Growing up as a nature-loving child in Portland, Oregon, Robert Mann wanted to be a forest ranger, but it was violin lessons—and his parents’ encouragement—that ultimately launched him on a remarkable journey that would span a lifetime and five continents as he pursued his passion for classical music as a violinist, composer, conductor, and teacher. In this fascinating and far-ranging memoir, he looks back at the struggles and triumphs of that journey, as well as the unique insights and experiences he’s gained along the way.
From their beginnings in 1947, the Juilliard String Quartet set out to play new music as if it had been composed long ago, and to play a classical piece as if it had just been written. At first, the fledging combo struggled to compete with the more established European string quartets, while also coping with the inevitable difficulties of trying to blend four singular personalities and talents into a harmonious whole, but by the time Mann retired from the group some fifty-one years later, the Julliard String Quartet had played close to six thousand concerts on every continent except Africa and Antarctica and become an enduring, beloved institution in American music. They won three Grammys for their recordings, while sharing their distinctive sound with such notable figures as Glenn Gould, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, and even Albert Einstein.
A Passionate Journey is Robert Mann’s story, an engrossing glimpse into a life filled with musical milestones and into the fascinating mind of a musical giant.
It was 1961. I looked out my New York apartment window. The world outside was gray and wet. I felt lousy, depressed, coming home from a bad rehearsal. To all of you who have never been a member of a serious string quartet, I must confess that at this moment I was damn tired of the constant struggles. Struggles that four human beings playing two violins, a viola, and a violoncello must survive to keep such an ensemble alive. Always, you ask? Well, almost always.
There are exceptions, as in a rare, harmonious marriage. The inescapable reality of a string quartet life encompasses the unrelenting pressure of earning four separate livelihoods; the incessant clash between four personalities, each possessing a well-fortified, inflexible ego; the compelling desire to perform new music that demands a difficult learning process and, when played, will not be easily digestible to the listeners. The frustrating efforts to build a sound career, capture a loyal following, win critical acclaim while keeping abreast of the burgeoning competition in the string quartet field, accepting the sonorous audiences, of course over groups that will have nothing to do with a string quartet at all. Did I possess a tough enough spirit? Could I gather the inhuman patience required to survive?
On this gray, wet day in the sixteenth year of the Juilliard String Quartet’s existence, I was unsuccessfully trying to recover from the previous day’s explosive rehearsal. To be honest, this talented but flawed group of young musicians didn’t like each other, yet had to rehearse and perform in public as if we did. My wife Lucy’s words, “What the hell do you need this kind of life for?” raged like a brushfire through my brain. Perhaps she was right!
Then the telephone rang. Should I let it ring or answer it?
“Robert, this is Harold Spivacke.”
I perked up. Dr. Spivacke was head of the music division in the Library of Congress in Washington, D. C. On a few special occasions he had invited our quartet to play in his hall, the Elizabeth Sprague Coolidge Auditorium. We would play difficult modern pieces that the Budapest Quartet would not even touch.
“Hi, Dr. Spivacke, what’s on your mind?”
“Robert, please answer me, are you standing up or sitting down right now?” What a peculiar question, I thought.
“Well, young man, sit down, because I want to tell you something that requires sitting down to be heard and responded to.” Completely baffled and uneasy, I said, “Yes?”
“The Library of Congress has a strong commissioning program of young composers or outstanding composers of new works. The Budapest never plays these works. Can you guess what I have decided?”
“Come on, Dr. Spivacke, I haven’t the slightest idea.”
“Well, after a long, difficult, internal debate and a most guilty conscience, I am letting my dear friends, the Budapest String Quartet, go. I have to have a quartet in residence that will play these new works. I know that you guys will play them. I am asking you, the Juilliards, to replace them as the quartet in residence at the Library of Congress. What’s your answer?”
I was speechless. I was struck dumb. Any response at that precise moment to Dr. Spivacke’s words would have been inadequate to describe the raging storm of emotions battering my mental and physical consciousness.
Yes, there was an enormous wave of exhilaration that instantly swept away the pain of yesterday’s crises and all previous pains, but an equal backlash of trepidation numbed my senses. How could the young, much less experienced Juilliard Quartet replace one of the greatest quartets of all time, the Budapest, functioning in the most prestigious chamber music residency in the musical world? Even as these storm waves crashed and subsided, there still remained deep questionable currents flowing below the surface.
