Music of Ursula Mamlok

The American composer Ursula Mamlok is a distinguished representative of the Central European Jewish intellectual culture that was transplanted to the United States as a result of the Holocaust. Mamlok was born in 1928 in Berlin and came to the U.S. in 1941. She studied with George Szell at the Mannes College of Music, and received her B.M. and M.M. from the Manhattan School of Music, where she was a pupil of Vittorio Giannini. Among her other teachers were Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe, and Ralph Shapey, who exercised a particularly strong influence on the development of her compositional technique. Mamlok is currently a member of the faculty of the Manhattan School of Music. She has also taught at New York University, the City University of New York, and Temple University. Her music is published by C. F. Peters, the American Composers Alliance, McGuinness and Marx, and Hildegard. She is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and has been honored by BMI and the ISCM.
Mamlok is especially noted for her elegant and finely crafted chamber music. Her works are typically scored for small, mixed ensembles, and are cast in concise, multi-movement or multi-sectional forms. A serialist who “wants the compositional control” that the technique provides, Mamlok’s musical outlook and
technique are fundamentally traditionalist in orientation, a heritage of her diverse musical background and her thorough grounding in the classics of musical literature. According to the composer, it is essential that the technique of serialism be transmuted into a musical language comprehensible to the musically literate but non-specialist listener without depriving the resulting work of any compositional subtlety. In short, “the details should be left in the workshop.”

Mamlok’s musical credo is encapsulated in this recent statement:
“My main concern is that the music should convey the various emotions in it with clarity and conviction. It interests me to accomplish this with a minimum of material, transforming it in such multiple ways so as to give the impression of ever-new ideas that are like the flowers of a plant, all related yet each one different.”
Mamlok’s music is a unique amalgam of many twentieth century stylistic trends. As her style evolved, she incorporated the neoclassic tendencies of her early music into her evolving use of serial technique, creating a music consistently transparent in texture and sensuous in sound. The stylistic diversities on the surface of her music serve structural functions within her works, providing formal contrasts and often playing a generative role within the development of a piece. Sectional contrast and repetition, palindromic and inversional symmetry, and the use of arch forms are all typical formal strategies employed in Mamlok’s music. The aural substance of her music is characterized by intricate textures and a preference for high, bright, delicate sounds, including those of the flute, clarinet, harp, violin, and piano. Mamlok likes to disguise the serial structure of her music within fluid, virtuosic lines that hover suggestively between tonality and
atonality. In many of the works she has written since the ‘70’s, she has divorced the techniques of serialism from the familiar gestural repertoire that accompanied the development of the method.
Mamlok completed all the works on this disc between 1987 and 1998. In contrast to the high drama of her works of the 60’s and the intricate discourse of her works of the 70’s and early 80’s, her music of the last decade reflects her search for greater economy of means and directness of expression. In these works, she has created a fresh synthesis of the elements of her style and technique.
The orchestral work Constellations (1993) is a concise, sinfonietta-like work in four short movements without pulse. The first movement is built around a stentorian rising motto figure and a slow turn motif. The motto is treated in diminution and inversion, but returns in its original form at the end of the brief second movement scherzo, creating a dramatic contrast to the bright, contrapuntal textures that have preceded it. The lyrical slow movement that follows exhibits a palindromic formal design. The finale is related both stylistically and melodically to the final movement of the quartet. It opens with a cheerful looping, skipping melodic figure that serves as background to the ‘chorales’ which dominate the movement. As it progresses, coruscating scale figures rush up and down the orchestra with increasing frequency, adding to the excitement. Constellations was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and premiered in February 1994, with Herbert Blomstedt conducting.
Polarities (1995), is emblematic of several of the most striking characteristics of Mamlok’s style. The first movement employs delicate weaving, fluttering textures, which are contrasted with fff piano chords and passages of rhythmic stasis. The brief second movement, originally composed as a memorial tribute to Samuel Starr, a friend of the Alaria Chamber Ensemble, dispenses with the piano entirely. With its stately, almost circular motion around a few musical gestures, it serves as a bridge between the frenetic activity of the first and last movements. The finale begins with neoclassically tinged motifs and textures that soon blossom into an intricate contrapuntal web. This wavelike buildup to complexity is the major device by which Mamlok creates structural contrast between the many short episodes within the overall arch structure of the movement. Polarities was commissioned and premiered by the Washington Square Contemporary Music Society.
Der Andreas Garten (1987) is a setting of a poem by Gerard Mamlok, husband of the composer. The text portrays the garden of the Mamloks’ summer home in California, located near the San Andreas fault. The poetry evokes both the beauty and the perils of nature. This is haunting and deeply atmospheric music: the brooding sound world created by the alto flute, low harp tones, and Sprechstimme at the opening and conclusion of the work contrasts with the brilliant, occasionally shrill, twittering of birds portrayed by flute, piccolo, and harp in the inner movements, producing an almost uncanny effect. The nine movements are arranged around numerous symmetries of pitch organization, tempo, and timbre. The eighth movement reproduces the second in inversion, with the rising and falling harp arpeggios that open and close the movements serving as important formal landmarks. An additional symmetry is created by the depiction of birds in flight in the fourth and seventh movements. Der Andreas Garten was commissioned by Franklin and Marshall College for The Jubal Trio.
Girasol (Sunflowers; 1990), inhabits a world of sound and gesture similar to that of Polarities. Commissioned by the Serge Koussevitzky Music Foundation at the Library of Congress for the Griffin Ensemble, Girasol is a tour-de-force of
variation technique. It presents an easily recognizable melody within a framework of constant rhythmic and textural change in a one-movement multi-sectional form. The first of the paired inner episodes of the piece is a passacaglia, distinguished from the preceding music by thin textures, a broadening of tempo, and the introduction of new thematic figures, created by the partitioning of the row. The final section both expands and transforms ideas presented at the beginning. A chirping triplet fifth motif marks structural turning points throughout Girasol. It frames the entire work, seemingly materializing from silence at the beginning and sounding almost inaudibly before the music sinks back into silence at the end.
Mamlok’s new String Quartet No. 2, completed in 1998, is a compact three-movement work that contrasts strikingly with her first quartet, a product of her early maturity. While the earlier work displays the intense rhetoric so typical of her style in the 1960’s, the new quartet is fundamentally neoclassical in character. The first and third movements share a looping, skipping theme, presented in many guises in music that is by turns playful and lyrical. They share a formal resemblance as well: the first part of each movement is repeated in inversion. In the second movement, Larghetto, long legato lines of an almost Fauréan delicacy alternate with brief agitato interludes. The finale reintroduces material from the previous movements to create a tightly integrated overall structure. The quartet ends with a flourish, as the opening theme of the first movement returns in its original transposition, but in a new registral arrangement reminiscent of the opening of Berg’s Lyric Suite. String Quartet No. 2 was commissioned by the Fromm Music Foundation of Harvard University for the Cassatt Quartet. It is dedicated to the memory of cellist Anna Cholakian, one of the founding members of the Cassatt.

—Barry Wiener