Composer Ursula Mamlok
A Conversation with Bruce Duffie
As we are now firmly into the 21st Century, it almost seems irrelevant
to speak of hindrances concerning being a woman composer —
or any profession, really. But we look back on those who slogged
through the earlier generations and there is the entire range of
ease-to-impossibility when it comes to living within any given
Surely, Ursula Mamlok had setbacks, including being part of the
German-Jewish community in the 1930s. Her immediate family
managed to relocate and she was able to continue with her life.
Professionally she seems to have moved right along. Her catalogue
of compositions is impressive and varied, there are numerous recordings
to enjoy and study, and her students will carry her instruction into
For a complete list of her works and recordings, visit her website .
Mamlok became known to me through my friends at BMI, and we finally
were able to set up a time for an interview. She was visiting San
Francisco when I caught up with her for the conversation . . . . .
I want to talk mostly about composing
and teaching and your music, but first I
want to ask about your early days. How did you
wind up in Ecuador?
Unfortunately this was
the time of Hitler’s Germany, when we were persecuted as Jews. We
couldn’t really escape to the places that would be desirable,
like for instance the U.S. At that time you had to just go
wherever you had a relative who would put a deposit down for
you. My father had a cousin in Ecuador and he was the one
who gave us the necessary papers.
Eventually you made
it to the United States...
yes. That’s an interesting story. My mother sent my music
to somebody she had met in
Europe who was a professor at Columbia. That led to
sending my music to the Mannes Music School — now the Mannes College of
Music — and I got a scholarship saying
that if I could be in New York by the beginning of the next school
would be welcome to study with George Szell. So I left my
parents who were still in Ecuador but didn’t have the affidavit that
you needed. I was very fanatical about studying music and
becoming a composer.
BD: What exactly did
you study with Szell? He was, of course, a conductor.
UM: Yes, he
was a conductor and had been invited to conduct Toscanini’s NBC
Symphony. Because of the war he couldn’t return to Europe, so he
decided to take a little extra job as a composition teacher. He
was the one that taught George
Rochberg, myself and Martin Boykan. We were his three private
BD: You later
studied with people who were
composers. Was the conductor’s style of teaching composition
different from a composer’s style of teaching composition?
Yes. George Szell was a very
conservative musician; he conducted
Stravinsky as contemporary music, but he didn’t like Schoenberg,
Webern and so on. What he gave me was a solid
background — of which I had already some from my
teacher in Germany — of
the classical repertoire, studying scores and composing. It was
composing of tonal music in the style of
Brahms. Whatever you wanted to study, it sounded more
or less like pieces one had heard and studied as a piano student.
BD: I want to
ask a question that
might sound a bit indelicate on its surface, but realizing how far we
come, did Szell discourage you at all because you were a woman?
UM: No, I
cannot say that he did. He had a very
high standard and he was very rough. Later, as I heard, when he
was with the Cleveland Orchestra, he wasn’t loved as a conductor or as
a person. He was feared! And he put
this kind of fear into me. As a young student, everything had to
be correct and that expressed itself. You
couldn’t write parallel fifths; this was a rule in
harmony, as you know! And you had to watch the rules of classical
music. He couldn’t really help you if you came
with something that wasn’t based in the principles of
eighteenth and nineteenth century music.
BD: So he
wasn’t very forward-looking in composition?
no. Definitely not. But I learned a lot from
him, and my music began sounding more like Prokofiev and maybe
a little bit Hindemith. Those were the works that you heard in
the 1940’s. Those were his favorite twentieth
century composers, so the music of mine got somewhat colored by
listening and studying those scores. But he mostly would stick to
studying Wagner, but Wagner somehow
didn’t have an influence on my composition at the time.
