Viennese violinist Rudolf Kolisch was the leader of the Kolisch String Quartet and a major advocate of advanced twentieth century music between the two world wars. Born in Lower Austria, Kolisch studied violin with Otakar Sevcík, musicology with Guido Adler, and composition with Franz Schreker at the Vienna Academy of Music, but found his post-graduate studies interrupted by his mobilization into World War I. After his discharge in 1918, Kolisch became a participant in Arnold Schoenberg's Society for Private Musical Performances, and when this organization closed up shop in 1921 Kolisch embarked on starting his own string quartet to promote new works. The first Kolisch Quartet to remain stable enough to perform publicly was called Vienna Quartet, and from 1924 it presented European premieres of works by Bartók, Webern, Berg (Lyric Suite), Schoenberg, Hauer, Casella, and many other "modernist" works of the era, in addition to performing standard Viennese string quartets by Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. The group became the in-house quartet for Schoenberg's new organization, the ISCM, and in 1929 the group changed its name to the Kolisch Quartet and made its first recordings.
In 1924, Arnold Schoenberg married Kolisch's youngest sister Gertrud, and in 1934 Schoenberg was fired from the Prussian Academy of the Arts and fled to the United States. By this time Hitler had already shuttered the German concert circuit against the Kolisch Quartet owing to its affiliation with modern composers, and the group concentrated its activity in England and in Copenhagen until relocating to America itself in 1935. The quartet managed to play concerts on the West Coast, where it recorded all four of Schoenberg's string quartets at a United Artists soundstage at the behest of Alfred Newman in late 1936 and then linked up with chamber music patron Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. The group had difficulty adapting to the American concert scene, which had a more occasional regard to chamber music than had been the case in Europe, and the lineup of the Kolisch Quartet began to experience rapid changes in personnel. The group made its last European tour in early 1939, its last recordings for American Columbia in 1940, and played its last concert in New York in May 1944.
Kolisch then joined the faculty of the University of Wisconsin in Madison and assumed directorship of the Pro Arte Quartet there, a position he held until 1967. After that, Kolisch trained other quartets in the literature the Kolisch Quartet made famous -- Schoenberg, Berg, Bartók -- at the New England Conservatory in Boston until his death in 1978. Rudolf Kolisch had very exacting standards and was reputedly not the easiest quartet leader to deal with, and while the group's performances of modern literature -- and of Beethoven -- were considered authoritative, its readings of older Viennese literature was notoriously uneven. Nevertheless, the Kolisch Quartet was associated with many of the most important early twentieth century string quartets and was the first modern string quartet to play from memory.