that night to play.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Is there any piece that you continue to have differences of opinion about how to interpret it and every time you play it, it comes out?

Mr. DALLEY: Yes, that's what, of course, makes - that's what makes rehearsing both fun and very, very necessary.

ROBERTS: Give me an example.

Mr. DALLEY: Well my gosh, how much time have we? Even the choosing of a tempo for any given movement of any of the great works is up for grabs. And I think as we return to works that we hadn't played in a long, long time, we find that we've changed, and that's just an evolutionary thing. It's not deliberate.

Unidentified Man #7: I magnified the importance of our differences when we first started. I thought oh my gosh, you're either right, or you're wrong, and you know, I began to quiet down a little bit as time went on, and, you know, you're introduced to a new idea, and even though you don't agree with it at first, you realize there's a kind of truth that happens in a concert that doesn't happen in the rehearsal. For some reason, things appear more truthful in front of the public, and if we had a disagreement, there have been times when we've said, well, let's try (unintelligible) at the end of this movement in Pittsburgh, and the next night, in Akron, let's do it without the (unintelligible. And often, it'll come out in the wash, so to speak.

Mr. PETER WILEY (Cellist, Guarneri String Quartet): I'd like to add something to that because my perspective when I joined the quartet, they'd been together, I believe, 37 years, they had all those years to obviously figure each other out and work this out. And what I've observed, which I think is so important, is I've watched each of these guys fight for their idea as if it were in their blood and then give it up and say, okay, we'll do it another way, and I've watched them each do that, and I think that's one of the keys to being a good musician and a good colleague is that you have to give it up more than you take it.

Unidentified Man #7: I think it's really nice to travel with three teachers who don't charge you any money. And in fact...

Mr. DALLEY: You'll get a bill from me, huge bill next year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Unidentified Man #7: I mean, sometimes, I worry about soloists who are in their own separate world and they are wonderful soloists, but, you know, certainly, once they get to a certain point in fame, do people not get through to them and say, you know, you might think of doing this differently or whatever. And here, we have a, you know, this mechanism in the quartet where we're all keeping each other honest or certainly exposing one another to fresh ideas all the time, so pretty wonderful.

ROBERTS: Thank you, gentlemen, so much. We really appreciate your time.

Mr. DALLEY: Thank you.

Mr. STEINHARDT: Thank you.

Mr. WILEY: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERTS: Violinists Arnold Steinhardt and John Dalley, violist Michael Tree and cellist Peter Wiley, better known as the Guarneri String Quartet. Their new CD is called "The Hungarian Album." You're hearing a piece from that now. The guys are playing tonight in West Orange, New Jersey. They have just eight more concerts booked before they retire this fall.

So how do these four musicians plan to spend their retirements? Well, they're starting to think about getting together once in a while to play string quartets just for fun.

(Soundbite of music)

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