Flonzaley Quartet Model Unveiled

One hundred years ago, on February 21, 1914, Frances Glessner Lee presented her model of the Flonzaley Quartet to that world-famous string quartet.  Known for her earlier model of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and later for her meticulously crafted series of “Nutshell Studies of Unexplained Death,” Frances Glessner Lee spent nearly two years creating the quartet model.

Her son, John Glessner Lee, recounted the creation and presentation of the model in his 1971 book, Family Reunion, and we present that excerpt in its entirety.  (Notes:  He refers to his mother as FGL; their family home where the model was created and unveiled was located at 1700 S. Prairie Avenue, one block north of the Glessner House).

“(The Chicago Symphony Orchestra model) really launched FGL in her career of model work.  Her next model was the Flonzaley Quartet – perhaps the best-known string quartet of the era – and a masterpiece it was.  It took nearly two years to do.  It really was precise, the individuals were striking likenesses, and everything about it was as close to reality as one could get.  You could actually play the ‘cello – it emitted a faint squeak, but no sound would come from the smaller instruments, despite the care in making the bridge and strings and other parts.  By the time FGL got going on the Quartet I was old enough to help.  We went to concerts together, and sat on opposite sides of the house, and made elaborate notes on how the men sat and what they wore – Mr. Betti’s vest (he was the first violin) – how Mr. Pochon put his feet (he was the second violin) – d’Archambeau’s gold watch chain, how it hung (he, the cellist) and last, but by no means least, Ugo Ara, who played the viola, a little Italian man with a magnificent Assyrian beard, how he managed his viola amongst the profusion of shrubbery.

FGL presented the model to the Quartet one evening at dinner at our house in Chicago.  It was covered with a large floral piece in the center of the table, which gave no hint as to what was underneath.  FGL sat at one side of the table which was long and narrow and my grandfather opposite her, each with a member of the Quartet on both sides of them.  We lesser lights were farther down the table.  After dinner, the floral piece was removed with a flourish, and there, not two feet from their noses, was this model of themselves playing!  The effect was extraordinary.  For a moment nobody spoke, and then all four members of the Quartet burst out into voluble language.  Nobody listened.  But each one of them pointed with delight to the eccentricities of the other three.  I still remember Mr. Betti, with a magnifying glass, peering over the shoulder of his own miniature, trying to read the music on the music rack.  It had been specially written by Frederick Stock, the conductor of the Chicago Symphony, in the style of Schoenberg, but was impossible to play – a fact which Mr. Betti soon appreciated.

Then my grandfather read a long account of how the model was made, which FGL had written.  The figures were Viennese dolls, as before, modified by FGL to incorporate a wire frame so they would hold a position.  The heads were modeled out of a mixture of LePage’s fish glue and plaster of Paris which she had developed.  This was long before the days of plastics or quick-drying cement.  The result, which took several days to dry, became as hard as glass.  To this cotton fibers were added for hair, and the result painted to match the individual.  I can still remember the four little heads hanging upside down on a stand on FGL’s work table.  Mr. Ara’s with its square cut beard was particularly gruesome, and one had uncomfortable thoughts of the guillotine.  The accompanying picture of FGL shows her working on this model at a card table in her bedroom in Chicago.

The model was built for permanence, with every party thoroughly anchored.  When I last heard of it, the Quartet had taken it to Switzerland and placed it in a museum near the home of Mr. (Edward J.) de Coppet, the chief sponsor of the Quartet.  Mr. Pochon told us afterwards that the only damage resulting from the long voyage was that his bow had slipped off of his violin, which they had been able to fix themselves.”

The presentation was also recorded in the Glessner journal, by this time being written by John Glessner.  He notes that in addition to the persons listed above, those attending the dinner included his wife, Frederick Stock and his wife, Enrico Tramonti (CSO harpist) and his wife, and Henry Voegeli (CSO assistant manager and treasurer) and his wife.  An interesting discrepancy in the two accounts is that John Glessner Lee places his grandfather in a place of honor with members of the Quartet to either side; but John Glessner clearly indicates it was his grandson, age 15 at the time, who sat opposite his mother:

“John Lee sat opposite his mother at table & did his part very well.  Betti seated at right & Pochon at Frances’ left, d’Archambeau at right & Ara at John’s left.  Next to Betti came Mrs. Tramonti, then I, Mr. Stock, Mrs. Voegeli, Ara, John, d’Archambeau, Frances, Tramonti, Voegeli, Mrs. Stock, Pochon & Frances Lee.”

One must conclude that John Glessner’s account, written immediately after the event is indeed accurate, especially since he identifies where each of the 14 members of the party sat.  Why John Glessner Lee saw his grandfather in that place of honor and not himself when recounting the incident nearly 60 years later remains an interesting question, but perhaps shows the high level of esteem in which he held the patriarch of the family.