Ursula Mamlok: From My Garden


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, due to the ongoing Nazi persecution, Mamlok and her family immigrated to Ecuador. 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

From My Garden was composed in 1983, during the middle period of her career. Intended as a solo piece for viola, there have also been various adaptations of the piece for violin and other stringed instruments. Throughout the twentieth century, Mamlok was one of the leading serialists, with her inspirations coming from the likes of Berg, Webern and Schoenberg. Each piece she composed was approached differently in terms of harmony and structure. From My Garden uses an edited version of the 12-tone scale. Mamlok wrote extensively about this piece, saying:


“As far as form is concerned, I prefer simple closed forms (such as ABA) and their extensions.What interests me about the… piece … is this: how is it that music composed with two strictly observed systems, twelve-tone for pitch and time point for rhythm, is so easy to listen to? The evolution of the piece should be characterized as a sort of chance process; I took the chance to see whether or not the game I was playing with the matrix would in the end give me a non-twelve-tone piece.”


For the entirety of the work, the viola plays unaccompanied, leaving the listener to build up a picture for themselves. Mamlok utilises silence and other short gaps to create an overall effect throughout this piece. An array of different textures are explored alongside the recognisably serialist harmony. Mamlok also explores some extended techniques including pizzicato strumming. There are noticeable ebbs and and flows within the piece, however the music stay rather contained throughout. The work is an important study for the viola as it tests boundaries and showcases the ability of the player and instrument. 


Ⓒ Alex Burns

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