Character Study: Lucy Mann Keeps American Composers’ Spirits Alive

May 11th, 2013

Julie Glassberg for The New York Times

Lucy Mann talking about the composer Milton Babbitt at the Manhattan School of Music.

On Wednesday, Lucy Mann was out there again, standing behind her table just inside the entrance to the Manhattan School of Music.

“Come and celebrate the great Milton Babbitt, a wonderful American composer,” she called out like a sideshow barker to students shaking off the rain and lugging their instruments to rehearsals or study sessions.

Ms. Mann was standing next to a poster of Babbitt wearing thick black-framed glasses and a slight scowl. She had a stack of fliers with information about the composer, known for his serial and electronic music, and a big bowl of free candy.

“The candy is a bribe, helps get them interested,” said Ms. Mann, who sets up a small celebration in the lobby every few weeks for a composer on his or her birthday.

“I’m on a mission to help get 20th-century American composers the recognition they deserve,” said Ms. Mann, who turns 92 next month.

She is not a faculty member or school employee, but is a fixture here because the Walter W. Naumburg Foundation, which assists promising musicians through competitions, concerts and awards, is based at the school. Ms. Mann, the foundation’s executive director, works out of a small office there, and her husband, Robert Mann, and her son, Nicholas, are both professional violinists who teach at the school.

So Ms. Mann, who is not a musician herself, is a regular presence in the hallways, a cheerleader for music education. Go Aaron Copland! she yelled on Nov. 14. Rah-ray Elliott Carter! she exhorted on Dec. 11.

On Jan. 20, she was out campaigning for Walter Piston. On Feb. 1, it was Ursula Mamlok. March 12, Ralph Shapey. April 29, Duke Ellington.

Babbitt’s birthday fell on Friday — he was born in 1916 and died in 2011 — but since that conflicted with commencement, Ms. Mann celebrated it on Wednesday.

Shuainan Zhang, 19, a pianist from China, looked puzzled when Ms. Mann mentioned Babbitt. Adam O’Farrill, 19, a trumpeter and member of the O’Farrill Afro-Latin jazz clan, had also never heard of Babbitt. Shayna Skibinsky, a violist, said Babbitt had been the subject of a question in her 20th-century music class, but she forgot the details.

Composers’ birthdays have always been important in the Mann household, Ms. Mann said, adding that her daughter Lisa’s birthday coincides with Copland’s.

“She used to complain that I was more excited that it was Aaron Copland’s birthday than hers,” she said, adding that Lisa is now a psychologist.

And it was just before Copland’s, er, Lisa’s birthday last year that “I got to wondering how many people at the school even know who Aaron Copland is, so I decided to start this as an awareness project.”

Ms. Mann grew up Lucy Zeitlin on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, raised by her mother.

“My father was a scoundrel and a womanizer — he was never around,” she said. “He married my mother to win a bet with his friends.”

She studied theater at Brooklyn College but dropped out to take a job in Washington for the War Department, then worked for the Russian Commission and then the Chinese Embassy.

In 1947, she became manager of concerts at the Juilliard School, when it was housed in this building on West 122nd Street where the Manhattan School of Music now stands. She also managed the Juilliard String Quartet and met and married “my Bobby” — Mr. Mann, the quartet’s first violinist for more than 50 years.

Through Mr. Mann and the foundation, which she has run since the 1970s, she met most of the leading 20th-century composers, including Babbitt, her lunch partner in the Juilliard cafeteria when he taught at the school. On Wednesday, she pointed at the poster and said, “He looks rather forbidding, but he was a very interesting and jolly man, full of gossip and stories about everyone.”

Her first real introduction to 20th-century composers came in 1947, when Mr. Mann took her on their first date to the home of his violin teacher, Stefan Wolpe, where a pianist played Wolpe’s angular piano sonata “Battle Pieces.”

“It was absolutely horrible. I hated it,” she recalled. “I grabbed my hat and coat and I said, ‘I’ll never see this man Bobby Mann again.’ ”

But she eventually grew to love Bobby Mann, and Stefan Wolpe, she said, and then paused.

“Hm, Stefan,” she said. “When’s his birthday?”

E-mail: character@nytimes.com

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