Published by East End Press, Bridgehampton, NY

Part II – The Life Of The Juilliard String Quartet

In 1951, Robert Mann, about to be released from the army, met with William Schuman, President of the Juilliard School.

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.

We did have a problem. The quartet still needed a violist. Schuman laid out our terms and said we could take our time to find a violist. He said that he had convinced the Juilliard board to invest $10,000 in the idea of a string quartet. Each of us would get $2,500. We would have to prove ourselves and it wouldn’t be guaranteed that the quartet would be able to continue for a second year. He did say, “If everyone likes you, I will do my damnedest to make it work.” William Schuman also wanted us to be introduced to New York audiences and set our first concert for the fall. We would have a summer to prepare as a quartet.

We found our violist, Raphael Hillyer, through the recommendation of our mentor, Eugene Lehner. We spent the better part of two days rehearsing with Hillyer and he was terrific. I remember we played the Beethoven late quartet in C sharp minor, Opus 131. We agreed that Hillyer should be invited to complete our new ensemble and asked him to join the quartet. He responded eagerly but explained that he had a lot to consider and needed to consult with his family.

I am still amazed how, with all of his problems, he assented to become the fourth member of our group.

In the beginning, the members of Juilliard String Quartet didn’t really know each other that well. We knew each other as work colleagues but there was little intermingling friendship between the families outside of the musical experience. Ideally, a serious string quartet that commits to a successful survival must consist of four individuals who like and respect each other, not only as human beings, but also as instrumentalists and musical personalities. One might compare such a group to a formidable car with four passengers who are taking turns driving the vehicle, deciding where to go, how fast or how slow, etc.

After our initial rehearsing, I am sorry to confess, the Juilliard four discovered a disastrous number of weaknesses and differences. I knew Winograd and his very intelligent and contemptuous personality. I knew Koff and his acerbic wit a little because we had played together. But I had never really gotten to know Hillyer. After two days of rehearsal, Hillyer appeared on the third day without a greeting. Through the day his silence grew louder and more uncomfortable and lasted as we rehearsed into the night. The other three members conversed about musical ideas, details and suggestions. Somebody would make a suggestion and Hillyer would breathe harder but wouldn’t say a word in response. His silence was sensational. He left looking very angry. We didn’t know what to do. The three of us were upset and confused. We conferred and agreed that another day of this behavior would be the moment of crisis. We felt a great weight pressing us down into the ground and the new quartet facing failure. What’s wrong with this guy? He shouldn’t be in the quartet. We had made the wrong choice. We persisted because we were desperate. Sure enough, on the next day Hillyer took his place and played, as before, but without speaking. 

Early the following day, we met, unpacked our instruments, sat down, and I prepared to make our agreed-upon message of ending our relationship. Before I spoke one word, Hillyer, with no word of apology or explanation, began to speak to us calmly and objectively regarding our future plans and musical concerns. We somehow sensed relief and began to work together as if nothing bad had occurred. Mostly our violist seemed quite reasonable but I was painfully aware that while he addressed Koff and me, he continued to ignore Arthur Winograd. Somehow this state of affairs would continue even as the group began to establish our firm reputation and career. It turned out that Hillyer hated Winograd. Hillyer was dark and brooding. Winograd was arrogant and brilliant. They were both great wits and had brilliant minds, but their personalities clashed. 

Now back to our first summer as a quartet. I was determined that the quartet should persevere. We were going to be presented as a quartet in the fall. Eugene Lehner, our mentor, and his family lived in Newton, Massachusetts, but in the summer they went with the Boston Symphony to Tanglewood. His Newton home was empty and available and we were able to stay in the Lehner home. This was convenient for rehearsing as Hillyer’s own Massachusetts home was near Harvard across from the Charles River. He would come to Lehner’s and we would rehearse morning, afternoon, and evening. We chose some repertoire and the rehearsals began, tentative and exploratory. Each of us brought his own past chamber music experience into the daily work schedule of two and a half hours in the morning, two and a half hours in the afternoon, and as long as we could tolerate after dinner. My memory of that time was that the rehearsal schedule worked but wasn’t particularly joyful. All of us felt an abiding pressure to produce something over the next two months so that we could perform before our Juilliard School’s audience convincingly as a fine string quartet.

We learned Beethoven’s Opus 127, and the Third Bartók amongst other works. We asked the composer Irving Fine, Harold Shapiro, and a few friends of ours in Boston and Newton if we could play for them. This was our first performance. That summer the quartet also played two try-out concerts at Dartmouth, arranged by Hillyer and his parents. We played Beethoven’s Opus 59 No. 3 and Opus 127, and Ravel.

