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Uncovering the Musical Divide

The tale of two cultures at the Mannes School of Music and The New School

When Julia Foulkes, a historian at The New School, asked me to write about the historical cultures that defined the Mannes School of Music and those of the New School, I couldn’t help but think about my own musical pedigree: once a performer, now music scholar. This disciplinary divide is rarely understood by the public, let alone the educational institutions that house music programs. I am often reminded of this confusion when, for example, I’m asked what I do for a living. My answer, “I’m a musicologist,” is invariably followed by the immediate question, “What instrument do you play?” At this juncture, I usually stop to allow a rhetorical moment of contemplation and then answer, “I play the library.” Mannes and The New School in many ways reflect a similar disciplinary and educational divide. Both originated in separate communities, followed different educational agendas — one conventional, the other unconventional — and though they provided courses that might intersect, nevertheless, the results offered quite different outcomes. Such are the musical entanglements that make music often inscrutable to many outsiders.

When The New School for Social Research opened its new building in Greenwich Village in January 1931, they announced that music was to have an important place. The school’s social science agenda, its progressive intellectualism, and emphasis on contemporary life seemed an unlikely haven for the study of music, at least in the context of New York’s concert landscape. Until that period, most New York institutions of music and its environs were either modeled on the European conservatory, emphasizing performance, supported by courses in music theory and composition, as was the case with Mannes, or like Columbia University, offered music within a liberal arts education. Both cultivated and legitimized European music in their curriculums, especially the canon of German master composers, in what modernist American composer Aaron Copland frustratedly referred to as “embalmed masterworks.” This is what New York concert audiences wanted to consume and performers, for the most part, wanted to play.

New York in the 1920s may have celebrated American modernism, but it was vernacular not concert music that emerged within this innovative environment.

Few American composers received performances and those that did generally modeled their compositions as an echo of European music. There were a few societies devoted to modernist art music, but they tended to support the latest composers from Europe, rather than homegrown composers. Music critic Joseph Horowitz observed that following World War I, performance institutions — those built by impresarios and the entrepreneurial spirit, of which the most famous were New York’s Carnegie Hall, the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera House — validated American musical culture, and not composers, allowing traditional programs, like Mannes’, to flourish.

In this, The New School for Social Research provided something unique, and even unorthodox. Their music program complimented the school’s wider social science agenda, which fostered an open-ended curricular agenda emphasizing contemporary musical issues, with a concomitant emphasis on a burgeoning American musical culture. In other words, The New School valued American compositional innovation — the new, the unexplored and, in comparison to Mannes, approached these lines of inquiry through scholarly and intellectual pursuits of pure learning. Paul Rosenfeld, a music critic and champion of twentieth-century American music initially offered courses in collaboration with other intellects from The New School such as Waldo Frank and Edmund Wilson. They surveyed modernist art and explored its transformative impact on society, an unheard-of topic within conventional music schools that certainly did not coincide with Mannes’ curriculum. When Aaron Copland arrived at The New School (1927), he provided first-hand discussions on the state of contemporary music, and by 1931, it was maverick experimental composer Henry Cowell that truly shaped The New School’s unorthodox programs by bringing music intellect Charles Seeger and others, primarily composers, to investigate, discuss, perform and explain the state of contemporary American modernist musical culture. This last point is important, because it realigned the study of music on an intellectual footing, especially in the case of Cowell and Seeger, who embraced social and political issues in music. This reorientation represented a shift from the traditional pedagogical paradigm, as composers were generally assigned to teach common practice theory, musical materials that were narrowly linked to the compositional scores of earlier European repertories. At The New School, students were also encouraged to interact and participate freely with faculty. Culled mostly from an adult constituency, New School students were there to satisfy purely intellectual needs, though there were also young American composers who periodically attended these classes, like John Cage.

Mannes, in comparison, appealed to students with a “sincere love of music alone.” This statement, pronounced in the first catalogue, was a romantic ideal, an emotional invocation, and even anti-intellectual. Mannes catered primarily to younger students or the amateur adult, and embraced an imported historic tradition, a transplanted musical culture through the study and performance of European master works. Even the school’s adherence to pedagogy reflected European ideals: performance was taught practically, like a trade, rather than within the larger cultural understanding of music, as Walter Damrosch, David Mannes’ brother-in-law and the conductor of the New York Symphony, reflected after his detailed review of European conservatories. Mannes’ faculty, mostly from Europe or European-trained, also embraced the pedagogical tradition of the master teacher: a highly respected authority who demanded deference. They — primarily men — taught autocratically; that is, the student was an empty vessel ready to be filled, shaped by the great teacher whose knowledge and experience was authoritative, top down, presented without questioning, and without the student’s independent thought. A by-product of this was discipleship, an uncritical badge of honor that still lingers within performance culture. At Mannes, this ideal was reflected in their catalogues by statements such as, “the faculty will consist mainly of teachers who have worked with Mr. Mannes for years past and who will cooperate with him in every way to carry out his musical ideas and ideals.” Faculty profiles at Mannes perpetuated this kind of master-student lineage, particularly when they were linked to famed performers in Europe.

