Robert Manno Home “...a composer of serious music of considerable depth and spiritual beauty”—Atlanta Audio Society
Fanfare Magazine, January/February 2001

MANNO 1.String Sextet 2.Three Poems 3.A Mountain Path 4.Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen 5.Fern Hill. Shirien Taylor, Kathryn Caswell (vn); Kevin Roy, Desirée Elsevier (va) 1; Samuel Magill (vc) 1,5; David Heiss (vc) 1,3; John Churchwell (pn) 2,3,4; Laura Hamilton (vn) 2, Karen Marx (vn) 2, Judith Yanchus (vn) 3,5; Raymond Gniewek (vn) 4,5; Nadine Asin (fl), Sean Osborn (cl), Sharon Meekins (eh), Joseph Anderer (fh) Ira Weller (va), Laurence Glazener (db) 5; Emily Pulley (sop) 4; Robert Maher (bar) 5; Robert Manno (cond) 5.


Robert Manno's day job is singing with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus. He trained as a singer, and has always made his livelihood in the field. It should not be surprising, therefore, that his instrumental compositions are shot through with powerful lyrical impulses. Manno's music, in whatever guise, always sings. This first CD of his music opens with a rhapsodic string sextet, anxious and spiky at first, but harmoniously resolved, in both a literal and an emotional way, in the dénouement. In structure and dramatic shape, the Sextet resembles Verklärkte Nacht of Arnold Schoenberg, both scored for two violins, two violas, and two cellos. It is a little surprising that Schoenberg is not listed as an influence, given Manno's apparent predilection for the lush, complex harmonies of the early Schoenberg masterpiece.

Actually, all of the music on this CD is harmony-driven, which is not to say that it lacks momentum; there is a sense of pulse and a narrative quality to all of this material. But the essential character of the music comes through in the vertical part of the score, more so than the horizontal dimension, and, again, it is easy to imagine the influence of Manno's choral work in this quality of his writing.

Three Poems is scored for two violins and piano, a combination designed to achieve a conversational quality, especially between the violins. The piece is similar in mood and conception to the trio A Mountain Path, with the second violin replaced by a cello. In both works, Manno generally uses the piano as a continuo, with a lot of strummed arpeggios, contrasting with the more lyrical and dramatic gestures for the strings. Manno certainly achieves a personal voice in these two works for three instruments, but I am reminded of the fairy-tale allusions to Czech music by Janácek and Martinu, as well as the structural simplicity of the American Minimalists, including Reich and Glass.

Manno's poetry settings are also successful, displaying an expansive, well-rounded sense of architecture and shape, a welcome relief to those contemporary song-composers who allow the verse to meander as if at will. Manno uses two beautiful poems that are vibrantly musical in their own right, “Stiller Freund der vielen Fernen” (Silent Friend of Many Distances), by Rainer Maria Rilke, and “Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas. The instrumental scores in both works serve as a structural as well as a dramatic foil to the words, and not mere accompaniment.

The performers on this lovely disc are mainly Met colleagues of the composer. All of the instrumentalists are members of the superb Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and the two vocalists are up-and-coming youngsters who have performed on the big Met stage.

The sound they make is luminous and focused, and serves this rich and lyrical music well.

—Peter Burwasser, Fanfare Magazine

Robert Manno, the Reluctant Composer
by Peter Burwasser, Fanfare Magazine, January/February 2001

It would be easy to assume that Robert Manno—composer, professional singer, conductor, and onetime jazz pianist—has been on a trajectory toward his current calling as a composer since his earliest days. But Manno is a somewhat reluctant composer, and even his career as a performer began tentatively. As a child growing up in a musical family in suburban Philadelphia, he took piano and violin lessons. “There was always music in the home. My father, my brothers, and I would all gather around the piano and improvise harmonies, singing all kinds of music.” But by the time Manno was reaching college age, he opted to attend Temple University as a communications major. “Of course, I hung out with the music majors and sang in the chorus.” It was after Temple that he began to play jazz piano, more or less by ear, and started serious musical pursuits only at around the age of 20, when he entered the Combs College of Music in 1964, studying composition with Romeo Cascarino (best known for his opera about William Penn). Shortly after, he moved to New York City and studied voice at the Manhattan School of Music. He subsequently earned his M.A. in musical composition at NYU.