BD: One last
question on Szell — did
he ever eventually conduct any of your works?
unfortunately. Well, [laughs] this was very funny. At
Mannes, I wrote a string quartet with him,
and he went down to the auditorium and got together four string
players and conducted them to show me how the
piece really goes! He was an exceptional pianist! He could
play anything at tempo! He was just a
BD: I’m glad
you had a good experience
with him. You then later studied with
composers and you, yourself, taught composition.
yes. I still do.
BD: Do you
incorporate some of their techniques and
their theories, or have you moved beyond all of that?
UM: My own
music still adheres very
much to classical forms. I feel more comfortable with something
where you have themes and things that were used in the
so-called Classical Era. But I later on moved and have been
interested to study Schoenberg and twelve-tone music, and
studying with Ralph Shapey also was a great thing for me. Some of
those techniques, plus something that I cooked up myself, I use
in my own teaching. I usually let the student
start where he is at to improve what he is doing. But I also
like to give a student something to think about that he may not have
thought about on his own.
BD: Are you
encouraged by what you
see on the pages of your students?
UM: Yes, very
often I have good students that
really wrote expressive music. And it’s very
intriguing. This year I’m teaching at the
Bennett School in New York, and I’m getting a young woman from
Russia. I haven’t met her yet, but she signed up with
me and that will be interesting.
BD: Has she
signed up with you because he has
heard your music, or because she has heard of your reputation as a
UM: She was
Tania León’s student. Tania was
a student of mine and recommended her.
really is a
lineage that has been passed on from generation to generation, from
teacher to student
throughout the history of music.
BD: Do you
feel you’re part of this long lineage?
UM: I do,
yes. I am coming from what is
sometimes called the Middle European School, or the German School,
and from Schoenberg and Webern as the end of nineteenth century but
beginning of twentieth century
composers. I probably am a follower there, although my music
sounds quite different from Schoenberg’s music. And I’m passing
that on to the next
generation who will incorporate it with what they are hearing, and
other influences that they are coming across.
BD: So where
is music going today?
UM: I don’t
know! Nobody knows. Music history goes in waves.
There’s always a very complex idea of
composers. Take Bach, followed by composers who write more
homophonic music, like Haydn and Mozart. Then it gets
more complex again in Beethoven and Brahms and Wagner. Operetta
music started as a simplified classical music. Now we have had
maybe sixty or seventy years of twelve
tone influenced music, and while some of us still adhere to this,
others have found this too complex; the total negation of this
would be a minimalist approach. So these phases go in and
out, and we don’t know what the next century will bring us. It
probably will be much influenced by electronic music and many
composers. Unfortunately I have no connection to it. I’ve
written one electronic piece. 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. Of course the
computer music is the thing
that will probably be developed much further.
BD: But I
assume it was a good thing for you to
experiment with the electronics, at least even briefly.
UM: Oh, yes,
yes! Absolutely! The piece
came out quite well, and I sometimes use it when people ask me if I
have any electronic music. This one piece has been
performed at a festival in Santa Cruz and even got a very good
review! But it stands alone
because I’d rather be a composer the old-fashioned
way, with pencil and eraser!
BD: When you
have the pencil in your hand, are you
controlling where it goes, or does it lead your hand across the page?
UM: No, I’m
controlling. I am controlling,
although what comes out sometimes will lead me a different way than
where I thought I would go. This
happens. Now I’m in the midst of writing a string quartet
for the Cassatt Quartet made up of four young women. They’re
well-known; they have
some records out, and they play a lot in modern music concerts.
What happens is that I set out with an idea, and then suddenly I
see something or it does something. That’s a kind of
miracle, maybe; one doesn’t know quite where it comes from, and it will
have to be developed differently. Or it could be developed in so
many different ways and you have to make choices. So perhaps the
choice of that particular phrase of music is quite different than from
what you first wanted it to do. So there’s control, and
you’re working on it, are you also erasing and retooling
UM: Yes, yes,
rewriting a lot. The main
job is really editing. I sometimes say I start editing before I
even write a note! [Laughs]
BD: Sure! So
my question is, how do you know when you’re finished?
