By Stephanie Powell
Violinist Robert Mann, a founding member of the Juilliard String Quartet, died on January 1. He was 97.
Mann began violin lessons at age nine, and went on to attend the Institute of Musical Art on scholarship at age 18. The following year, he transferred to the Juilliard Graduate School, where he studied composition with Stefan Wolpe and violin with Édouard Dethier.
In 1941, he won the Naumburg Foundation’s violin competition, and received a prize of a debut recital at Town Hall in New York. After the start of what seemed to be a promising solo career, Mann officially transitioned to focus on chamber music in 1946 with the founding of the Juilliard School’s resident quartet.
“I could not conceive of myself playing those old chestnuts and getting pleasure from them again and again,” he told the New York Times in 1981. “I had not been a wunderkind. I could not play Paganini before I could read Shakespeare and I wasn’t interested in developing a virtuoso technique. The virtuoso looks for two things: those vehicles that allow him or her to display absolute wizardry on the instrument, and capturing that psychology of communication that knocks an audience dead.”
The Juilliard Quartet gave its debut performance in 1947. The original lineup included Mann as first violinist, second violinist Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd. The quartet, which celebrated its 71st year in 2017 (with no original members), was known for popularizing the string-quartet repertoire in the United States at a time when most well-respected quartets existed overseas. The quartet’s original iteration was also known for exploring and programming new works.
“There is one significant development in the Juilliard Quartet’s history that I’d like to mention. It’s a good one and a serious one. In the early days, we used to play lots of new music; it was not unusual for us to learn between 10 and 15 new works in a year,” Mann told Strings’ contributor Edith Eisler in 1990. “But what did that really mean? It meant that we would learn them hurriedly, with all our resources at hand, of course, but still, rather superficially; perform them once or twice and then not play them again. Today, we play less; part of that is good, because there are many other groups who are playing music of this nature, too. We learn fewer works, but we learn them much more carefully and we program them as regular concert pieces, so that a difficult work gets not just one or two performances . . . . So we not only play it better, we learn it more deeply, and the world at large becomes much more aware of a fine work finely performed, and that is a definite improvement.”
After 51 years in the quartet, Mann retired in 1997. He also continued to teach at both the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. Students described his teaching as a thoughtful balance between directness and a touch of humor.
“The backdrop for this discussion is the fact that something significant has happened in the musical world vis-a-vis a century ago, when, you know, a little bit like religion and the concept of God and the universe, musicians used to feel they knew the right solution, or the right interpretation,” he told Strings in 1990, when asked how to advise a student string quartet full of members who each want to interpret a piece differently. “For example, Toscanini had his own way, and that could not be challenged by anybody. Today there is a more pluralistic concept of everything; whereas one musician might feel, ‘This is the only way I can play something,’ today, I think, one loves to feed off many ways of playing something. Just take even the business of early music: You’ve got people playing Haydn with modern instruments and modern concepts; with early instruments and early concepts, and people trying to bridge the gap or not bridge the gap. You have to accept many ideas.”