About this Recording
8.559771 - MAMLOK, U.: String Quartet No. 1 / Polyphony No. 1 / Confluences / 2000 Notes / Rhapsody (Spectrum Concerts Berlin, Armida Quartet)
English  German 

Ursula Mamlok (b. 1923)
String Quartet No. 1 • Polyphony No. 1 • Confluences • 2000 Notes • From My Garden • Rhapsody


The music on this recording is from a concert that was given by Spectrum Concerts Berlin in the city’s Philharmonie on 1 February 2013, the ninetieth birthday of the composer Ursula Mamlok. It was her work that constituted the main focus of the programme, set alongside works by Felix Mendelssohn, Leoš Janáček and Hugo Wolf.

Spectrum Concerts Berlin and Ursula Mamlok were made for each other—the existence and artistic work of both represent the light and dark sides of relations between Berlin and the USA. Since 1987, Spectrum’s aim has been to bring together the music and musicians of the Old and New Worlds. As a student, the group’s founder and artistic director Frank Sumner Dodge was profoundly influenced by musicians such as Rudolf Kolisch, who had found refuge from Nazi persecution in the United States. Kolisch and his string quartet brought key works of the modern age to public attention and advocated a way of interpreting music that was both thought through and impassioned.

Ursula Mamlok was born in Berlin on 1 February 1923. It was there that she grew up and attended school until, on 1 April 1938, she was expelled because of her Jewish descent; she had private music lessons, deciding when still a child that she would become a composer and realising her goal despite all the obstacles in her way. Denied the possibility of studying at the state Musikhochschule (Academy of Music), she enrolled at the Jewish Hollaender Private School of Music, where teachers who had been dismissed from the aryanised Stern Conservatory were teaching. A few days after her sixteenth birthday, she left Berlin with her parents, headed for Ecuador, other destinations being closed to emigrants. From there she sought possibilities to study in the USA and was finally given a place at the Mannes School of Music starting on 1 October 1940. For 66 years—more than two thirds of Mamlok’s life so far—New York remained her base. In June 2006, nine months after the death of her husband Dwight D. Mamlok, who had emigrated from Hamburg to Sweden in 1939, then via England to the USA in 1945, Ursula Mamlok took the decision to move to Berlin. Friends, the increasingly positive response to her music in Germany and the quality of the home she has chosen for this last stage of her life all influenced her decision. It would be wrong to call it a homecoming.¹

As a composer, Ursula Mamlok is a poetess. In the field of literature, her compositions would equate to poems, not to the expansive genres of the novel or drama. Her works are dense and through-composed. The form chosen to communicate a musical idea is more important than it would be in broad, epic genres. While she was still young, her first teacher of composition in Berlin, Gustav Ernest, taught her to eschew anything “unnecessary” in a piece of musical work, and she has retained this principle through every stage of her development up to the present day. It is for this reason that her works are brief. The overwhelming majority are chamber music. The forces are tailored to the resources of the ensemble for which she is writing. Ursula Mamlok doesn’t write speculatively; she always composes for a particular performance or set of performances, knowing who will premiere her works.

Mamlok wrote Confluences for the New York chamber ensemble Continuum, which celebrated its 35th anniversary in March 2001. The piece unites essential characteristics of Ursula Mamlok’s musical aesthetics. It comprises three movements arranged in two parts: the first movement is joined to the second by a “transition”, while the very slow third movement is roughly as long as the other two movements put together. The entire work evolves out of the tension between the two elements outlined in the short Introduction—a fast, figurative, playful motif (which Ursula Mamlok has likened to dancing snowflakes) and a calm, lyrical motif, suggested by an extended two-note sequence. These elements continue to be decisive on several levels: in the juxtaposition of songlike and dancing parts, which are woven together contrapuntally to create a polyphonic texture; and in the interchange between lively and cheerful and extremely calm sections. The speeding up of lyrical passages to create figurative ones, the repetitive clarification of quick gestures, which gain a melodic conciseness, and the paraphrasing of a main voice bring about transformations between the contrasts.

