America loses a string quartet master, aged 97

America loses a string quartet master, aged 97


norman lebrecht

January 03, 2018

The violinist Robert Mann, founder of the Juilliard String Quartet in 1946 (with Robert Koff, Raphael Hillyer and Arthur Winograd) and its first violin until his retirement in 1997, died on New Year’s Day.

The quartet gave 6,000 recitals, made many recordings and premiered 100 new works. Mann, who hailed from Portland, Oregon, also had an independent recording career. Among other milestones, he recorded the Bartok solo sonata, as well as the complete Beethoven violin-piano sonatas with the British pianist Stephen Hough.

Above all else, Mann was a teacher at Juilliard and a mentor to innumerable new quartets, including the Alexander, Emerson, Concord, New World, Mendelssohn and St Lawrence.

Stephen Hough tweets:  ‘I learned as much from him as from anyone else in my life. I saw him last month: he was unable to speak, barely able to move, but gave me a smile which I’ll never forget.’


  • Steven Honigberg says:

    Fantastic intensity even in the short film here at his advanced age. He was a huge presence in every room he walked into. One of a kind.

  • Dan P. says:

    What a legacy that the Juilliard Quartet left us! The first set of Schoenberg Quartets (with the original members) has never been equaled in my opinion, and the second set of Bartok Quartets (with Claus Adam, cello) are their equal.

    I still remember the day in high school, when I skipped school to go into town to get the Bartok records which I finally had enough money to buy. Starting next year at Juilliard, I saw them walk into the Juilliard cafeteria after rehearsals for lunch much more than I had had a chance to hear them live. But that first year at Juilliard, I was asked to turn pages for Rudolf Firkusny at the quartet’s 25th anniversary concert at Alice Tully Hall.

    The program was the Beethoven Eb Quartet Op. 127, the premiere (I believe) of Milton Babbitt’s 4th Quartet, and the Dvorak Piano Quintet. During the dress rehearsal, they asked me to go out in the audience and give my opinion of the balance. I couldn’t believe they were asking me. So I went out, gave them my opinion, and they ACTUALLY acted on what I had said. They were not happy about how the Babbitt went as they grumbled off stage – but I don’t know what happened. The funniest event of the evening, however, happened as I was walking on stage for the Dvorak. I was to Firkusny’s left when he turned to me as matter of factly as possible telling me that by the way, they had changed which repeats they were going to take in the scherzo. He saw me go blank as I started to panic. Then came the “Just kidding.” He sat down at the piano, they played, and the performance that night was as smooth as you possibly imagine.

    • Steve P says:

      Great recollections. Thank you for sharing your memories! I, too, love their Schoenberg recordings (lean towards the LaSalle, but probably just for nostalgia since that’s the first version I heard).

  • Amos says:

    They made a superb recording of the Brahms F minor quintet with Leon Fleisher that I’ve owned on lp, cassette and CD!!

  • Ricardo says:

    I saw the Juilliard Quartet on Spanish television and heard them on the radio several times when I was a kid. On TV they were playing some late Beethoven, which I did not understand at the time, but they made a deep impression on me, particularly Robert Mann, with his intense presence and concentration. Rest in peace!

  • Marc says:

    Fun anecdote: Back in my UCLA ushering days in the early 70s, the Juilliard played the Beethoven Cycle, and offered students an intimate lecture-demo in Schoenberg Hall’s Green Room. Of course, I sneaked in. It was gawd-awful early on a Saturday, but all the guys came ready to play, especially Rhodes. One student asked how the group chose tempos and Bobby (everyone called him that) said, “It’s pretty much all right there in the music. Let’s demonstrate.” He turns to his colleagues and instructs them to play the piece on their stands at a much, much slower pace — which they did.” When they finished, he said, “Actually, that wasn’t too bad.” We all laughed our heads off — but it showed me how, even after decades playing this music, his mind was still open to experimenting and discovering new interpretations. Truly a one-of-a-kind.

  • Scott says:

    Mann was the best string quartet player I ever heard. He will be missed.

  • Dan P. says:

    I should also add – and maybe not many people are aware of this – that in his 30s, Robert Mann made recordings of Bartok’s two violin sonatas, the solo sonata, and Contrasts for Clarinet, Violin, and Piano, with Leonid Hambro, piano and a VERY young Stanley Drucker. These were for Peter Bartok’s label, Bartok Records. The Contrasts are, I think, one of the best made. It’s pretty amazing. And, all the performances have the same characteristics as the quartet – players for whom these there were no technical challenges and they dig deep into the music with as much elegant ferocity as you’d want. If anyone wants to find them, just Google “Bartok Records” and you’ll find their site. (I checked YouTube and they are not there.)