In Memoriam Michael Tree (1934-2018)

April 1, 2018, 11:10 AM · Michael Tree was one of the great violists of the twentieth century and a beloved personality in the music world. He was born in Newark, New Jersey on February 19, 1934 and died yesterday (March 31, 2018) at the age of 84.

Pamela Frank and Michael Tree
Michael Tree with Pamela Frank in 2011, as jury members of the Sphinx Competition. Photo by

Michael was the son of Samuel and Sada Applebaum ('Baum' is German for 'Tree'). Having begun violin lessons with his father, a well-known violinist and teacher, Michael went on to study at Curtis with Efrem Zimbalist. As a soloist he played with major ensembles including the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it was in 1964 at the Marlboro Music Festival that Tree became a founding member of the Guarneri String Quartet with whom he would play for the next forty-five years until the group disbanded. The impact of the Guarneri Quartet on the world of chamber music was simply gigantic, and their many recordings live on as a testament to their artistry. Tree was also a founding member of the Marlboro Trio, and he is the soloist for several albums of standard solo viola repertoire as well.

Michael Tree. Image courtesy of Hiroshi Iizuka.

At various points in his career, Michael Tree was on the faculties of Curtis, Juilliard, the Manhattan School of Music, the University of Southern California, the Maryland School of Music, and Rutgers University in his native state of New Jersey. At viola congresses we jokingly greeted each other as 'the other violist from Newark' (where I was also born), which we imagined to be a pretty small club. Another thing we had in common was that we both played several fine instruments by the Japanese-American luthier Hiroshi Iizuka. I remember trying out his wonderfully-rich 17 ½-inch (!) viola in Iizuka's shop in Pennsylvania, and I even own a shirt with a picture of Michael playing that viola on it.

As a teenager I was lucky to get to play for Michael, and my memory is that he liked to discuss at length possible fingerings for a particular phrase so that it could come across as naturally as possible. More can be read about Michael's ideas on violin and viola technique in volume two of The Way They Play, written by Tree's parents, Samuel and Sada Applebaum. Michael's playing came across as very natural with a warm sound, and his personality away from the viola was similarly kind and warm. His many students have been posting fond memories of his influence on their lives all day today, which I'm sure will continue over the next months. Michael's death is a real loss to the world of Classical music.

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April 1, 2018 at 08:17 PM · I heard that he died shortly after an injury falling down a staircase. He will be missed very much. Rest in peace.

April 1, 2018 at 09:38 PM · That's a beautiful portrait. Thank you for this post, Scott.

General question: why is his age always given as 83? His birthday this year has already passed.

April 1, 2018 at 10:28 PM · Probably because the Violin Channel post got the news out early on, and put the wrong age in their headline. Who knows, maybe the person who reported it to them reported the number incorrectly, but he was 84.

April 1, 2018 at 11:00 PM · Neat guy. He owned an instrument I made. I think Christine Rutledge owns that viola now.

April 1, 2018 at 11:21 PM · Thank you for this beautiful tribute, Scott!

I've corrected the age, thank you for those who pointed that out!

April 2, 2018 at 12:50 PM · Memory Eternal!

April 2, 2018 at 02:27 PM · Sharing a story I hope other violists remember. It has been many years, so I am just sharing what I remember hearing. During a viola panel discussion Michael Tree was asked about balance of volume in quartet playing. In a huge room of violists he said that during rehearsals colleagues will say you are playing too loud, so in rehearsal play more softly, and in concert, play as loud as you can. I believe his advice was valid.

April 2, 2018 at 05:37 PM · "I believe his advice was valid": It was a joke of course; a professional quartet like the Guarneri quartet would not have lasted a year, let alone 45 years, if he really would have had that attitude:

April 2, 2018 at 09:03 PM · I don't know... while it's a joke in the sense that it sounds funny, I've found some truth in it as well!

Sorry about having gotten his age wrong; I was indeed just repeating what was going around at the time. Thanks, Laurie, for fixing it.

April 3, 2018 at 02:44 PM · I am so saddened to hear of Mr. Tree's passing - heartfelt sympathy to his family, friends, snd colleagues. I had the privilege of hearing him quite a number of times at the quartet performances, and being on stage with him in the trio when they played with the Alabama Symphony. I remember that 17 1/2" viola and being in awe of the absolutely gorgeous sound that he produced. Mr. Tree was a warm and gracious person backstage as well. We will all miss him.

Marilyn Pipkin

April 3, 2018 at 05:59 PM · As the person who brought up his correct age: it doesn't really matter in the big scheme of things, but with all the ageism going around, I feel that we should honor what people can accomplish even at a more advanced age and giving their correct age is part of picture.

