Ursula Mamlok: Constellations


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

Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in 1991, Mamlok’s Constellations is one of her main works for orchestra. This exploratitive work is set into four movements, with each showcasing different areas of the orchestra.


Movement I

Opening with a bold brass theme, the chaotic sounds soon bundle in to create an intense wave of sounds. The ebb and flow of quiet floating sections and loud cacophonous sounds keeps your ears on the edge as you’re never sure where Mamlok is going to next. There are remnants of a tune that is passed through the strings and winds, however the opening brass theme lays the ultimate foundation for the development of this movement.


Movement II

The spritely second movement is an exploration of timbre and textures. Mamlok’s extensive use of auxiliary percussion adds many new layers into the mix as the strings play a jaunty theme. Although it may sound chaotic, it is all very structured and planned, with each voice making their own important contribution. 


Movement III 

Marked ‘Tranquil’, the slower third movement opens with a string theme. Mamlok often showcases the oboe or cor anglais where she can, and this movement is no different. Short bursts of solos show her more melodic side. The music is quite solemn in style, however there is always a welcome edge to Mamlok’s style. A lot is developed during this movement in terms of themes and orchestration, Mamlok really pushes the boat out in the latter. The movement ends as it began, quietly with no real resolution. 


Movement IV

The finale movement is full of bombastic energy that is controlled by the timpani and brass during the introduction. Mamlok works hard on the dynamics, with whip cracks signifying a quick change in sound throughout. The orchestra have to work hard to keep up with each other, as huge swells of unison passages ring around the ensemble. Softer sections are opposed by much louder themes that spring out of nowhere. This happens near the end, which signifies the final stretch of the piece. A huge rumble from the percussion ends this awesome piece of orchestral music.



Ⓒ Alex Burns

Happy Reading!

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