Published by East End Press, Bridgehampton, NY
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Part I – From Childhood to the Formation of The Juilliard String Quartet
Robert Mann died on January 1st of this year, at the age of 97. He was the founding first violinist of the Juilliard Quartet, in 1946, and played with it for 51 years. Mann was born in Portland, Oregon. His father was a tailor, who loved classical music, though he did not play an instrument. His mother learned to play the piano while working in a piano store, and also became a good singer. For a while, the family lived in Tillamook, a town near the Oregon coast. At the age of 9 Mann was told by his parents that he must learn to play an instrument, and he chose the violin.
Excerpts from Robert Mann’s memoir
… But my passion was fishing. I loved to go through the wetlands of Oregon because there was a lot of rain. Tillamook was bounded on each side by two very good fishing streams, the Trask River and the Tillamook River. I would take a pail of dirt and worms and very minor fishing equipment. I would fish during the day while my parents were working in their tailor shop and make sure that I was home before they got home. They would ask if I had practiced, and of course I was a good liar.
Tillamook is also where I discovered my love of nature. I caged a pet porcupine, slept on the ground in the wild, and listened to the whimpering night cries of mountain lions in the distance. I also loved hiking. The mountains on the coast of Oregon are not precipitous, but they are pretty high and remarkable. No coast could be more beautiful. I loved climbing cliffs. I took chances all the time.
One misty, wet afternoon, I clambered over a rocky cliff unsuspecting of the cave beneath. The view from the summit was obscured by the drizzling rain, but the percussive roar of mighty waves drew me down a most slippery descent. I succeeded because I was young and agile. I found a thin ledge, thirty feet above a violent, unending attack of powerful cascading waves. What a discovery! The waves that would hit this cliff were fantastic. They were mountains of waves. While the waves sprayed over me, they never threatened to dislodge me into the roaring water. There is something ego- fulfilling about being able to get along in the wilderness by yourself. I would perch on the ledge above and listen to the waves and their rhythm. I believe one of the reasons why I have such fantastic rhythm is because I was so fascinated by watching these waves. I would spend an entire day there when I wasn’t in school, sitting on the ledge by myself, just watching the waves.
Another fascination of mine was watching meteor showers. I would sleep outdoors and watch the meteors cross the sky. It was fascinating to see the variance of the large ones that didn’t go that far, and the little ones that went farther. What better environment to develop a keen ear, a sharp eye for alert response in future existing chamber music teamwork. Every round trip of the sun, every change of season added a new dimension to my unborn musical vocabulary. New variations constantly stirred my imagination with every furious storm. With all the senses brought to life in a very young body, I think Tillamook’s conservatory that I attended before the age of thirteen was the best.
My days in verdantly wet Tillamook were numbered as my father decided to return to Portland to try another trade, grocery merchant. I was twelve years old when he brought me to play for Eduard Hurlimann, the concertmaster of the Portland Symphony Orchestra. He was equally at home playing chamber music, leading the symphony violin section, or performing a concerto. Mr. Hurlimann had one of the most beautiful bow arms of any violinist that I’ve ever seen. When he played, it was as masterful as his handling of a fly fishing rod. He knew all about wild mushrooms and was a good fisherman who loved fishing as much as I did. That caught me and I was lucky that he accepted me as his pupil.
Mr. Hurlimann said to my father, “You know, Mr. Mann, your kid is no wunderkind. He will not be a great soloist, but if he works hard and practices, I’m almost certain that he can make his living with music. I will take him as a student but you must promise that only Robert will come to his lessons from now on.”
He agreed to teach me on scholarship, and, when I was fifteen, introduced me to Bach’s solo works, including the partitas and sonatas. You might say that these are the Bible for violinists. Everyone from the great violinist Joseph Joachim on up through the years has studied them. I would come to my lesson not having practiced more than about fifteen minutes a day. I couldn’t fake anything with him. If I hadn’t practiced, he’d get very severe and would listen for about five minutes. Then he would say, “Okay, Bobby, I don’t want you to waste my time. Go home and when you’ve practiced enough, call me and I will give you a lesson.”
