Ursula Mamlok: Concerto for Oboe


Born on February 1st, 1923, Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin, Germany into a primarily Jewish family. Her biological father, Hans Meyer, died when she was a baby, but her mother remarried fairly soon after. Mamlok composed and performed as a child in Berlin, however, once the Nazis started taking away music programs and other schooling off of the Jews, Mamlok’s parents began teaching her at home. In 1938, the family fled from the Nazis and went to Ecuador where they had some relatives. Due to the lack of high music education in Ecuador, Mamlok asked her mother to ask the American consul if a petition could start to allow music conservatories in the USA to accept Mamlok in to study. Soon this was accepted and Mamlok enrolled on a full scholarship to study composition at the Mannes School of Music.

In 1940, Mamlok travelled on her own, at the age of 17, to New York to begin her studies. Her parents followed her the next year. Whilst at Mannes she studied composition with George Szell, who taught he about the nineteenth-century Romanticism style. In 1944, she wanted to learn more modernist techniques, so she studied with composer Ernst Krenek at Black Mountain College. Throughout her early stages of composition education she studied under composers such as Roger Sessions, Stefan Wolpe and Ralph Shapey. In the 1950s, Mamlok became an American citizen and also received both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music. After graduating, Mamlok continued to compose as well as teach in institutions such as City University New York and Temple University. Her style is thoroughly avant garde and she has written a range of works for a number of different-sized ensembles such as vocal, chamber and solo instrumental pieces.

Mamlok’s style often employed the techniques found in serialism, although a lot of her music also does not fit into this restrictive category. She was influenced by the likes of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg, and her music can reflect this a lot. Her use of textures and timbres really shine out and is at the centre of her musical style. Although very dissonant and harsh at times, her deliberateness of textures, wit and rhythm are clear and bring a new sense of clarity to her works. She once said that:

“My music is colourful, with the background of tonality – tonal centres. I can’t shake it completely!”


The Music

Concerto for Oboe and Orchestra was composed between 1974-1976, and was originally for solo oboe and large orchestra. Throughout her life, Mamlok arranged it for different ensembles including chamber orchestra and oboe solo, as well as for oboe, two pianos and percussion. For the purposes of this blog I will be referring to the chamber orchestra version.

As aforementioned, Mamlok’s handling of textures sings out in this piece, with individual lines shining out above others, making this particular concerto incredibly exciting. The playful nature that runs through the veins of this work can be heard both from the extended techniques from the solo oboe, but also from the accompanying ensemble. Mamlok uses the traditionalist idea of the ensemble acting as the foundation for the soloist, although at points this could be (and has been) disputed.

With a plethora of leaping angular melodies as well as the stamina and virtuosity required from the soloist, this concerto is not for the faint-hearted. Rhythmic variety creates excitement throughout the parts, and each part is able to have its ‘moment’ within the work.

This concerto was composed for the virtuoso oboist, a champion of extended techniques for the oboe. Throughout you can hear the use of multi phonics, shakes, trills and flutter-tonguing. The placing of rhythms is very precise and the musical gestures need to be characterised clearly so that the playful nature of the music speaks through. Below the surface of all that has been mentioned above, the music itself is based on Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique, which makes this piece sound more serialist. So when the orchestration becomes more dense, the tonality (or atonality) becomes harder to fathom, it is the placement of textures that make this piece stand out.

Every musician was important to Mamlok, and that cannot be denied after hearing her music.


Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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