By Allison Scola
In fall 1941, Miriam Kartch ’70, ’77GSAS, and ’80GSAS was fresh out of high school and armed with a scholarship to attend New York City’s Mannes Music School (now Mannes College The New School for Music) to study piano with Rosalyn Tureck, a renowned keyboard artist and Bach specialist. At the time, Mannes was a small classical music conservatory, not yet a college. Kartch was a pianist who did not see herself as a soloist, but as a chamber musician and vocal accompanist.
“Mannes was a center for artistry and humanity. And although co-founders and directors Mr. and Mrs. Mannes came and went from the school arm in arm, their contrasting personalities contributed quite differently to the School’s atmosphere. Violinist David Mannes strolled about the school emanating graciousness. He addressed every young lady as ‘My Dear.’ In contrast, pianist Clara Damrosch Mannes was our task mistress,” said Kartch. “And their scientist/musician son Leopold added brilliance to the environment.
“It was an ideal place—people caring and encouraging artistic education—a place in which to develop and prepare for life and a life in music! Their standards and example are with me to this day.”
While observing a piano pedagogy course, Co-Director Clara Damrosch Mannes identified Kartch as having an innate ability to teach, and thus began Kartch’s over 70-year career as a music educator. After gaining experience at settlement music schools such as Turtle Bay and Brooklyn, Kartch joined the Mannes Preparatory and Extension Division faculties.
In 1953, Mannes began offering bachelor’s degrees. At the insistence of the Board of Regents of the State of New York, amateurs and children were separated from the degree candidates. The then dean enlisted Kartch to help create the Preparatory School and its programs. Once charged with its directorship, she expanded the curriculum to include, besides instrumental and vocal lessons, musicianship, theory, ear training, chamber music, chorus, and orchestra. Under her leadership, Mannes Prep grew from 157 students to 410; families from all over the Metropolitan area enrolled their children “because parents heard from other parents that our students were learning something about music beyond how to manipulate an instrument,” said Kartch.
Known for her dry wit and unconventional personal style, Kartch was, during those post-War years, ahead of her time. “In my day, girls married in order to be married. I was teaching [Mannes Preparatory] and Extension School piano lessons and directing the Prep School. I had a calling,” said Kartch.
One of her Extension piano students was Vernon W. Hughes ’41CC, ’50GSAS. “He was a PhD candidate in physics at Columbia,” explained Kartch. “He came to Mannes, which was on East 74th Street, for evening lessons. Since we lived two blocks apart in the Columbia neighborhood, we traveled home together.” A friendship developed, but they each continued in their chosen professional and personal directions.
In the summer of 1962, her then fiancé died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. The loss was shocking. “I had to do something that nobody could take away from me, and that was education,” recalled Kartch. She was encouraged by noted music theorist and then dean of Mannes, Carl Schachter, to visit Donald Klein at the School of General Studies at Columbia.
GS appealed to her especially because it offered an evening honors section of English limited to 6-8 freshmen. She started taking one class at a time, and eventually two. “I wasn’t allowed to take lower-level music courses, but I took some higher-level classes such as Advanced Music Theory, The Art of Keyboard with William Mitchell, and 16th Century Counterpoint with Vladimir Ussachevsky, ethnomusicology courses: African, Chinese—at least four courses in non-western music. It was a mind-opening experience which prompted my interest in non-western art. Completing my bachelor’s took me seven years because of my being so fully engaged at Mannes.” Kartch said.
“GS was a wonderful place—everything was available. We were all trying to fit courses into our work schedules. We were all trying to enrich our lives.”
One of Kartch’s most vivid Columbia memories—and another example of an inspirational commitment to teaching—was an art history course taught by historian Howard McParlin Davis who Kartch described as physically resembling Abraham Lincoln. “He was a marvelous teacher,” she recalled.
“His classes were packed. He introduced the course saying, ‘The catalog says this course is about Italian Renaissance painting. It is, but my specialty is early Renaissance painting, so the course will focus on early works. On the last night, after the exam, we’ll take a break; then, when you come back, I’ll talk about the remainder of the Renaissance.’
“Chock Full of Nuts [coffee shop] was on the corner. We all went there for a bite, and came back, even after the 2-3 hour exam. The whole class returned and stayed until 1:30 in the morning!”
After completing her undergraduate degree, Kartch went on to pursue a master’s, and subsequently, a doctorate in musicology at the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences (GSAS), during which she taught Music Humanities and piano at Columbia. Then, in 1979, her recently widowed, former student Vernon Hughes, by now Sterling Professor of Physics at Yale University, called. They married. But that life-change that meant forgoing completing her doctorate.
“Suddenly, I became a professor’s wife, a step mother, and a grandmother,” she exclaimed. “I’ve lived several lives—most of them simultaneously!”
Thanks to Metro North Railroad’s New Haven line, while fulfilling her new role over the subsequent decades, Kartch continued to teach piano to undergraduates at Mannes College and courses in music history in Mannes Extension Division. She is still a member of the faculty.
“Ms. Kartch cares greatly for her students,” said percussionist and Mannes graduate Daniel Mallon who was a student of Kartch’s in the mid-1980s. “She has quite a reputation for being stern—I was intimidated before I even started her class. I've been honored to know her for the past thirty years, first as her student, and now as a colleague on the faculty.”
Students from more recent times who have left reviews on the website RateMyProfessor.com describe her as a “tough cookie,” and state, “If you listen to her and actually do the work … you learn,” “[She] “genuinely cares about her students. She went above and beyond to help me on numerous occasions.”
At age 90 and after decades of teaching, her influence on current and former students—like the Mannes’ and McParlin Davis’ influence on her—runs deep. She receives letters, phone calls, and visits from all over the world. “Everyone needs a grandmother,” she laughed. Well, if that is a succinct way to sum up that Kartch is an inspirational example of grace, style, perseverance, and humility, then it is a marvelous tribute to her.