April 3, 2018 at 10:32 PM · To the bereft Family, Colleagues and many Pupil's of dear Michael Tree ~

Please accept my heartfelt sympathies and condolences upon bearing the irreplaceable loss of your husband, father, adored & cherished friend of the 'other' 3 Branches of the Guarneri String Quartet, plus countless pupil's in North - South America, The UK, Continental Europe, Asia, South Korea, Malaysia, Israel, Africa, Russia, Australia and New Zealand, who are grieving the loss of a rare musical & personal friend/mentor as these words are being penned on the 4th afternoon here on Earth without Michael Tree's enriched & charmed Presence ~

Having known Michael Tree's loving musician parents' - the internationally recognised musical author's, Sam and Sada Applebaum, whom my beloved late parents were close to, their son's passing cuts right into the Family 'musical family circle' of my father & mother, Ralph & Betty, & a Foursome who truly admired each other ~ Michael Tree was a blessed beneficiary of his parent's enriched musical pedigree, both of whom authored the famed Books, 'The Way They Play', which historically do comprise a brilliant Diary representation of The Best in Twentieth Century American Classical Music String Playing of long before WWII, then picked up to encompass the 1950's, '60's and '70's ~

Michael Tree studied with one of the 'Star's' of fabled Leopold Auer's St. Petersburg Violin Class, Efrem Zimbalist ~ a class-mate of Heifetz, Mischa Elman, Sascha Lasserson, Toscha Seidel, Nathan I Milstein, Jan Kubelik, Cecilia Hanson, Kathleen Parlow, & not often mentioned, renowned pianists in proximity - Vladimir Horowitz, Nikita Magaloff & Richter ~ Such golden legendary musical pedigree was passed on, first hand, to the young Michael Tree, by Efrem Zimbalist, Sr., who later fused everything together & in so doing, would then give birth to a collage of a 'new brand' of the American musician, born & bred in musically-historically Euro tradition's right here on American soil ~

Armed w/such a legacy, Michael Tree couldn't miss - & then aimed on High to alternate format's within American classical music's back yard, into the as yet virgin fertile soil of chamber music - which became Tree's 'First Love' for the duration of his to-be 84 year Life, founding a pinnacle Root of String Quartet playing for an entire Generation of American musical heir's ~ taught by Toscha Seidel (Arnold Steinhardt,1st Violinist of the G.S.Q.); Alex Schneider in NYC, other Curtis pupil's of Efrem Zimbalist; & the 2 other G.S.Q. Members on Second Violin & Violoncello ~ (Later on, Jascha Heifetz would teach soloist pupil's & insist upon chamber music every Friday of the class week!)

Now looking back with sorrow at Sam & Sada's son, Michael Tree's passing of 4 days ago, one can actually 'see' the Birth of the Guarneri String Quartet as the 'Banner' of a broader classical music awakening in American young '60's musical circles - namely the Revolution of Chamber Music as a wholly authentic & valid 'other' 4 Soloist's Art Form in mid-Twentieth Century American Music with the Guarneri leading their own 'Chamber Music Revolution' without any shots fired!! Breaking through a 'glass ceiling' of 'Soloist's are Only Great Violinist's', the onset of the 'Chamber Music in America Revolution' began disseminating long-held many generation idea's from very well known European Establishment Musical Circles looking down upon 'mere chamber ensemble player's' as almost "Second Class" lots of less technically capable string player's, violinists', especially, who hadn't the personalities necessary to dazzle audiences in major violin repertoire & opted for chamber music playing career's to Eat 'n Pay the Bills of a Family, 'dumped' with the Debut Success of the Guarneri String Quartet in major musical capital's of London, New York, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, Rome & etc. ~ The 'Concert Artist's' World was being turned upside down from aged old perception's of Great means String Soloist's to Great includes Szekely, 'Great' 1st Violinist of the Hungarian String Quartet & the like!! Michael Tree deserves enormous credit for expanding the global concert-going public's view from isolated margins of 'a Soloist' to a much more truthful & informed idea of 'Soloist's' including Leader's of String Quartets, Piano Trio's, & Concertmaster's/Leader's of Major Orchestra's throughout the Classical Music World and Beyond ...

In this 'violin soloist's' view, Michael Tree had No intention of such a campaign, w/ his sole goal being to provide far greater somewhat glamourised access to attract wider audiences to hear their Guarneri String Quartet in superb String Quartet literature for the duration of the musical life - span of the Guarneri String Quartet!! Surely, No doubt can be cast as to the extraordinary global musical success & Guarneri String Quartet 'Nation', created by the sheer beauty & fidelity of Violist, Michael Tree, & his G.S.Q. colleagues to Chamber Music 'Prime' in America, the UK, Europe, Asia, Russia, South America, Australia, New Zealand & parts further ...

All of us shall sorely miss Michael Tree, the inner light of the Guarneri String Quartet, 'anointed' by Arthur Rubinstein, during his wondrous Chamber Music collaborations with his younger American colleagues on their 1st disc together ~

With sadness yet utter gratitude that Michael Tree lived here ~

Elisabeth Matesky ~ an American Violinist

(c)Copyright E. Matesky, April 3, 2018. All rights reserved

April 4, 2018 at 07:50 AM · Wonderful to read some of the memories of those who knew him. He truly was one of the greats. May he rest in peace.


April 5, 2018 at 01:41 PM · 2018 is still young. Sadly,thus far we have lost two great viola players;Luigi Alberto Bianchi on January 3rd,and a few days ago,Michael Tree

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