I was learning the Bach C Major sonata, which is a difficult one. The slow movement, the Largo, has a very beautiful and simple melody. This three minutes of music has remained a musical touchstone throughout my life. One day, I arrived around 1pm for my lesson. Hurlimann was intrigued with how I was translating the sounds into phrasing and nuances so that listeners could enjoy them, without knowing what the variation and differences were. He cancelled all of his lessons that came after mine. We spent the whole afternoon working on the third movement. He played it. He had me play it. We broke it down and studied every note, harmony, and phrase. From the opening double-stop sound (of melody and bass line) continuing the music’s course until it cadentially came to rest with its three-note broken chord, there wasn’t a nuance of phrase, any evolvement of harmony, any structural arc that he didn’t gift to me with profound love for Bach, the violin, and me. I honestly felt that I was born musically on this day. I began to think music was very interesting and started to practice more. This was the day I gave up my dream to be a forest ranger in a national park and became a musician.
I wasn’t aware that when I played, people liked the emotional message. They would tell me, “That was wonderful.” They seemed to recognize something I was totally unaware of. I wouldn’t know why. I really didn’t. I was always struggling to play better. But I was aware that music not only intrigued me, it meant something deep to me.
There were two realities for my wanting to be a chamber musician. Musicians such as Yehudi Menuhin, Isaac Stern, and Ruggiero Ricci would come and play concerts in Portland. I knew, and Mr. Hurlimann knew, that I was never going to be a great solo violinist. I didn’t have the chops to play, to control the instrument in that way. I also didn’t have the desire.
But in Portland, Howard Trugman, the manager of the symphony, loved to have kids come to his apartment and play. I had a group and we read at least once a week all of the chamber music that we could get our hands. It seemed to me, since I was quite good at reading classical chamber music, that I could be a chamber musician.
When it became time for me to study elsewhere, Mr. Hurlimann, who was a very bright man, said that I had to go and study in a very sophisticated city where music was more meaningful than in Portland. At this time, for serious young string players, there were two outstanding schools to go to for study, the Curtis Institute in Philadelphia and the Juilliard Graduate School in New York. Both were free at the time. At age eighteen, I sent my application to the Juilliard Graduate School and was accepted into the Institute of Musical Art (which later merged with the Juilliard Graduate School to become the Juilliard School of Music.) I can’t tell you why I chose New York over Curtis. I think I thought I wasn’t that good, and that it would be easier to get into Juilliard than Curtis.
But I was a lousy student. I was discovering New York and didn’t practice much that first year. At Carol Glenn’s house, where I was living, there was a jazz fellow who was learning classical harmonization, and we used to go to his room and sit around. We would listen to a radio show called Lights Out. At around three o’clock in the morning we would go down to Blenheim’s cafeteria and have what we called the one-eyed Egyptian sandwich, which was an egg fried in the middle of a white piece of bread.
It was a terrible year for developing my violin playing but a wonderful year of growing up and, unfortunately, getting an ulcer. One man, Conrad Held, who was on the Institute faculty and taught violin and viola, wrote in his notes on my end-of-the-year jury, “Never in my whole life experience have I ever seen such a talented well-prepared young man deteriorate so much in the space of one year.” I never forgot that. And, I did manage to pull it together, practice a bit, and graduate from the Institute of Musical Art that year.
After graduating, I didn’t want to go home to Portland. I learned about an interesting spot near Tanglewood named South Mountain, which was the estate owned by Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge. There she had sponsored and commissioned the Webern string trio, the Third String Quartet by Schoenberg, and other pieces. Maestro Willeke, the conductor of the Institute of Musical Art’s orchestra, was there; he invited faculty and students for a festival of studying and playing chamber music at South Mountain. Since they needed a violist and I was willing, I was in demand again. I ended up spending that summer at South Mountain, practicing and trying to improve my technique before taking the exam to enter the Juilliard Graduate School. I got into the Juilliard Graduate School, but I was still more interested in chamber music than I was in solo violin. I must have been involved in at least four chamber music groups at that time.
Chamber music started in the 1700s or even before. In the 1700s, 1800s and into the 20th century, playing chamber music was not considered a profession. Playing chamber music was a way that musicians enjoyed each other. They got together, even the greatest violinists, to play an evening of quartets. That was the way everyone experienced chamber music.
In the early 1900s, concert venues were becoming more important and a few quartets began to appear and have big careers. The first one in the 1900s was the Flonzaley Quartet. The quartet’s first violinist, Adolfo Betti, came to the Mannes School in the 1940s and taught chamber music. In one of his groups he needed a violist and I killed myself to get into it. I took lessons with this great musician. The Flonzaley Quartet you could say was the first quartet that traveled the world playing concerts and earning a living as a chamber music group.