Mannes offered a rounded curriculum in support of performance, with limited classes on history (taught as music from the past) and courses under the rubric of theory. Theory provided a foundation for the acquisition of musical language for musicians generally, but also in aid of interpreting the music of the great masters, particularly the German works from Bach to Brahms and Wagner. In 1931, Mannes hired Hans Weisse, who reinforced and legitimized this agenda. Weisse was a Viennese disciple of Heinrich Schenker — whose lineage was linked to Chopin, through his piano teacher Karl Mikuli — and had studied harmony with Anton Bruckner (1887-89), but Schenker’s prestige emerged from his unique analytical work on eighteenth- and nineteenth-century German master composers. Schenker’s approach to analysis was steeped in the historical application of species counterpoint, the technique of combining more than one voice, in order to understand the process of melodic and linear unfolding, a perspective that could inform musical interpretations in performance. His analyses, some later published and funded by Mannes (Five Graphic Analyses), were underscored by various ideological premises: his xenophobic nationalism, propagating the cult of the German musical genius, and his highly critical stance on music after Brahms. Weisse’s appointment established an important legacy. When Weisse died in 1940, his student Felix Salzer (1940), another disciple of Schenker’s, continued this work at Mannes as did Allen Forte, Carl Schachter (both in 1957-59), and Ernst Oster (1967). Even The New School later propagated Schenker’s ideas by employing Adele T. Katz to teach music courses from 1931-35. Katz was a Mannes student and studied with Weisse and Viktor Zuckerkandl (1946-48), also a student of Schenker himself. By the 1970s, when music theory was acknowledged as a separate scholarly discipline within the American academy, Schenkerian analysis became an ideological instrument. It separated the American discipline from its sister field of musicology, with Mannes emerging as its historic center.

Both schools provided distinctive programs that never competed with each other. While music at The New School was quite out of the ordinary, Mannes provided a conventional education that most music students and the public understood: performance. In an ironic twist, it seems however, that the unconventional was forced to rescue the conventional. By the 1980s, with increasing competition from other music schools and universities, especially those that integrated high-level performance programs, Mannes began to run fiscal deficits. By then, the school had established a fine reputation for the study of theory while it also maintained a prestigious New York performance faculty. But the old-world tradition of an intimate family-like close-knit institution, fostering one-to-one relationships within its master-student apprentice model and its by-product of a hierarchical discipleship, was increasingly difficult to sustain. Because this model was expensive and anachronistic, Mannes initially turned to the like-minded conservatory the Manhattan School, but it too was experiencing fiscal troubles. Instead, Mannes finally approached The New School for relief.

On the surface, Mannes hoped it could retain its independent identity, perhaps become a self-contained appendage, rather than integrate within The New School’s idiosyncratic music offerings. Initially it did, but the legacy of tradition in a changing musical environment can be difficult to sustain and no institution, especially an educational one, can function in a time warp. Rather than focusing on the Eurocentric “embalmed” repertories and its authoritarian and sometimes insular pedagogy that relies on a single teacher, qualities that characterized the Mannes agenda, American music in all its progressive and interdisciplinary intellectual forms stood as too important to be neglected. As the musical landscape of New York continued to shift, the unconventional qualities that had defined the original vision for the New School, its perception of New York as a social science laboratory, its progressive nature and especially its emphasis on contemporary life, now seemed to be the more conventional.

Ironically, history in this context would come full circle — and so too the questions of what is ordinary or unconventional. In 2015, the Mannes School of Music at The New School announced it would be moving into a new building in Greenwich Village, housing a progressive program that they strategically called “Mannes in a New Key.” As it would happen, Mannes in its new guise appears to have been shaped by the historic merger and The New School no longer seems to be an unlikely haven for the study of music.

Sally Bick is a professor at The University of Windsor in Canada specializing in music and politics, film music, and American music between the Wars.

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