How could Robert Mann, at best an adequate violin player, lead his quartet as Mr. Roisman of the Budapest led his? Even now, so many years later, I still ask this question.
Holding the telephone in shock, I traveled instantly back in time to another dreary afternoon long ago in Portland, Oregon, listening to a static-impaired radio broadcast of a Library of Congress concert from the Coolidge Auditorium played by the Budapest String Quartet. Was it possible? Could my lifelong dream become a reality? The Juilliard String Quartet playing twenty-four concerts a season in one of the most perfect acoustical chamber music halls on the Library of Congress-owned Stradivarius instruments? Heaven on Earth. Dr. Spivacke was not a patient man.
“Robert, are you still on the line?” Would my vocal chords fail me now? “What’s your answer?”
“Why, Dr. Spivacke, yes, yes, yes, yes.”
My life in chamber music, no matter how difficult, challenging, or successful, has been the life for me.
May 14, 1961
Dearest Lisette, (& all),
I’m afraid that my last letter (May 12th) was the dullest of a rather dullish lot and besides, much too stuffy-grownupish. Remember the game we used to play, when we would name the animal we thought each of us was? Mommy was a Cheetah and I was a Buffalo. When it comes to letter writing that’s just what I am. Heavy, lumpy, brown-black and little not so bright.
Well, I’m going to shed my skin (and some weight after all these Siamese and Chinese feasts). Shall I be a tiger? They still roam around the jungles here and affluent (there I go again—that means wealthy (rich) and a bit more important) people in Siam like to receive tiger heads with silver plated mouths as gifts of esteem (respect). No. Obviously, I can’t be a tiger.
How about a monkey? When we went to visit the house of Mr. Thompson (he is the man who started the whole silk-making in Siam and his house is full of the most beautiful things)—we saw a spider monkey who is the pet of the house. He is bashful, but likes his friends. He will bite if you bother him and his cousins in the jungle will throw coconuts and mangoes at you and make an awful racket. No—I can’t be a monkey.
How about a goose? You know that people keep geese because they keep the snakes away (something about the smell and the dung of the geese that bothers the snakes). Or maybe a mongoose? They are marvelous. The are not geese at all and I remember a wonderful story about Riki-Tiki-Tavi, and the Indian mongoose who is a hero and saves a family from a bad cobra snake. A mongoose can jump backwards and he is so quick that when the snake strikes out from his coil he misses and then the mongoose grabs the snake’s head and breaks it in his teeth. I’d like to be a mongoose, but I don’t jump backwards well enough.
Should I be the snake? On no—then nobody would like me. Once a lady in Siam came home and sat down because she was very tired. She asked her servant if he would bring her some lunch. The servant said, “You come over in the dining room and I serve you.” She said, “No, I’m too tired, bring the food here.” He said, “No, you come, missy, dining room.” (That’s how some people speak English here.) She got mad and got up and said, “Oh, all right, but I don’t know what’s wrong with you today,” and then she walked toward the door, and quickly the servant took a gun out of his pocket and shot a Krite dead that was hanging on the lamp right where the lady had been sitting. (A Krite bite is worse than a Cobra and you are dead in a few minutes.) Well, aren’t you glad that the servant was so wise, because if he had said to the lady, “Missy, Krite, him ‘bove you, lamp” she probably would have screamed or jumped and surely then the Krite would have bitten her!
No—No—No—I won’t be a snake! Elephants are nice, but I’m not big enough. And Vultures that fly around in the sky looking for a dead animal to eat are too repulsive. I rather like the lizards on the walls. Even the bigger ones that make such strange noises at night, but I think I’d rather not be one (like the purple cow). And then there are frogs. We saw a frog in the corner where a wall touched the ceiling and the lady said that this frog has legs that stretch over a foot long when he jumps and he can jump from the floor all the way to the ceiling. And like our little chameleon lizard (remember) he can change his color.
But I don’t want to be him because if you touch him you get a rash which never, never comes off. And I don’t want to be a fish because then I’ll end up being eaten in a sweet and sour dish by some Chinese business man—and in pieces with chopsticks, too—ouch!
