By Thomas May | From the November-December 2021 issue of Strings magazine
The endurance of the Juilliard String Quartet (JSQ) seems to offer a potent antidote to the sense of impending disruption and uncertainty that has crept into just about every aspect of musical life. This longevity shines a beacon of hope, enhancing the sense of celebration around the internationally acclaimed ensemble’s 75th anniversary this season.
Among the plans is a concert on November 30 at Alice Tully Hall in Lincoln Center titled “Cavatina,” which presents a new commission series from the prolific German composer Jörg Widmann, whose work will interact with Beethovenian models. This will be juxtaposed with Beethoven’s late String Quartet No. 13 in B-flat major. The ensemble will perform both finales the composer fashioned for Op. 130, including the Grosse Fuge originally intended as the capstone. This dual focus on core classic repertoire and new creation has consistently been part of the JSQ’s DNA.
A reunion event with surviving former JSQ members took place in October, and in April the ensemble released its first album with newest member Areta Zhulla, who became first violinist in 2018. The recording combines Bartók’s Third Quartet with the second of Beethoven’s Op. 59 set (“Rasumovsky”) and Dvořák’s “American” Quartet (Sony). Sony Classical has additionally released seven CDs combining previously unreleased material with works chosen from the JSQ’s discography of more than 100 recordings.
“One of the things we’re looking forward to the most is simply performing again,” says second violinist Ronald Copes in a joint Zoom interview with all four members over the summer. “I’m just hopeful to be working to some sort of new normal of playing concerts and sharing with people.”
Even before the turn of the century, the fact that the JSQ was able to mark its 50th anniversary was hailed as a milestone—especially at a time when several other prominent quartets were disbanding. Critics used the occasion (during the 1996–97 season) to take stock of the ensemble’s enormous influence on quartet culture and its role as a champion of contemporary composers. Musical America named the JSQ “Musicians of the Year” in 1996, the first time a chamber ensemble was so honored by the publication.
“At one of the celebrations, I said I intend to be here for the 75th anniversary,” violist Samuel Rhodes recalls. “So I’m going to make that dream come true, even though I’m no longer a member,” he adds, having served as violist from 1969 until 2013. Rhodes was referring to the reunion with surviving and current members on October 11, the official anniversary of the JSQ’s first performance in 1946.
But as the JSQ turns 75 this year, the landscape has changed in drastic ways nobody could have foreseen at the time. Who would even have imagined the existential threat posed by the pandemic? Still, the JSQ has continued to flourish and wield influence by remaining true to its founding vision. Earl Carlyss, who played second violin from 1966 until 1986, formulates that core thus: “to treat the old pieces like they were just written yesterday and contemporary compositions as if they were classics.” Indeed, as in the case of the Alice Tully anniversary concert, the 50th anniversary presented a new commission in the form of Milton Babbitt’s Clarinet Quintet.
“We just keep wearing our explorers’ helmets,” says JSQ cellist Astrid Schween. “Having grown up listening to this quartet in many of its different iterations, one thing that always struck me as being so great about the four members was this kind of adventurousness, this willingness to take on new things.” That applies equally to the standard repertoire and to new commissions: “We need to make sure that our Beethoven is always brimming with great ideas, and that new music is really part of our commitment to quartet playing. If we keep that torch burning, I think we’re doing a good job.”
Up through the 50th anniversary, the JSQ’s longevity was personified by the enduring presence of founding member Robert Mann (1920–2018), who remained first violinist throughout that initial half-century, outlasting his three original colleagues by decades. The composer William Schuman, president of the Juilliard School from 1945 to 1961, had envisioned a resident quartet with a profoundly American identity. He called on Mann, a newcomer to the faculty after his service in the Second World War, to form the ensemble.
In view of the JSQ’s ambitions and the paucity back then of fully American quartets of international stature, it was a rather unusual undertaking. The New York Times praised the Oregon-born Mann in 1980 as the force behind “the ensemble’s continuity of style and the maintenance of its stature in international chamber music circles.”
