NEW YORK — Robert Mann, the founding first violinist of the Juilliard String Quartet, the internationally renowned ensemble that at mid-century helped engender a chamber music revival throughout the United States, died Jan. 1 at his home in Manhattan. He was 97.
His death was announced by Debra Kinzler, associate director of the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, of which he was president from 1971 to 2015.
Conceived in 1946, the Juilliard Quartet gave its first official performance the next year. Besides Mr. Mann, the original roster included second violinist Robert Koff, violist Raphael Hillyer, and cellist Arthur Winograd.
Mr. Mann — for decades the quartet’s de facto spokesman, institutional memory, and “resident spark plug,” as The Chicago Tribune called him in 1997 — remained with the ensemble for 51 years. By the time he retired in 1997 he had outlasted the quartet’s entire original lineup, as well several subsequent permutations, to become one of the longest-serving members of any chamber group in the world.
From the beginning, the Juilliard Quartet was known for its probing musicality (the group once devoted two full rehearsals to a single measure from Elliott Carter’s Third String Quartet); hard-driving style, which for all its passionate intensity was considered refreshingly unsentimental; and deep commitment to contemporary music.
Mr. Mann was perennially singled out by critics for his impeccable technique and equally impeccable musical taste.
“Robert Mann,” Donal Henahan wrote in The New York Times in 1980, “has been largely responsible for the ensemble’s continuity of style and the maintenance of its stature in international chamber music circles.”
He had cheerfully forsaken a promising solo career for a life in chamber music and — because that life entails as much — diplomacy. It was a decidedly unexpected calling for a boy who had wanted only to be a forest ranger.
Robert Nathaniel Mann was born in Portland, Ore.,, on July 19, 1920, into what he later described as a “very poor” family. Both of his parents were immigrants: His father, Charles, a tailor, had come from England; his mother, Anna Schnitzer, from Poland.
At 18, the young Mr. Mann took up a scholarship at the Institute of Musical Art, a forerunner of the Juilliard School, in New York. The next year, he transferred to the Juilliard Graduate School (likewise a forebear of today’s Juilliard School). There, he studied composition with Stefan Wolpe and violin with Édouard Dethier, a passionate lover of chamber music.
In 1941, Mr. Mann won the violin competition of the Naumburg Foundation, which carried as its prize a debut recital at Town Hall in New York. As things fell out, the recital could scarcely have been booked for a more inopportune date: Dec. 9, 1941, two days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In 1946, after Army service, Mr. Mann joined the Juilliard faculty. By this time, he had resolved to abandon his solo career and devote himself to chamber music.
And so Mr. Mann began to dream of creating a resident quartet at Juilliard, American to its core, whose members would both perform and teach. Providentially, the composer William Schuman, who had become Juilliard’s president in 1945, was dreaming the same thing.
Schuman appointed Mr. Mann first violinist and deputized him to select the remaining players.
“He said, ‘Is yours going to be the best quartet in the world?’” Mr. Mann recalled on “CBS Sunday Morning” in 1996.
“I can’t guarantee that,” Mr. Mann said he replied, “but I can guarantee it will be one of the best.”