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The Musical Art Quartet and the Bliss Stradivarius Viola

Posted On April 23, 2015 | 12:31 pm | by jamesc | Permalink
James N. Carder (May 2015)


Bliss Stradivarius Viola "Saint Senoch," ca. 1734 - front and back.

Mildred Barnes Bliss was an enthusiastic patron of the Musical Art Quartet. She supported the string quartet from soon after its inception, in 1926, until it disbanded, in 1944. Initially, the quartet comprised four students from the Institute of Musical Art in New York, later known as the Julliard School of Music. The quartet’s founder and first violinist, Sascha Jacobsen (1895–1972), and cellist, Marie Roemaet-Rosanoff (1896–1967), both became friends of Mildred Bliss, who frequently invited the quartet members to perform at Dumbarton Oaks and also helped them to book engagements at her friends’ homes and at concert halls. After Dumbarton Oaks was transferred to Harvard University, in late 1940, the quartet continued to perform in the Music Room each year between 1941 and 1944, and it was largely due to the success of these performances that Dumbarton Oaks decided to inaugurate a Friends of Music concert series, in 1946. The Dumbarton Oaks Archives contains considerable correspondence between Mildred Bliss and members of the quartet. In one letter of May 26, 1931, from Marie Rosanoff to Mildred Bliss, Rosanoff states:

It is only through the generosity of a few far-sighted individuals like yourself–who realize the ultimate importance of the development of art in America–that we hope to be able to continue as a quartet.

In 1937, several patrons joined together to acquire for the quartet string instruments made by the famed Antonio Stradivari (ca. 1648–1737), so that the group could remain an all-Stradivarius quartet. The banker Felix Warburg (1871–1937) had previously provided the quartet with Stradivarius instruments from his collection, but on his death in 1937, they were returned to his estate. To replace the Warburg instruments, Alice Garrett, wife of a former U.S. Ambassador to Italy, purchased a 1732 violin (“Red Diamond”) for Jacobsen; Caroline Marmon Fesler purchased a 1730 cello (“Ben Venuto”) for Rosanoff and a 1703 violin (“Allegretti”) for second violinist Paul Bernard; and Mildred Bliss purchased a ca. 1734 viola (“Saint Senoch,” also known as the "Gibson") for Louis Kievman (1910–1990). When Kievman left the quartet in 1937, the Blisses lent the viola to William Hymanson (1914–2015), who joined the quartet that year. Thought to be the last viola made by Stradivari, the “Saint Senoch” took its name from Édouard Haincque de Saint-Senoch (1826–1885), who had owned a quartet of Stradivarius instruments that was dispersed after his death. The Blisses eventually sold the viola, in 1961.