Ursula Mamlok

The Composer's Datebook from American Public Media
Friday, May 19, 2017

On today’s date in 2013, a new work by a 90-year old German-born American composer and teacher named Ursula Mamlok received its premiere performance in Switzerland. “Five Fantasy Pieces” for oboe, violin, viola, and cello, was given its first performance by the great Swiss oboist Heinz Holliger and colleagues.

Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin in 1923, and began composing as a child, studying piano and composition. Her family was Jewish, and once the Nazis placed school music programs off limits to Jews, her family began holding musicales in their home, with Ursula writing the music.

After the “Crystal Night” pogrom in 1938, her family left Germany, and, via Ecuador, young Ursula came to America after being offered a full scholarship to study at the Mannes School of Music in New York. She became an American citizen and taught for many years at various schools, most notably the Manhattan School of Music, where she taught for four decades.

All the while she continued to compose, and described her own music as follows:

“My main concern is that [it] 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 way so as to give the impression of ever-new ideas that are like the flowers of a plant, all related yet each one different.”

The bulk of Mamlok’s music is for small chamber ensembles, and only once she tried to create a purely electronic piece. In a 1996 interview, she confessed, “Unfortunately I have no connection to it … I put it together in the studio at Columbia in New York, but it took too long. I said, ‘I can’t do this.’ I’d rather use the pencil.”

Late in her life, in her 80s, Mamlok returned to Berlin, where she wrote her last works, including her “Five Fantasy Pieces.” She died there in May of 2016 at age 93.