UM: I play
it. I use the piano
in composing; I’m not ashamed to say it, although some people think
that’s no good and you should absolutely compose at the desk
only. But I know when I’m finished by playing
through and hearing through and reading the pages again. When it
feels complete and when I can’t change it, I’m finished.
goes, of course, sometimes over weeks where the end will
not sound right, and that is something that Szell said to
me was very meaningful. He said, “A piece must have a good
ending because that’s the last thing the listener remembers. If
a piece has a poor ending, the whole piece is worthless!” There’s
truth in that.
BD: When you
request for a piece, or a commission, how do you decide if you
will accept that idea or turn it aside?
depends how busy my schedule is and also
whether I like the combination, the performers and the opportunity
of where it will be performed. My last piece was for
organ; that’s a very unfamiliar instrument for me so I did it as a
challenge. People told me it’s very difficult to
write for organ and it turned out to be that way. This piece
was for the A.G.O., the American Guild of Organists. They had a
festival centennial in New York and my piece was played four
times. Unfortunately I wasn’t there; I had an
accident with my foot and couldn’t travel, and I don’t know how well
this piece worked
because I have no recording of it. I’m a little bit afraid that I
should maybe not have accepted that commission!
BD: You can’t
rely on the word of the
people who were there to tell you it worked or didn’t?
no! Perhaps I will get a recording of
it, but it depends so much on the organ. I heard that the
organ where this piece was played was not the best and the acoustics
weren’t good. With organ music, you really depend on that because
way you plan your registration — that is the
orchestration of such a
piece — is not the same on every organ.
That can be a mishap, you know!
BD: Of the
pieces that you have heard of yours
over the years, have you basically been pleased with the performances?
UM: Yes and
no. I have had very good performances
and also not good performances. It depends very much how much
time people give, and whether it’s a very experienced group to play
difficult music. In general, yes. I’ve had an
all-Mamlok concert with some of my music and those
were all good groups; they were the best groups in New York that
played and I got some very nice performances. Also when
something is recorded, usually you get a better performance because
the people edit it and really prepare it better than if it’s
just the concert.
BD: It sounds
like really you just need to take more
absolutely. You have to. Unfortunately especially in New
York the performers are so busy that they give it three
rehearsals. No matter how difficult a piece is, three
rehearsals are not enough! Recently I had a quartet for a
New York, and they had to pull in David Gilbert to conduct. He’s
a fabulous conductor, but you certainly would not conduct a
Schubert or Beethoven quartet, or would have ever thought of
that. But today even small ensembles get conducted. It’s
simply faster to get it on its feet.
BD: To be
taught, rather than to learn it?
UM: Yes, yes!
music is at least
a little bit difficult. Do you write it to be difficult, or do
you write it just the way it has to come out?
UM: Just the
way it has to come out. My music has also gone through its own
history. I started as a tonal composer and I wrote pieces there
that were not too difficult to perform. Then I got
interested in different kinds of phraseology and rhythms that were not
square. At first I wrote very predictably rhythmically, and
especially with Ralph Shapey I was learning a lot about
asymmetrical rhythms. The music became more difficult for the
performer because it was new. The performers in the
sixties were not as used to this type of music as they are now.
BD: Are they getting
more used to it?
UM: They are
getting more used to it. In my own
case, my music gets simpler. Why is this? I don’t
know. I just feel I don’t need some of the very mathematically
combinations to express what I want to express. So I write
music that maybe goes back in my own history to former musics.