What shall I be? I’ll just have to wait and when I see you in Honolulu in June you will decide for me.
Do you know that the man who ran the concert in Bangkok, when he came to Siam for the first time, with his wife twenty-five years ago, they came from Burma and they had to cross the Siamese peninsula (water)—water on elephants!
And also I met a lovely young man who plays the violin and knows a great deal and is extremely intelligent. His home is in Pakistan and he has invited you and Nicholas and Mommy and me to visit with him in a mountain valley in the Himalayas (highest mountains in the world) where the tribe of people called the Hunzas live. (They are the healthiest people in the world and live very long. Many of them live over a hundred years.)
After Siam (Thailand) we flew south to Singapore that is an island off the Malay Peninsula (there goes that word again). Singapore is a big city and the island is a little country. But they would like to join the Federated United States. The states won’t let them because the Malay people there have a slight majority (more than) of the population (over the Chinese) and Singapore is mostly made up of Chinese people. The Malay States fought a terrible war to stop the Communists from ruling the land and they don’t want to upset the control they now have. Malaya is a remarkable place.
It is well governed, it is prosperous (natural rubber from rubber trees—they plant them and tap the sap and make rubber from it) tin (one third of the word gets its tin from Malaya) and many other things. It’s the only place on our whole trip where we can drink tap water, eat all the uncooked vegetables and eat butter, milk, etc. without being afraid to get dysentery.
There was quite a commotion in Kuala Lumpur, capital of the Malay States where we played.
The flagship of the 7th U.S. Navy fleet was near there and Sargent Shriver (President Kennedy’s brother-in-law) was also there setting up the Peace Corps (maybe you will join someday?)—where young people go to underdeveloped countries to work with the people. Admiral Griffen the Commander of the 7th fleet (which has a very important position in this dangerous area) came to the concert and we met him at the reception afterwards. What a rarity! He is a military man who loves chamber music. (Like Ambassador Brown in Laos who plays Mozart sonatas on the piano.) Say—how is your piano playing? Besides not writing me any sweet letters, I haven’t heard a thing about your piano lessons. Well—you can tell me in Honolulu. It certainly was fun to walk the streets of Kuala Lumpur. People in this part of the world speak the Malay language (one of the simplest in the whole world.) And the men wear white shirts and trousers with a beautiful colored shawl around their waist. The women wear the sarong skirt. We took a ride with a terrible driver out of town to the famous Batu Caves. There is a Buddhist Shrine inside, but you have to climb thousands of stairs to get to them. They are at the top of a limestone cliff and in the heat of this part of the world, it was very hot climbing up. Inside the cave it was cooler but very wet. Quiet, except for the squeaks of millions of bats. The roof and sides of the cave form scary, fantastic shapes and it is very, very tall inside.
It certainly is fun to be in the part of the world where the main tree is the tall palm tree. After Kuala Lumpur, we flew back to the city of Singapore to give our concert there. I finally got what I have always wanted and Lucy, too. A profound lava stone head of Buddha from a very famous area of Java (near Burobudur, the great monument of this part of the world.) It cost a lot of money and weighs at least 25 lbs, but it thrills me to look at it. Even Claus (who really does know something about this) likes it.
Mr. Goh (who put on the concert and is the main violin teacher in Singapore) had his two young wonder-violinists play for us—two brothers ages 11 and 17. They lived on the streets and had a crazy father, but they are being properly cared for now. You should hear them play. Wonderful! The Consul General gave us a party at his residence, and what a ‘palace’ that is! Whatever the difficulties of diplomatic life, the living is certainly paradise (mansions and servants). The Consul’s wife went shopping with us the next morning and all too soon our visit to Singapore and Malyasia was over. We flew back over Malaya (along the famous Malacca straits where seafarers have sailed since the beginning of human civilization) and saw hundreds of open tin mines which from the air look like small ponds of greenish water and sand pits surrounding them. Finally we stopped for 30 minutes at Penang (a little island off north Malaya) and then flew off across the straits to make our first stop in Sumatra, Indonesia at the city of Medan—and here begins a strange tale which I will relate in the next letter.
P.S. You see—I started out with fun and soon became sober-serious again. What a dull father you have!Read More