Our debut New York concert, arranged by William Schuman, was on October 11, 1946, in the little hall at Juilliard (located at that time on 122nd Street and Claremont Avenue where Manhattan School of Music is today). We opened with the Third Bartók Quartet, followed by a Walter Piston quartet and after intermission, Opus 127. Menuhin and Zoltán Kodály were in the audience. It turned out to be a successful concert and so began our incredible sojourn in Juilliard.

Even though they might not have liked each other, the members of the Budapest Quartet were civilized gentlemen. They would not get angry with each other in public or have fights in rehearsals. They would compromise. The Budapest had a marvelous solution. They divided the repertoire into four parts; each person had a quarter of the repertoire on which they had two votes and so therefore could break a tie if the group was evenly divided in their opinions.

It took the Juilliard String Quartet a long time to learn how to live as a string quartet. The deep arguments and unhappiness were part of the quartet life. I would come home after rehearsals and my wife, Lucy, would say, “What do you need this for?” And my reply would be, “The music is too great to give up.”

I always tell one story. We were at Juilliard studying Haydn’s D Major Quartet, Opus 20 No. 4, which starts with an octave unison melody. The question was, where were the phrases, the pulses? We had four different points of view. I was the one who got very angry first, because we were not agreeing, and picked up my stand and threw it behind me on the floor. The next thing I knew, there was a stand coming at me from Winograd. Throughout the early days, we had many arguments of a vociferous and horrible nature. 

Another serious quartet argument had to do with repertoire. Through William Schuman’s intercession with Koussevitsky, we were given our first concert at Tanglewood during the summer of 1947. We were told to play a program of American composers, including a work by William Schuman, who at that time had written three quartets. We wanted to play some Copland, who had only composed two different movements for a string quartet. We also programmed a Walter Piston quartet, and for our final work we had a huge disagreement. Hillyer and I loved Roger Sessions’ quartet. Winograd and Koff hated it. A terrible fight ensued over whether or not to play it. There were strong personalities that clashed, but in the end what is important is that we worked it out (and we did play it). 

Our Town Hall debut was in December of 1947. During our first year as a quartet we played almost every American composer. During our second summer, we had convinced the people at Tanglewood, Koussevitsky mainly, to let us come teach and play a number of concerts. We would play the Viennese composers—Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and we would also play Beethoven. We opened our first concert playing Opus 130 and the “Grosse Fugue.” We got the most horrible review that anyone ever got from a guy who wrote for the Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield. He said that we didn’t understand the first movement and played it too fast. The “Cavatina” was beyond us. He paraphrased Winston Churchill and said, “The Grosse Fugue never had so much sweat and muscle expended for so little result.”

At Tanglewood we learned the six Bartók Quartets. This was publicity-worthy for us because all of the magazines picked it up and talked about our young quartet. It shocked all of the elders because the articles said that we played old music with vivacity and verve as if it had just been written! So despite the Berkshire Eagle review, we had success at Tanglewood. In 1949, we played all the Bartók quartets in two concerts at Times Hall in New York City, something no one had ever done in America, and only one other quartet had done in Europe. According to the New York Times review by Olin Downes, so many people wanted to attend that “the stage was crowded to the last seat and the listeners eddied about the quartet which had just enough elbow room, and no more, for its performance.” There was not a seat in the house and there were mounted policemen to control the crowds! Shostakovich, who was visiting New York at the time, actually came to that concert and told us he liked it very much. Our reputation for playing contemporary music was firmly established. Playing this music wasn’t a duty for us; we wanted to do it.

Tempi and contemporary music

One of the hallmarks of the Juilliard String Quartet was its reputation for playing fast tempi. Especially in the Beethoven string quartets. If you know your musical history, however, we were just following Beethoven’s wishes.

It was actually Rudolph Kolisch (1896-1978), the violinist, whose 1943 article “Tempo and Character in Beethoven’s Music” was responsible for the promulgation of the Beethoven metronome markings. Now this is something that’s quite historic because there have been many fights raging about these marks. 

