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Robert Mann, Fantasy for Orchestra

by Matthew Mugmon

Written for the concert Sounds of the American Century, which was performed on January 25, 2019 at Carnegie Hall.

Born July 19, 1920, in Portland, Oregon
Died January 1, 2018, in New York City
Composed in 1957
Premiered on February 23, 1957 at Carnegie Hall, with the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Performance Time: Approximately 13 minutes

A celebrated violinist who died last year at 97, Robert Mann was an outsize figure in the world of chamber music performance. He spent more than 50 years, from 1946 to 1997, as the renowned Juilliard String Quartet’s founding first violinist. By the time Mann’s Fantasy for Orchestra appeared on a New York Philharmonic program in 1957, he was a composer of some note. The Fantasy came about because Dimitri Mitropoulos, the orchestra’s music director, caught wind of some of Mann’s music and asked him for an orchestral work.

The New York Philharmonic never again performed the Fantasy after its premiere—or any of Mann’s other works, for that matter. Nor are commercial recordings available. But program notes for the premiere highlighted the straightforward multipartite structure of this single-movement work; it begins with “a slow introduction, in a somewhat reflective vein,” followed by a fast, bustling section, a return of the introduction’s sensibility, and, finally, “a brief allusion” at the work’s conclusion to the faster material.

Even if the Fantasy faded from view after its premiere, Mann’s stature as a musician in New York certainly lent weight to the event; Harold C. Schonberg, in his review in The New York Times, wrote that Mann “blossomed out as a composer” with the work, which was dedicated to the memory of the distinguished patron Alma Morgenthau (1887–1953). Although Schonberg found the Fantasy to be more of a technical than a “personal” expression, he praised Mann’s orchestration, linked its “rhythmic devices” to American compositional trends, and offered an (admittedly backhanded) compliment about its cinematic quality (“One could easily imagine it as the background music of a very expensive grade A film”). In calling it “an elaborate mood piece with, possibly, a hidden program,” Schonberg hinted at the work’s potential to move audiences with its stirring soundscapes, characterized by what the critic described as pervasive dissonance.

Matthew Mugmon is Assistant Professor of Musicology at the University of Arizona.