The Naumburg Competition
The Naumburg Competition, named after Walter Naumburg, an amateur cellist and chamber music player, was a competition for soloists. It gave the winner a concert debut in Town Hall in New York City, completely free. Mr. Detheir (my teacher) said, “You know you’re not good enough to win the Naumburg but it would be a good experience for you to try out.”
I practiced all the requirements but didn’t take it seriously. If I had, I would have dropped out. When the time came time for the Naumburg Competition, I only knew the first movement of the Prokofiev second concerto by memory. The judges wanted to hear everything you played. If they were nice in the beginning, they would ask, "What would you like to start with?” Luckily this happened, and I said very politely, the first movement of the Prokofiev concerto and I played it. I was hoping that the judges would immediately go to another piece because they wanted to hear me play Bach and so on. It worked, and I didn’t have to play the last movement. I got into the semi-finals, which were held a week later. I killed myself and memorized the Prokofiev concerto so I could get through the slow movement. It was the last movement that was a problem for me. It’s a rondo and very brutal and I wasn’t confident playing it.
Also making the semi-final round were six other violinists—all girls. The semi-final round also had a different jury. They asked me, “What would I like to start with?” I said, “The first movement of the Prokofiev concerto,” and that was fine. All of a sudden a member of the jury said, “You know, I’d like to hear the last movement of the Prokofiev.” I turned to my pianist, who had gone on tours with Paul Robeson and William Primrose and had a funny sense of humor. I turned to him and asked, “What do I do now?” He said, “You have two options. You can say you don’t know it and they kick you out. Or, you can start playing and stop when you have to.” God’s truth, I went through and as I reached the end of the part I knew, the judges said, “Thank you,” I just couldn’t believe it. Next the jury wanted to hear the Chausson Poeme. I made it to the final round.
The final round took place at Town Hall, a performance hall in midtown Manhattan. At the finals, a lady juror who I learned later was one of the great lieder singers of the day who was famous for her singing of Debussy, asked, “You have this Nardini sonata on your program. What is that?” I explained that Nardini was an Italian Baroque composer from the eighteenth century. She asked me to play the larghetto movement, the slow movement of the sonata. The one thing I could do well was to communicate warmth in my phrasing, the reason anyone listened to this kind of music. The lady juror later told me that they recognized the other violinists had better technique and were much better, but no one communicated the slow movement the way I did with the Nardini larghetto. Two winners were chosen in the 1941 competition – Willy Kapell and me. Playing that movement was the reason I won the Naumburg competition.
The War Years
I had my two draft numbers and the Portland number was high enough that I was sure that I wouldn’t be called that year. But Eventually I was drafted into Fort Lewis in Washington and sent to Camp Crowder in western Missouri, near Joplin. We were told to bring only a toothbrush and an extra pair of underpants. All else—verboten! “Dare I? Yes, damn it.” Covering my Tillamook “Strad” and bow inside a canvas bag, I concealed it during the train ride and barracks assignment.
Avoiding prying master sergeant eyes, I covertly shoved the fiddle under my bunk. Standing in line at attention, reality interrupted. The loudspeakers in Fort Lewis spoke loudly: “Private Robert Mann, Private Robert Mann—report on the double to Barracks C 102.” I dropped out of line and ran. Breathless I entered C 102. At the end of the room, three soldiers were lounging on a chair and a bed. A corporal held a guitar under his arm. A master sergeant barked, “You the creep with the fiddle under your bunk in A 105?” I thought that they were going to confiscate my fiddle. He threatened, “Go get it now on the double.”
Miserably crushed, I ran, I got it, and I returned. The guys hadn’t moved. The guitar corporal said, “You play?” I nodded. “All right,” he continued, “You know that there ‘bumblebee’ piece?” What the hell was going on? Truth was, without knowing why, before induction, I had practiced the Bach “Chaconne," “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” the popular movie theme from "Intermezzo" and (jackpot!) “Flight of the Bumblebee,” by Rimsky-Korsakov.
The corporal added some information for his buddies. “The world record for this piece is one minute and fifty-three seconds, held by an accordion player.” He turned to me, “You think you can beat that?” I shrugged. “We’re going to time you!” The master sergeant took out his watch. “Get set! Go!” I hadn’t even tuned up and of course had no accompaniment. I scrambled down the opening chromatic runs as fast as cold fingers could move. The seconds ticked by and then I approached eight bars of music that must repeat. Excuse me God, I cheated and I didn’t repeat. That helped save my skin. Having shaved off five seconds, I desperately headed into the final notes and ended on a pizzicato chord. The drab room sensed the tension (mine) and silence (theirs). “Waddayou know, fellas,” the master sergeant chuckled. “This creep is only one second behind the world record. We can’t put him on kitchen police.” “Naw, you can’t do that,” echoed the corporal. “So we’re not going to send you to the artillery in Missouri or whatever.” “Let’s send him over to the officer’s mess. He can play for them while they eat.” So you see, I got to keep my Tillamook “Strad” and continued to play “that there ‘bumblebee’ piece.”
