Ursula Mamlok: Breezes
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!”
Composed in 2014, Breezes is scored for a mixed chamber ensemble including clarinet, violin, viola, cello and piano. Formed of just two short movements, Mamlok explores the extremities of all five instruments.
Movement I – Slow
Opening with a single note that is played around the ensemble, the clarinet soon takes the melodic lead. Mamlok instructs pizzicato accompaniments to bash against long lyrical lines, creating a dichotomy of ideas. The extreme use of high and low notes pushes the instrumentalists to the limits of their instruments. Shrill bursts of music bring the ensemble together in between long sustained lines from the cello and viola. A short piano interlude brings the mood back down before a full bottom to top piano run is heard that ends the opening movement.
Movement II – Quarter Note = 52
The solemn opening of the second movement is lead first by the cello, but is then soon moved around to all the voices within the ensemble. The carefully placed piano notes add a new timbre to the mix, as the strings blend their woody sounds together. Mamlok’s writing here is very interesting, with some of her orchestration choices proving to be very effective. The music stays at a low level throughout, and ends with a quiet pulsating figure from the clarinet.
Ⓒ Alex Burns
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