Mannes was established in 1916 by two exceptional musical leaders with revolutionary ideas about how and why music should be taught. Their ultimate goal was to nurture love of music. What began as a community music school was transformed into a world-class college conservatory by their son — a gifted pianist who was also one of the inventors of
Kodachrome film. Today, as part of The New School, Mannes continues to evolve to reflect the changing landscape of classical music in the 21st century. But the founders' belief in the power of music to improve people's lives remains its guiding principle.
David Mannes was the son of a Polish immigrant baker. Clara Damrosch was the daughter of the eminent conductor Leopold Damrosch, who immigrated to New York from Germany. The Damrosch family quickly became American musical royalty.
David collected and sold bottles and scraps of lead pipe to pay for violin lessons. He began playing violin professionally at age 14, performing everywhere from Coney Island skating rinks to bordellos in the Tenderloin district. Clara enjoyed a private school education; piano, theory, and harmony lessons in Europe; and the acquaintance of her father's international circle of musician friends. (Her family helped establish the New York Philharmonic and pitched the idea of building a concert hall to Andrew Carnegie.)
As a young adult, Clara taught piano. David established a career as a professional musician. They married and became a fixture on New York's music and social scene as an acclaimed piano-violin duo, also performing in England, Canada, and 30 states. David created a concert series at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that became a New York institution in his time and continues to this day.
David Mannes knew from experience that music could change lives. He taught poor immigrant students and led a children's string orchestra at the Settlement School of Music in the slums of the Lower East Side. In Harlem, he founded one of the first music schools for Black children in honor of John Thomas Douglas, who was one of his violin teachers and the son of a freed slave.
David and Clara Mannes wanted their community to be exposed to and participate in the performance of classical music. To them, music was not just a route to a professional career but an essential part of a life's education. They wanted students to develop both technical proficiency and an understanding of the composition, style, and character of music.
In 1916, they established the David Mannes Music School on East 70th Street. Clara was its dynamic administrator; David was its inspiration. Among the first faculty hired was the noted Swiss-born composer and philosopher Ernest Bloch.
Teachers at Mannes in the 1930s and 1940s included the conductor George Szell, the composers Georges Enesco and Bohuslav Martinů, and Hans Weisse, a student of the highly influential Viennese theorist Heinrich Schenker. Weisse's pioneering work helped make Mannes the American home of Schenkerian theory.
In 1940, Leopold Mannes, son of David and Clara, left the Kodak research laboratories to become first the director and then the president of Mannes College. In 1953, President Mannes and the school's director, Felix Salzer, obtained a charter from the State of New York. Mannes became a degree-granting college with the mission of preparing talented young musicians to become professional performers and teachers. The name of the institution was changed to the Mannes College of Music.
Salzer organized Mannes' signature curriculum, the Techniques of Music program, which was further developed under the long-term leadership of the noted theorist Carl Schachter, Salzer's student and eventual colleague. During these years, Mannes saw many of its students rise to stardom, including Burt Bacharach, Julius Rudel, Eugene Istomin, and George Rochberg. In the 1960s, Richard Goode, Murray Perahia, and Frederica von Stade all graduated from Mannes in the same class. In later years, Semyon Bychkov, Michel Camilo, JoAnn Falletta, Tim Page, Shulamit Ran, Lara St. John, and numerous other alumni went on to achieve prominence.
In 1984, under President Charles Kaufman, Mannes moved to a larger home on West 85th Street. In 1989, Mannes became a division of The New School for Social Research (now called The New School), a progressive university associated with such musical pioneers as Aaron Copland, Henry Cowell, and John Cage. Mannes' name was changed to Mannes College The New School for Music in 2005 and to Mannes School of Music in 2015.
The violinist and theorist Joel Lester, dean of Mannes from 1996 to 2011, began transforming Mannes into a modern conservatory, expanding the faculty, the opera program, and fundraising. Today, under the leadership of Dean Richard Kessler, Mannes is transforming its curriculum to advance the creative role of music in society and develop citizen-artists who engage with the world around them through established and emerging forms of practice. Mannes continues to carry forward the traditions of devotion to music and dedication to community established by David and Clara Mannes. The school seeks to balance this respect for tradition with awareness of the need to prepare graduates for the rapidly changing demands of the professional marketplace. For Mannes, tradition consists not of rules to live by but rather a heritage to honor and renew over time.
While Mannes continues to grow in reputation and quality, it is still pursuing David and Clara's goal of providing comprehensive music education to people "whose sincere love of music alone prompts them to take up study." Mannes' thriving Preparatory and Extension provide lifelong education in music for people of all ages.
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