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Raphael Hillyer, Juilliard Quartet Violist, Dies at 96

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Raphael Hillyer, a founding violist of the Julliard String Quartet, died on Dec. 27 in Boston. He was 96.

Hillyer was the last member to join the original quartet in 1946. He came to the group an already established and formidable presence in the American classical music scene. When he joined at 32, Hillyer was a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Serge Koussevitzky, a post he landed after playing with the NBC Symphony under Arturo Toscanini. 

The quartet was formed in 1946 by Juilliard president William Schuman, who hoped to create a group to perform repertory pieces and contemporary work with flourish, tour widely, and carry forward the Juilliard name.

The Juilliard String Quartet went on to lead the way with its compelling programming and is noted, for example, for performing the American premiere of the Bartók cycle at Tanglewood in 1948. The Quartet would eventually perform a repertoire of some 500 works.

In recent seasons, and after several personnel changes, the Juilliard Quartet has appeared in concert at the Kennedy Center, on tour in Australia, at the Konzerthaus Vienna, at the Palacio Real in Madrid, and at the Cité de la musique in Paris, with an accompanying two-day residency at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique. But many maintain it was the original members who cemented the reputation of the Quartet.

Hillyer studied at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. He graduated from Dartmouth College and went on to study music at Harvard.

Born Raphael Silverman on April 10, 1914, in Ithaca, NY, Raphael Hillyer was of Eastern European decent. He changed his name in the 1930s. In 1924, Hillyer traveled with his family to Russia, where he studied with a number of pending luminaries, including a young musician that particularly impressed him named Dmitri Shostakovich.

After 23 years with the Juilliard String Quartet, Hillyer left the group in 1969 to pursue a career as a teacher, recitalist, and chamber player. He taught at Yale, Harvard, and Longy School of Music, among other institutions, and also led summer programs at Tanglewood and the Aspen Music Festival. He was particularly known as a champion of contemporary music.

On December 6, 2010, Hillyer taught his last class at Boston University, a lesson that focused on Schubert’s String Quintet.

“He was brilliant,” said Steven Ansell, principal viola of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. “And he knew what was essential in music. He knew how to read behind the notes, as we sometimes say.” Ansell, a founding member of the Muir String Quartet, worked for many years with Hillyer, who both mentored the Quartet and later collaborated as a guest artist.

 “He was only interested in the heart of the music,” Ansell said. “And that was how he played.”