That Mann was integral to the JSQ’s identity for 51 years is “very significant, because Bobby was a huge personal and musical force,” explains Joel Smirnoff, who joined in 1986 as second violinist and became primarius when Mann retired from the quartet in 1997. “I think of the famous jazz groups, like the Duke Ellington Orchestra or Charles Mingus’ Big Band.” At the same time, he points out, the quartet was sometimes criticized for having “too many changes in personnel.”
During the 50th-anniversary events, the critic Allan Kozinn jokingly noted that, apart from Mann, “the group’s personnel list reads like a biblical genealogy.” In fact, only one of the current members is of the mid-’90s vintage: second violinist Ronald Copes came on board in 1997, upon Mann’s retirement, when Smirnoff moved from second to first violin. Samuel Rhodes took his leave in 2013, when violist Roger Tapping joined. Astrid Schween began her tenure in 2016, following Joel Krosnick’s 42 years as the quartet’s cellist. “It’s so incredible to be a part of this group, which has had members I’ve idolized since I can remember,” Zhulla remarks. “I can just hear Bobby Mann’s voice somehow when we play the Grosse Fuge.”
Different Sounds, Same Identity
This contrapuntal overlay of former and current members is at the heart of the JSQ’s paradoxical longevity—its ability to sustain a recognizable identity while at the same time accommodating such a vivid array of strong personalities. “What defines Juilliard has less to do with the actual sound than it does with an approach to the music that we play,” according to Copes. “The JSQ has always been most interested in how voices interact with each other. The integrity of secondary voices and how they interact with the primary voice is of real importance.” During rehearsals, Zhulla points out, “we rarely talk about our collective sounds. We very much talk about what we think each voice should be doing.”
Copes adds that whenever someone bows out and the search begins for a replacement, “the main point is not to find somebody who’s going to fit in. It’s to find someone who is going to bring a different perspective and something of their own musical sensibility to create something different. It’s that difference that has been a constantly revitalizing aspect of the quartet’s existence.” Smirnoff believes that the JSQ “has actually benefited from these changes of personality.”
Moreover, for Smirnoff, the fact that many members have also been active as composers, including himself and Mann, has contributed to the JSQ sensibility by encouraging the players to be keenly aware of the kinds of choices composers make. During Rhodes’ final concert as violist in 2013, for example, the quartet was joined by incoming Roger Tapping to play the former’s quintet scored for two violas (which has been recorded by the Pro Arte Quartet).
“Writing a string quartet has always been an ultimate test of a composer’s skill. A string quartet is a wedding or reconciliation of personal freedom versus the common good, of counterpoint or the vertical with harmony, the horizontal,” Smirnoff says. In that view, the JSQ’s history of embracing changing personnel might even be seen to mirror the dynamics essential to the medium itself.
As a result, the JSQ’s sound over its long life has indeed altered. In the early years, above all, through its accounts of the Bartók and Beethoven cycles, the JSQ earned a reputation closely aligned with the mid-century Modernist aesthetic of sharp-edged, analytic intensity—along with what some now perceive as an intellectual “machismo” and an emphasis on a relatively narrow view of what constitutes worthy new contributions to the literature.
As new replacements complicated the original mix, remarks Rhodes, who took over Raphael Hillyer’s chair in 1969, when he was only 28, “the sound became warmer, and yet it didn’t lose the drive. We had the same musical intention.” He adds that his older colleagues “gave me the feeling right from the beginning that I was not only an equal member but that my musical feelings were sought after and treasured and made part of the group.”
