Aleksandra Wagner

Mannes College The New School of Music. 150 W. 85th Street: six stories high, 30, 009 square foot edifice, built 1927, altered 1984. Not subject to Landmark approval, it presently accommodates over 840 students and 225 faculty. To be sold (asking price $ 27 million), and vacated in the Fall 2015. The music school will move downtown to join the rest of The New School.

Sixty-five years ago, at just about this time of year, newspaper columnist, Franklin P. Adams might have sat on a porch in Weston, Conn., writing. His foreword to Music is My Faith. An Autobiography by David Mannes, was signed July 7, 1949. The best and the brightest of the era—The New York Times, The New Yorker, Book-of-the-Month Club News, The New York Herald Tribune, The New York World-Telegram—were fulsome in their praise for the book aptly named “A Chapter of New York.” Mannes’s Music School, already 33 years old, would get to its present location in 1984. It would join The New School shortly thereafter, in 1989.

I was introduced to this near-monument by my daughter, a student at The Mannes Prep: imagine a viola attached to a young butterfly. Mannes’s daughter, Marya, clarifies in the Preface to the autobiographical pages that her father had been “no pedagogue. The words educator and institution fill him with horror.” (So did the humanitarian and uplifter). Yet another woman springs alive in this writing: Mannes’s wife, pianist Clara Damrosch—the daughter of a family who helped establish The New York Philharmonic and whispered in the ears of Andrew Carnegie that a concert hall would be a fine idea. There are always daughters somewhere, often lost in the shuffle of history.

Not all sons succeed, either. Not all sons of Polish-Jewish immigrant bakers play violin well and marry into aristocracy; even fewer have African-American violinist, John Thomas Douglass, as their beloved teacher or count Paul Robeson as a friend. When that occurs, as it did with David Mannes, I find in it a sense of delight.

Long ago, in Sarajevo, I went to the Music School. The building where I sang on many an afternoon used to be a nunnery. The habit had gone but it still evoked a measure of slow difference, a power of its own world. I traveled the chancy road to adulthood in its echo. With such an upbringing, I am bound to think that the impractical and idiosyncratic always find resonance; that the music will carry on.

As the Mannes College and some of its tender contents take the A train South, I wish they might fold these old memories into a capsule. And, I wish them to unfold—not as sameness, but with full evidence of both the loss and the gain.

  1. Have you ever been to 150 W 85 Street?
  2. Can we imagine a cultural climate, at The New School, where not everyone would need to be an entrepreneur?
  3. How do we attend to our changes both intellectually and emotionally? —Aleksandra Wagner Faculty, The New School for Public Engagement

    Aleksandra Wagner
    Faculty, The New School for Public Engagement