But although Manno began composing in earnest after finishing his schooling, this aspect of his musical life took a backseat to activities that paid his rent. He became a full-time member of the chorus of the Metropolitan Opera in 1977 and, at first, essentially stopped composing. “I was overwhelmed by all of the work at the MET. For the next few years there were just scraps of this and that, all unfinished work. Then, in 1980, violinist Judith Yanchus and double bassist Laurence Glazener, of the MET Orchestra, commissioned me to write a piece for them. James Levine came to the performance, and I think he liked it. He later told me, ‘Well, I've heard the piece for violin and double bass. What else do you have?’ I think this was a compliment.” The wonderful musicians of the MET Orchestra continue to befriend Manno's music, and they are the performers on his first CD. “I am so lucky to have these musicians.” Surprisingly, given the ardor and level of commitment demonstrated on the CD, only two works, Three Poems and A Mountain Path, were written specifically for the players. Many of the musicians also play at the Windham Chamber Music Festival, in New York's Catskill Mountains, which was founded in 1997 by Manno and his wife, violinist Magdalena Golczewski. Manno is leaving the MET Chorus after this season to devote himself to composing full-time. Will his orchestra buddies continue to bring his music to life? Manno takes a deep breath, “I sure hope so.” Manno's style, which is tonal and lyrical, sounds influenced by his experience as a choral singer, especially with his emphasis on rich harmonic progressions. While he does not dispute this, Manno insists there is no conscious connection. “I haven't written a lot of vocal music, and I almost never listen to opera at home.” He does concede, however, that he is “more interested in harmonic rather than melodic structure.” “Melody is merely arpeggiated harmony. You can hear it in Verdi and Wagner. Certainly, there's melody, but it is all based on harmonies. Maybe it is the choral influence on me, but I never thought about it.”

The fluid and lyrical qualities in Manno's writing are especially apparent in the two works on the CD, Three Poems and A Mountain Path, which were commissioned by the Concert Society of Putnam and Northern Westchester, which requested ‘accessible’ music. “I knew that they did not want thorny theoretical studies for strings and piano that would have received the stamp of approval from the adherents of the ‘Viennese School,’ but rather something that would make a clear connection with the listener. So, therefore, I was not writing for academe, or trying in the least to write something that would be accepted by the ‘musical intelligentsia.’ In the final analysis I was writing first for myself, secondly for the performers, and thirdly for the listener.”

Early in his professional life, Manno considered the notion of becoming a Lieder singer, around the same time he was playing jazz piano. Not surprisingly, his song-writing is especially strong, although, with characteristic modesty, he downplays the elusive art of setting words to music. “It is a lot easier setting poems to music than writing instrumental music. The poem dictates where the music goes, the form of the piece. Half of the work is done for you. The images of the words offer the real musical stimulus.” On the new CD, there are two elegant settings of poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke and Dylan Thomas. “I've been interested in poetry since high school, and have sung a lot of Lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, Strauss, as well as Debussy and Ravel and others. If I had to choose only two poets, I suppose it would be Rilke and Thomas because of the richness and depth of the writing, although I've also set Millay, Cummings, Eliot, Patchen and others.”

On the question of influences, Manno, like most composers, is concerned about affecting a unique voice. His Sextet for Strings shows some notable resemblances to Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, using the same instrumentation, sharing harmonic language, and describing a similar dramatic outline. Manno did not directly model his Sextet on the Schoenberg, but he cannot deny the similarities. “They even both end in D Major. But it is just a coincidence. I'm always afraid I've written a piece by someone else. I wasn't thinking of Schoenberg. I chose the instrumentation because it is easy to expand the work to an orchestra. Actually, I was concerned that some of it sounded like Bruckner. I also hear some Ravel, maybe a little Debussy, some Mahler. All of the music is part of my experience. I put it all in a mixer and hit the Blend button. Hopefully it comes out naturally and in my own voice. I don't think there is any mere imitation.”

Manno sums up his ultimate aesthetic. “When I write, I am always mindful of walking that tightrope which straddles two abysses. On the one side one falls into the inane and on the other is the arcane. To find that necessary balance between the subjective and the objective, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, between the mind and the heart is a difficult task for anyone who attempts to create a so-called work of art. I think this is especially difficult for someone who writes music. My aim in writing is to explore that place within myself that is undefinable and immeasurable, and to share what I have hopefully found with the listener. Emerson described this as one who writes for the love of imparting certain thoughts and not for the necessity of sale, who writes always to the unknown friend.”