The four current JSQ players reaffirm this spirit of give and take. Even a joint Zoom interview with the foursome is spontaneously harmonized to allow each voice to make its point. “The thing that probably makes getting through any differences the easiest or the most productive,” says Copes, “is that we all really respect each other. And along with that respect, there’s a certain kind of trust that goes into saying, ‘Look, those differences are fine.’” Tapping adds that “it’s a fantastic thing to have your mind changed. The luxury we have is that we rehearse a lot.” As Smirnoff puts it: “What you learn in a good quartet is how to argue anything that you really feel strongly about. You become a good lawyer.”
Leaving a Legacy
The JSQ’s association with its namesake—and the support that has come from the Juilliard School—is another key to its longevity. Rhodes explains that William Schuman “had a vision of a quartet that would play the classics, who would also play and commission new music, and teach. And those three elements have been the cornerstone of what the JSQ has been about all these years, including the present—including as ambassadors for the school.” In this way, the ensemble became “the advanced guard of the Juilliard School, throughout the world, including behind the Iron Curtain.”
Each member serves as a sought-after teacher on the Juilliard faculty and gives master classes while touring; they also work with students at the Tanglewood Music Center. The JSQ has thus been enormously influential for succeeding models of American string quartets. The history of the Emerson String Quartet, for example—which only this August announced its intention to disband in 2023, after 47 years as an ensemble—is grounded in what it absorbed from both the JSQ and the Guarneri Quartet. And this influence continues into the younger generations, including such staunch new-music advocates as the Attacca.
The influence also works both ways. Tapping singles out the Ulysses Quartet, currently resident at Juilliard (through May 2022), as an ensemble that has been particularly inspiring to mentor. “In this day and age, I think string quartets are thriving in a way that they were not when I was younger,” observes Schween. “Groups like the Juilliard Quartet and the Cleveland Quartet were very responsible for bringing up generations of future chamber players. Even teaching our instruments, you can’t help but bring so much of the interpretive process and the listening that we’re engaged in every day.”
In 1946, William Schuman was hardly able to predict how music history would unfold, says Zhulla. “But he set the ground rules about the philosophy of the JSQ in terms of the relationship of new music to established masters. And that’s something that really has been part of the quartet’s history and philosophy ever since.”
JSQ on Record
The Juilliard String Quartet’s vast legacy of recordings has been an indispensable pillar supporting the ensemble’s longstanding reputation of rigorous engagement with the classics and advocacy for contemporary music. Their prolific discography allows for comparisons of different accounts of the repertoire as the personnel changed. In 2011, the JSQ was the first classical ensemble to receive a lifetime achievement award from National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.
Earlier this year, Sony Classical recently released a 16-CD box set from the fabled early years. These collect the JSQ’s recordings from 1949 to 1956 made for Columbia Epic in the label’s midtown Manhattan studio (many never-before reissued on CD). These include their landmark first Bartók and Schoenberg cycles and founding visionary William Schuman’s String Quartet No. 4. (When the JSQ gave the first-ever American performance of all six Bartók quartets at New York’s Town Hall in 1949, Dmitri Shostakovich was present in the audience.)
Sony Classical in 2019 also reissued the complete recordings made for RCA Victor during the JSQ’s brief interlude from Columbia (from 1957 to 1960). This includes a complete Beethoven cycle along with some fascinating accounts of Mozart and Haydn.
The JSQ won the first of their four Grammy Awards to date in 1966 for the complete Bartók quartets. This was followed by their Debussy/Ravel coupling (1972), a later Schoenberg set (1978), and their “mid-career” Beethoven late quartets (1985).
Their recordings of the Elliott Carter string quartets—including No. 5 in 2013 and a reissue of Nos. 1–4 in 2014—similarly allow for intriguing comparisons of the JSQ’s altered makeup, along with its steadfast advocacy of American composers.
Of recent vintage and especially recommended are Mario Davidovsky’s Fragments (String Quartet No. 6), released in 2018, and this year’s debut release featuring new member Areta Zhulla (Beethoven Op. 59, No. 2; Bartók No. 3; and Dvorák’s “American” Quartet).