Renowned String Quartet Brings New Perspective to Study of Language at Allegheny College

Works by Mozart, Beethoven and Bartók, performed by the award-winning Alexander String Quartet, resounded in a third-floor classroom on a recent morning in Allegheny College’s Ruter Hall.
But the students taking in the performance weren’t attending a music course. Instead, they were studying German language and literature.
The students listened as the San Francisco-based quartet played selections from the classical, romantic and contemporary eras. “Much of the quartet’s repertoire is written by German-speaking composers,” said Peter Ensberg, Allegheny professor of German and the course’s instructor. “The music relates to certain philosophical and artistic points of view that we also can find in other art forms. It’s always possible to connect musical voices to verbal and visual forms of expression. Language and communication take many forms.”
The Alexander String Quartet has traveled to Allegheny for a short residency annually since 1990. During its time on campus, the group works with classes in many disciplines and performs a public concert.
Besides the quartet, Ensberg’s class also welcomed another group of special guests: six students from Meadville Area Senior High School and their teacher, Wilma Dunkle. She selected students in an advanced German course who also had shown strong interest in music.
“We spent time before the class learning about typical characteristics of classical music from three different eras,” Dunkle, a 2005 Allegheny graduate, said. “Having the Alexander String Quartet perform pieces from each of the three targeted eras breathed life into those studies.”
As the musicians played, expertly gliding their bows and plucking strings, the college and high school students looked on, some gently tapping their toes or bobbing their heads to the rhythm. But in between pieces the audience took center stage as students shared their reactions.
Those interactions started with a simple question — “How did that piece make you feel?” — and grew into deeper discussions. The students, instructors and musicians delved into the music’s structure and tone as well as the culture and politics of the period in which it was composed.
Topics ranged from the beginnings of the European middle class in Mozart’s era to Beethoven’s penchant for defying musical conventions to the rise of fascism that forced Bartók to leave Hungary in the early 1940s.
Ensberg said the quartet’s performance will help his students gain perspective on the literature they’re reading and analyzing, “to question things, get new ideas and build connections.” And Dunkle said she plans to have follow-up discussions with her students on their understanding before and after the performance.
The class marked the first time Dunkle brought her students to Allegheny. The visit resulted from a conversation she had earlier this year with Julia Ludewig, Allegheny assistant professor of German, and Ensberg, who was faculty advisor for Dunkle’s senior comprehensive project while she was an Allegheny student.
Dunkle said she hopes that the collaboration continues. Her school’s languages department recently hosted a World Cultures Week that included presentations by two international exchange students from the college. “I look forward to working with Allegheny more in the future,” Dunkle said.