BD: This is
not to say you disown any of your
no! Well yes, some I do. I usually start
with my Woodwind Quintet
which I wrote when I was a student at the
Manhattan School. It’s my longest piece that is
recorded; it is on a record — a CD —
with the Quintet of
the Americas. That is a piece
that is not so tonal. It’s a chromatic piece, but it’s
simpler in concept than pieces I wrote after 1961. I
started to get interested and tried out what I could do with twelve
tone approach, and that was very difficult for me at first. I had
to teach myself, really, because nobody taught classes in that
technique at the time. And now it is not taught either, because
passé, they say! So you never know! Today you have
a secret of it if you want to be a composer who composes twelve-tone
music. You better not tell it to the audience because they will
automatically think that it’s incomprehensible kind of stuff!
kind of dancing around it so
let me ask the question straight on — what is the
purpose of music?
That’s a good question. The
purpose of music is probably that if you are gifted in music, to
yourself as somebody else would be in writing stories or poetry.
The purpose is to not entertain, but to give people something that
could be either uplifting or disturbing; something for
people’s emotional life. Perhaps there is also an intellectual
on what kind of music.
BD: Is there
no entertainment value at
all in it?
there should be, but the word entertainment often is coupled with show
music or light music, although that isn’t necessary because certainly a
scherzo in a Mozart or Beethoven symphony is something that can be
lighthearted and therefore entertaining. In my music, I feel I
have a lot of contrasts and often a kind of humor. People tell
me that’s what they are getting from places in my
music. So entertainment is an important aspect of my
music. Also an important thing is educational music, of which I
have written quite a lot. Piano music or orchestra music for
children. This should be not talking
down to young people, but rather give them something that has the
sound of our time but still is geared toward a younger mind.
Children can really accept much more than you sometimes give them
credit for because they are not inhibited and prejudiced against so
many things that adults, and some of the so-called music lovers, are.
BD: Is there
that we can encourage more listening to new music and
more audiences from various places to come to new music concerts?
Yes. We are always trying. Various new music groups
are trying to play music in different
styles, since we have many styles of music nowadays. I believe
that new music should be played within a concert of not
only new music, but ones that include music that people will
know. They might get the message and want to hear more of this
music, so then there are the special concerts that feature mostly new
BD: But you
would rather be on a mixed program?
UM: I would,
yes. I had a wonderful
time with the San Francisco Symphony when I composed a piece for
them with a commission, and Herbert Bloomstedt was conducting.
[See my Interview
with Herbert Blomstedt.] It
was on a program with Beethoven’s Seventh
Symphony, and Bartók’s
BD: You were
in good company!
UM: I was in
good company, and the violinist was
Midori, so the house was filled to capacity!
didn’t hold any terrors for you, did it?
no. I got good reviews and comments,
and people seemed to enjoy it.
BD: How can we get
conductors, then, to champion this kind of thing?
very, very difficult. If a
piece is played once, it’s often very difficult to have another
orchestra or conductor do it. The conductors who do new music
always want to have a premiere.
something prestigious about that?
Yeah. It’s very difficult to get that
second or dozens of performances of a new piece. But
it can be done. I had two performances of this piece so
far. The promotion is a very important aspect. Most
composers, like myself, have no agents. You’re busy composing
the piece, making the deadline, copying, being at rehearsals and doing
things necessary, so you have no time — at least
I have no time — to call up conductors. It’s also an
embarrassing kind of element to advertise your own music.
BD: “Hi, I
gotta piece. You want to play it?”
Yeah, that’s right, you know! People do it, and do it
successfully, but I
am not that way, unfortunately. It’s very difficult, but
the publisher will. I’m published by C.F. Peters, and he’s a very
reputable publisher, but not for promotion so much. The music is
there and the people who know about
the catalogue of C.F. Peters will find it. But one does actually
need a promoter to do with any kind of art and commercial things that
do need advertising. It’s very costly.
BD: It seems
that there are a number of composers who
are very good at promotion, but their music is not really work
that happens! Yes, yes! That
happens as in all other ways of life. Sometimes a good
car is not promoted as much as an inferior one. It’s a lifetime
struggle, and yet we do it.