Before Beethoven wrote his late quartets he had a relationship with a man named Maelzel, the inventor of the metronome. It was a strange relationship because they were sometimes friendly, and sometimes they wouldn’t talk to each other. Maelzel was going to London and he invented something called the Orchestrion, a mechanical orchestra. Beethoven composed his Wellington Symphony, the Battle Symphony, for this instrument. Beethoven wanted to go to London with him but unfortunately it didn’t work out and they had a fight. Later, Beethoven began to write to friends saying, “How can we tell if we have simple Italian directions, how fast or how slow a piece goes?” An example that Beethoven wrote about is that if you have a piece marked andantino, how do we know whether it’s faster or slower than andante? He also made reference a number of times to the fact that his music was played in such a way that it didn’t possess his character. In one famous letter that he wrote to a friend, he heard that his Ninth Symphony had received enormous success in Berlin at its premiere. He said, “The metronome markings will be sent to you very soon. Do wait for them. In our century such indications are certainly necessary. Moreover I have received letters from Berlin informing me that the first performance of the [Ninth] symphony was received with enthusiastic applause, which I ascribe largely to the metronome markings.” What he did was to add metronome marks to all his quartets up through Opus 95. He also metronomized all of the symphonies, the Ninth Symphony included, and some songs, and his metronome marks were printed. But nobody ever played them. I used to like the Budapest’s playing because they played this music a little faster. We all loved it.

Once, when we were practicing the allegretto from Beethoven’s string quartet Opus 59, No. 2, studying with Lehner, he asked, “Why do you play it so slow?” We answered, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well you know what the metronome mark is—a 69 to the whole measure (dotted half note).” We tried it and we couldn’t believe our ears. That was crazy, nobody played it that fast. He said, “What does Beethoven ask you to do?” So we looked and in Italian, Beethoven had written, “Play the first part with repeats. Then, play the second, the trio through, and then play the first part again, senza repetizioni (without repeat) and then play the trio a second time. Then come back and play for a final third time, the first part.” Nobody ever played it this way. Everybody only played the trio once. The one thing that convinced us that there was something to it was that in the faster tempo, you were propelled to play the trio a second time. In other words, the timing of the whole piece assumed a different time structure. So we became convinced that there was something to Beethoven’s metronome marks. You have to understand, to play fast you have to develop a new kind of technique. Over the years we did this.

In 1946, the Budapest was the reigning quartet. As I mentioned, they played fabulously, beautifully. They played always in tune, and their ensemble was always perfect. However, they did not play much contemporary music and basically performed Haydn, Mozart, Schubert, and Beethoven. When the Juilliard String Quartet started to play concerts there were not many American quartets earning their living from playing concerts. At this time, the chamber music concerts in America were being given by almost all of the European quartets who were brought here to perform. On these tours, no quartet came without playing between thirty and fifty concerts. They traveled by train in those days. Tickets to the concerts were affordable and the concert halls for string quartet concerts were mostly filled. One of the problems was that musical organizations paid minimal salaries for a string quartet. We would play concerts for $150. We would hope for $500, but we were playing wherever we were paid. 

In our beginning days, the Juilliard String Quartet couldn’t get jobs. The first year we had about a dozen concerts given to us from friends we knew. We also received commissions from friends who wanted their works played. In those early days, we were able to book concerts because we played contemporary music. Our manager would try to get us a job in, say, St. Louis, and say that we would like to play quartets by Haydn, Beethoven or Brahms, and the reply would be “No, we already have the Budapest or the Pro Arte quartet playing those pieces. We will only take the American quartet, the Juilliard String Quartet, if they play Bartók or another interesting piece that we don’t know.” If they had a commission or needed to have a contemporary work played, then we got called. When we played these concerts, we always sneaked in a Haydn or Beethoven quartet. Also, Claus Adam, the Juilliard String Quartet cellist between 1955-74, and I were both composers and we were open to the new expressions and techniques of contemporary music that were not part of the existing repertoire. Of course there were those pieces that we played once and then said, we don’t ever want to play that piece again. But then there were the exceptions, such as Elliott Carter or Schoenberg. Each performance brought more and more fulfillment until we felt these pieces were as exciting and meaningful to play as Beethoven.

You have to understand, the Juilliard String Quartet had its own personality and its own involvement in the music we played. It received a lot of critical response, not only from the audiences but also from the music critics. Chamber music was considered by cultured people who loved it as the most beautiful and nonaggressive experience that you could have. You could come to a concert and on par with looking at a great painting you could contemplate the sounds of a Mozart, Haydn or Beethoven quartet. And then came along those damn Juilliards who were digging in and playing strong accents. We were much more aggressive in terms of drama. We wanted to play a calm phrase beautifully, and we did. We also felt, however, that Beethoven, for instance, was this absolutely dramatic, aggressive person who wasn’t compromising his expression and so we played in a way that almost none of the great quartets played. A lot of the music we chose to play demanded that its power be uncompromising and not necessarily beautiful. So the critics didn’t understand what we were doing.

