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Ursula Mamlok, Avant-Garde Composer, Dies at 93 – The New York Times

Ursula Mamlok, Avant-Garde Composer, Dies at 93 – The New York Times


Ursula Mamlok, Avant-Garde Composer, Dies at 93


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Ursula Mamlok, who fled Nazi Germany and became a fixture on the New York music scene, in an undated photograph. Berrini Films 

Ursula Mamlok, a German-born composer who fled the Nazis and went on to establish an esteemed career in New York, died on Wednesday in Berlin. She was 93.

Her death was announced by Bridge Records, which has released five albums of her work.

Ms. Mamlok, who moved back to Berlin 10 years ago, was for decades a fixture of the New York contemporary music scene. A longtime faculty member of the Manhattan School of Music, she was known in particular for her chamber music, piano works and vocal pieces.

Her compositions have been performed by some of the world’s leading soloists, orchestras and chamber ensembles, among them the oboist Heinz Holliger, the pianist Garrick Ohlsson, the San Francisco Symphony, the Daedalus Quartet and the Da Capo Chamber Players.

Her best-known works include an oboe concerto, recorded by Mr. Holliger; a song cycle, “Der Andreas Garten,” with text by her husband, Dwight Mamlok, a businessman and poet; “Stray Birds,” a setting for voice, flute and cello of poems by Rabindranath Tagore; and “Sintra,” for alto flute and cello.

Though Ms. Mamlok often employed the techniques of serial music, her style defied ready categorization. (Devised by Arnold Schoenberg, serial, or 12-tone, musicentails using all 12 notes of the Western chromatic scale in equal proportion throughout a work.)

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Her music could be atonal, but it was often less so — and, as a result, less forbidding-sounding — than that of other avant-gardists. Critics praised its deliberate, economical spareness; its light, almost pointillist aspect; its sense of wit and play; and its almost palpable emotional clarity.

Reviewing a program of Ms. Mamlok’s work at Merkin Concert Hall in Manhattan in 1987, Michael Kimmelman wrote in The New York Times that “when she works in serial forms,” Ms. Mamlok’s music “is relieved of crabbed knottiness; even at its most dissonant, the textures remain crystal clear, allowing each instrument in an ensemble to have its say.”

Ursula Meyer was born in Berlin on Feb. 1, 1923. Her father, Hans, died when she was a baby; a few years later, on the remarriage of her mother, the former Thea Goldberg, to Hans Lewy, Ursula took his surname.

Ursula began composing as a child and studied piano and composition in Berlin. Once the Nazis placed school music programs off limits to Jews, her family began holding musicales in their home, with Ursula writing the music.

Ms. Mamlok was known for chamber music and piano works marked, critics said, by their spareness and sense of play. Martin Sachse/ullstein bild, via Getty Images 

After the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, the family determined to leave the country. In early 1939 they made their way to Guayaquil, Ecuador, where they had relatives.

Chafing at the lack of musical education there, Ursula had her mother ask the American consul in Guayaquil to petition conservatories in the United States to admit her.

On the strength of his letter — and of the score of one of Ursula’s compositions, which was enclosed — the Mannes School of Music, as it is now known, offered her a full scholarship.

In 1940, at 17, Ursula traveled alone to New York to begin her studies; she Americanized her surname to Lewis after her arrival. Her parents were able to join her the next year.

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At Mannes, she studied composition with the distinguished conductor George Szell, himself a recent refugee from Hungary. A tonal traditionalist, he steeped her in the approach of 19th-century masters like Brahms.

In 1944, wanting to learn modernist techniques, she studied with the composer Ernst Krenek at Black Mountain College, then a mecca for members of the European avant-garde. She later studied with Stefan WolpeRoger SessionsRalph Shapey and Vittorio Giannini.

Ms. Mamlok, who became an American citizen, received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Manhattan School of Music in the 1950s.

Over the years she also taught at New York University, the City University of New York and Temple University. Her honors include a Guggenheim fellowship and the Walter Hinrichsen Award for composition from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

Ms. Mamlok’s husband, whom she married in 1947, died in 2005. No immediate family members survive.

Her other compositions include “Five Intermezzi,” for solo guitar; “Aphorisms,” for solo violin; “Above Clouds,” for viola and piano; and “Haiku Settings,” for soprano and flute.

Her work has also been recorded on the CRI, Newport Classic, Opus One and Centaur labels.

Although Ms. Mamlok was every inch an avant-gardist, she had little truck with electronic music, as she told the journalist Bruce Duffie in a 1996 interview:

“Unfortunately I have no connection to it,” she said. “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.”



Jim Eigo Jazz Promo Services T: 845-986-1677 E-Mail: jim@jazzpromoservices.com



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