BD: I assume
that you shouldn’t think of music as
UM: No, you
should not. But in a way, certain music is, of course, a
commodity; it has mass appeal
and is sort of anonymous. Much of a popular kind of music
has this. But you do not reach more than an elite group of other
composers to listen to your music if it doesn’t get
publicized. Not that it’s a commodity, but as something
that would be worthwhile to get among people which are not only your
BD: A number
of your pieces have
been recorded, so that gives them a little more universality.
Yes. That is very important. Today a
recording is more important than publication because everybody can
purchase it... although the music of composers like myself is often
hidden in the record shops. Or you have to ask for it,
and then it will appear in the computer, and the clerk says, “Ah, yes,
this does exist,
and can maybe be ordered!” [Both laugh] The radio does a lot of
for the composer because you have the recordings
there and you advertise us by announcing it.
BD: This is,
of course, what I do with my programs!
UM: Yes, yes,
that’s very important. We haven’t
enough good [commercial] radio stations, and maybe a few university
exactly. Well, I try to do my part.
UM: Yes, you
do! I know!
BD: One last
question: is composing fun?
UM: Ah, that
is a mixed question! [Laughs]
I find that once I’m at it and do it, it’s fun and it’s interesting
and challenging. But sometimes you feel, my goodness, this is
such a difficult problem I’m now having to overcome in this certain
piece. You don’t dare to get at it and you do all sorts of other
things first before getting to the work! So it’s a
mixed blessing, for me at least. Of course it’s wonderful once a
piece is finished, and you look at it and it caps off and sounds
good. It gets performances and you feel the work
has been worthwhile. But I often feel I won’t be
able to finish this piece or be able to go ahead! I guess many
composers have that kind of problem.
BD: But it
always manages to be completed?
BD: Do you
have any advice for the young
composers coming along?
UM: I feel
the young composer should always
study the history of music and be very well acquainted with the music
of all ages and all types, and then make choices where they want to
hook in. Nobody composes in a vacuum, and you have to
have your influences partly from the country that you’re coming from,
the musical surroundings and the teaching. I feel one
should have always an open mind to absorb as much as possible. I
always say to the young composers, “You must hear a lot of
concerts. Don’t rely only on recordings because that is quite
different. Music is also an art to be seen.” It’s very
interesting and great fun to observe a pianist or a chamber
group or an orchestra. Rehearsals are most important, I think,
for a composer.
appreciate your taking the time from your visit
to San Francisco to chat with me tonight.
UM: Oh, well,
you’re very welcome. That has
been great fun!
Ursula Mamlok began her study of music in her native city of Berlin,
and continued at the Mannes College of Music in New York with George
Szell. She earned Bachelor of Music and Master of Music degrees from
the Manhattan School of Music. She also studied with Roger Sessions,
Ralph Shapey, and Stefan Wolpe.
Among her numerous commissions are those from the Koussevitsky and
Fromm Music Foundations, Alaria Chamber Ensemble, Eastman School of
Music, Earplay and The San Francisco Symphony. She has received awards
and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, Meet the Composer,
the Martha Baird Rockefeller Foundation, and, in 1995, a Fellowship
from the Guggenheim Foundation.
Her works are regularly performed by major domestic foreign ensembles
and have been recorded by the CRI, Gasparo, Leonarda, Newport Classic,
Music and Arts, Opus One, True Media, and Centaur labels, and are
published by C.F. Peters Corporation, American Composers Edition,
McGuinness and Marx, and Hildegard. In 1987, Ursula Mamlok received a
Commendation of Excellence "for her contribution to the world of
concert music" by BMI.
She has been on the composition faculties of New York University, City
University of New York, Temple University, and the Manhattan School of
Music. She is also a board member of the League/ISCM.
© 1996 Bruce Duffie
This interview was recorded on the telephone on July 25,
1996. Portions were used (along with recordings) on WNIB in
transcription was made and posted on this
website in 2009.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago
from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of
2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and
journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM,
as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.
You are invited to visit his website
for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of
other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also
to call your attention to the photos and information about his
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