We felt that you must have beauty, but you must also have dramatic strength. Strength is not beautiful. It is something else. We never avoided that dramatic strength and for that in the beginning, we were criticized. In the early days we were asked not to play Beethoven because we played it so aggressively. The most dramatic instance was in Amsterdam where for the first time we got boos as we left the stage. At later concerts, the Amsterdam audiences gave us standing ovations. I believe this change occurred because people began to realize that music is not just beautiful. It is also an arousing, meaningful expression that says many things. 

Playing in a string quartet

You cannot be an outstanding chamber music player unless you hear all of the sounds and integrate them into your brain as one. You cannot be a person who just plays and hears your own sound more than the others. This requires years of experience. A quartet brings together four people who listen to each other’s sounds and agree that they are amenable. As you start rehearsing, different personalities begin to open up and appear in the process of the rehearsal. One person may like almost all of the music played faster. Another person might genuinely like it slower. Now the differences may not be enormous, but they can be enough that you won’t agree about the interpretation if you are stubborn. However, you always have to make compromises. You can’t play only the way that you want. 

The simplest way to explain differences in interpretations is to use as an example a Haydn quartet that begins piquantly and jovially. A quartet member says it should be played faster because in Haydn’s day, the music was played faster than it is today. Another member prefers it slower. We now have a difference of opinion and we are playing the Haydn in concerts. What do we do? We compromise. The first night, we play it fast, as one member of the quartet suggested. The second night, we play it slower, the way the other person wanted it.

There are not only big decisions such as a tempo character, or how fast or slow you play, but also maybe the phrasing. One member wants to emphasize a harmony and another likes the rhythm to be a little different. Compromise means that there are different ways to look at decisions in musical interpretation. This is the most difficult thing for someone entering the quartet profession to learn how to deal with.

Another challenge is to concentrate on the music throughout the whole piece. At first I could think about a moment and then my mind would wander. I would think about the audience while I was playing, about the heat of the room, about the acoustics, and so on. It took me years before I could really concentrate on every note through a movement without interruption. That’s inner concentration.

Also, one of the things that I’ve always contended is that notes do not exist in isolation and that all quartet members need to play each note in relation to the way the preceding note has been played. This means you will play the second note different every time because the first note is never played the same. This connection between notes needs to be true through a whole movement. 

Each time a new quartet member joins the group, dynamics change. I remember I had a meeting with Hillyer in 1955 and I said, “Now look, we have a chance to play with a wonderful, collegial new cellist, Claus Adam.” We thought that once Arthur Winograd left the quartet that Hillyer would be happy. Claus had previously been the cellist of the New Music Quartet in New Haven, with Walter Trampler, the violist. At the time we asked Claus to join us, he said that he didn’t think he was ready to join another quartet. But then he finally decided that he wanted to. Hillyer, who was very fastidious in his playing, hadn’t been happy with Arthur Winograd, but unfortunately, he also took a dislike to Claus. 

One of Hillyer’s problems with Claus, who was a magnificent cellist in his own way, was that he was not a natural cellist because he started studying so late. Claus wasn’t always secure in the higher thumb position on the cello. Hillyer could be very insensitive, not because he was a bad person but because he was so uncomfortable with himself.

I was living on LaSalle Street and it was in September at the start of a new season. I got a call from Hillyer saying that he and Isidore (Izzy) Cohen, who had replaced Koff in 1958 as the Juilliard’s second violinist, wanted to talk to me. They told me, “We can’t stand playing with Claus Adam. We want another new cellist.” I told them, as long as I was in the Juilliard String Quartet nobody was going to be kicked out. Of course, later on we would ask Izzy Cohen to leave the quartet, but at this point I resisted Hillyer’s desire.

Later, when the Juilliard String Quartet was composed of myself, Claus Adam, Samuel Rhodes and Earl Carlyss, Claus said to us, “Look, it’s been an absolutely wonderful experience to be part of the Juilliard Quartet. We have had a lot of successes and it’s been a very important part of my life. Now I’m getting pretty old and I’m composing more and I want to do more teaching. I don’t want to travel so much anymore.” So we started looking for another cellist and Claus continued to teach cello at Juilliard.

When we wanted a new member for the quartet we didn’t advertise. Each of us would provide a potential list of candidates and we would talk to a few friends to see whom they might recommend. That’s how we heard about Joel Krosnick. He had been the cellist of the Iowa Quartet.