I had to go through basic training and I didn’t touch the violin for six weeks. Camp Crowder was in the Ozarks and on the one day that we had off, most of the guys would rush to Joplin to try and find girls. Instead, I would go outside of the camp and find little streams that had these wonderful vines hanging from the trees. I would practice like Tarzan, trying to cross the stream on one vine.
1946 - The Juilliard String Quartet Is Born
In the army we were given two-day passes about once a month. We lived for our passes. It provided us time so we could take a ferry boat over to New London, Connecticut, get on a train, and have a day or two playing chamber music with friends in New York City. I would stay with my friend from Portland days, Isadore Tinkleman, who became one of America’s finest violin teachers. We also used to congregate at the Larchmont home of Edgar Schenkman, who was a violinist and a conductor. We became very close. Schenkman was also a friend of William Schuman, a composer who became the head of Juilliard. In fact, when William Schuman came to direct the Juilliard School, Schenkman became the main conductor at Juilliard. Schenkman and his wife Marguerite played violin and viola, and I would get Arthur Winograd, my cellist friend, to come with me to read chamber music with my older friends.
One night after we played and were having fun eating and drinking, I mentioned to Edgar Schenkman, “You know, there used to be a Curtis String Quartet, and there was even a resident quartet at Oberlin. Don’t you think, now that Juilliard has William Schuman as a new president, that there should be a quartet at Juilliard?” Edgar, who was an absolutely wonderful and marvelous man, said with his severe but friendly wit, looking like he was the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland, “I happen to know that is one of the things William Schuman is interested in.” Hearing this news, Winograd, Bobby Koff, a violinist, and I started talking about this idea. Edgar told us, “I want you to write a letter to me. In this letter it has to say what role you think a resident quartet would play in the future of Juilliard. Send the letter to me and I’ll see that Schuman sees the letter.” So the three of us got together and wrote a letter. After Edgar received our letter, he got back to me and said, “You know, Mr. Schuman is a composer. In your letter, you didn’t stress enough about the importance of playing contemporary music. That is something you should think about.” Now it was getting near the time that I was getting discharged and all of a sudden Edgar told me that William Schuman wanted to have an interview with me.
We were dying because, while we had Arthur Winograd, the cellist, and the violinist Robert Koff, and myself, we didn’t have a violist. We were trying out every violist we knew to make a full quartet. I went to the interview with Schuman and confessed we were without a violist for the quartet, and I said that we would find one. Schuman was the most unusual combination of an absolutely marvelous free-wheeling imagination and a strict, formal, responsible mind that made him perfect to head Juilliard. He put me at ease because we immediately started to talk about Beethoven, chamber music, and contemporary music. He asked, “Well, what kind of a quartet would you like to have? Why should I hire you? Why shouldn’t I hire the Budapest Quartet? I’ve considered them for the job, but they would cost a lot of money. I’m interested in having a young quartet that really has potential.” The Budapest was a great, great quartet; however, they never played contemporary music. They didn’t like it. They only played the music of Haydn and Brahms and maybe Ravel. Schuman was a composer himself and he wanted a quartet that would play not only his music, but music written by composers such as Aaron Copland, Wallingford Riegger, some of Schoenberg’s quartets, and the music of other important contemporary European and American composers.
I said to William Schuman, “Look, when we find our violist, all of us are interested. I’m a composer, and we want to play music just written. Our goal is to play new music as if it had been composed long ago, and to play a classical piece written hundreds of years ago as if it had just been written.” At the time people listened to string quartets as if they were in church. We were not going to play that way and felt the music was alive and living in today’s atmosphere. It wasn’t that we were against traditional playing, or how the music sounded when it was written. We just wanted to make it as alive and meaningful in our time as it was back then.
I learned years later when Schuman and I became good friends that it was that thought that convinced him to hire us, a young quartet with a fresh point of view.
End of Part I.
Part II – Life in the Juilliard String Quartet, to Follow