The only reason we ever had a problem with Eugene Lehner was that he thought when a new person joined the quartet they should not get the same salary as the older members because they hadn’t earned it yet. Our point of view was, if the new person was good enough to be in our quartet and play at the level that we did, he deserved the same salary as the rest of us. 

At the time that Claus was leaving the quartet and Joel Krosnick was joining as our new cellist, Bob Freeman, who headed Eastman, tried to entice the quartet to move from Juilliard to Eastman. Earl, Sammy and myself met with Bob without Joel. He offered us a million dollars and jobs for all our wives. But we knew we would have to change our name, and I wasn’t about to do that. We didn’t take the offer and Joel joined the Juilliard String Quartet.

With this new Juilliard String Quartet (1974) of myself, Earl Carlyss, Samuel Rhodes, and Joel Krosnick—three of the members were young enough to be my sons. I had not even thought about the fact that Claus and I had balanced out the younger members of the quartet. And now, I was the old fellow with strong ideas and three young guys. It wasn’t that I didn’t accept or open myself up to other people’s opinions. But when I felt strongly, I felt very strongly. 

I also was a little like Claus. I was never as secure as most of the other members of the quartet. In the early days, I had a lot of trouble playing truly in tune. And throughout my professional life some people thought that I was a superb player, and others felt that I played a little out of tune, or that I had a stiff bow arm, and so on. But basically, people responded very well to my playing.

However, with this new young Juilliard String Quartet, we were learning the repertoire over again. Most people would say to me, “How can you stand it? Here you are with another change in the quartet and you have to learn all of the Beethoven quartets over again. Aren’t you tired?” My answer was, “My God, are you kidding? This is a chance for us to begin to explore the piece with a fresh ear, a fresh mind, and a fresh point of view.” The reality, however, was hard at first.

We had to learn a lot of new music and we were on our first tour with Joel Krosnick in the United States. We were in our hotel room in Denver, Colorado, under pressure to learn Beethoven’s Opus 135, practicing the slow movement. Sammy said, “You know, we have played this before in a particular way. Could we consider a different relation between the variations than the way we are playing it now?” 

What Sammy was suggesting wasn’t an assault on how I wanted the piece played, but it meant giving up my ideas about the slow movement. This was a moment in the music that I really loved. There weren’t many moments in music where I wasn’t flexible. But I was being very resistant in my fashion, which was one of my flaws.

All of a sudden, Earl, who was very religious and the son of a Lutheran minister, exploded. He said, “Bobby, if you don’t open yourself up to the things we are trying to find out, I can’t stay in this quartet.” He actually got up to leave. I said, “Come on, Earl, stay here.” So we had a big talk, and I realized that although these three young men were less experienced than I was in terms of playing in a quartet, they were as intelligent, or more intelligent, than I was. I had two paths that I could follow. One was to continue to be the kind of person I was with my strengths and weaknesses. This would result in either their or my leaving. Or, while I was not as young as they were, I could be as open and allow us to fully explore what they wanted in the music. Also, I could accept the fact that while I was the first violinist, I was only one participant out of four, with only one voice. 

I won’t say that I changed overnight, but I do believe that this struggle pushed my better instincts to take hold. I would say it took a few years before I could begin to look at a piece that I’d played, maybe fifty times, as if it were the first time. My quartet members bore with me, and I eventually became just as flexible and open as the rest of them. That wasn’t easy to do. Playing in a quartet is teamwork. Whether it’s a baseball team or a team of people doing research, everyone has to understand that certain people have strengths and weaknesses, and they are different from yours. The reason that a team is successful is because you know how best to reveal the strengths and hide the weaknesses. 

Earl eventually left the quartet because he and his wife Ann Schein took wonderful positions at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore. As much as he loved the quartet, he wanted to make more of a life with his family. He gave us a year’s notice so that we had plenty of time to search for a new second violinist. 

By now we had learned and recorded all of the Elliott Carter quartets. We wanted somebody who had enormous virtuosity and an ability to adapt and to play without fear. We were lucky to find Joel Smirnoff, who fit in marvelously. Smirnoff was very different from me. He was colorful and a radical. He’d given up violin for a while and attended the University of Chicago as a non-music major. During this period he studied dancing and played jazz violin. 

After we became established, the Juilliard String Quartet played between 100 and 150 concerts a year (that’s over 6,000 concerts during my fifty-one years in the Quartet). In retrospect, I can say that the first twenty-five years of the quartet life were pure hell. The next years were purgatory, but the last years were pure heaven.