The title thus refers to the confluence of opposing initial ideas, but it also points to forms of ensemble playing. In the second movement, a short homophonic strophe like the singing of an imaginary choir emerges from the polyphonic lines. In the first movement, the individual parts unite in parallel movement and even all play in unison. But at the end of the day, confluences remain something that is aimed at, but not fully achieved. At the end of the work there is a slow movement, marked “still, as if suspended”; gone are rapid movement and playful cheerfulness. Voices moving towards each other frequently meet not on the same note, but a hair’s breadth apart in a dissonance that cries out for a melting together which is not attained. Cheerfulness and the elegiac quality that gains the upper hand in the third movement often collide in Mamlok’s compositions. The tension between the two runs through her work like an existential invariable.

When, at the end of the last century, Ursula Mamlok composed the piano piece 2000 Notes for pianists Sarah Cahill and Marcia Eckert, she had not written a major piece for her own instrument, the piano, for almost half a century. The four movements mingle and juxtapose heterogeneous elements in many different ways. The first movement gives the impression of being a chain of ripostes, echoes and correspondences, which the listener is better able to sense than to pin them down: signalling motifs, rhythmic cells, lyrical passages that rise to climaxes, and multi-voiced interweaving overlap momentarily, whilst otherwise succeeding one another with hardly any connection. The piece gives the impression of being extemporised, of a “recitativo obbligato”.

In the second movement an imaginary wordless chorus takes over from a perpetuum mobile that sinks in broad gestures from high up into the depths; the accents in the moving passages and the accompanying chordal interjections conflict with each other (groups of five against four). The slow third movement, which is also the longest, has been given a sober description by the composer herself: “an introductory ostinato in three layers combines with a songful melody which later moves to denser textures before returning to the initial melody which fades away al niente”. She leaves any emotional reaction to the listener.

The final piece is particularly brief. Its virtuosic multiformity contains echoes of the preceding movements. In 2000 Notes reflection and retrospection extend beyond Ursula Mamlok’s own work to essential experience of the history of music. This history is present in the gestures, the different characters and the musical inflections which are, like those of a spoken language, rooted in a long tradition.

Ursula Mamlok’s oeuvre contains an above-average proportion of works for a single instrument—not just for strings, which are able to play more than one line, but also for wind instruments such as the flute, oboe and clarinet. To two of these works she gave the seemingly paradoxical title “Polyphony”. Whilst wind instruments are capable of producing “multiphonics”, they are not able to render the sounding together of several melodic lines. So what is the title referring to?

Polyphony is a way of thinking and of making music in which different elements are brought together coherently and largely simultaneously. It arises when two or more fundamentally independent and internally logical processes are made to act upon one another. This can happen in different ways, not only according to the old rules of counterpoint or of twelve-tone composition. It is necessary in this regard to distinguish between what is heard and what is regulating the musical process in the background.

In the first movement of Polyphony I long high notes and short low notes alternate like dots that can be joined to form two different lines. The polyphony is a product of the memory making a mental connection between similar items. In the second movement, differing characters pervade and take over from one other. In the short third movement a calm melodic line is first bisected, then suppressed by quick figures. It reappears in the fourth movement, whose calm closing tempo leaves it open whether the frequent changes in positions of the notes should be interpreted as the imaginary interaction of two lines or as a single, expressively widely spaced melody.

Ursula Mamlok dedicated the viola piece From My Garden, which also exists in a version for violin, to her husband. It belongs to a group of works with titles referring to nature, which were written mainly from 1983 onwards. It was then that Ursula and Dwight Mamlok decided to live in Dwight’s late parents’ house in San Mateo, California, themselves during the summer months, to escape the heat and closeness of New York. There, they experienced nature with a contradictory intensity: as lush, colourful vegetation and as a subterranean threat—close to their house ran the San Andreas Fault, the geographical manifestation of the existence of two tectonic plates whose movement repeatedly causes major earthquakes in the region.

Mamlok’s composition deals on different levels with plainly opposing forces. Like almost all of her works since 1960, it is based on a twelve-tone row, but in such a way as to produce tonal centres. The piece is a fantasia on the note D and the key of D minor. The main tempo is intended to be very calm, but the decisive developments are set in motion by short, quick gestures that come increasingly to function as ornaments. The basic dynamic is soft, but this is threatened and called into question by energetic outbursts—an idyll with eruptive potential.

Ursula Mamlok likes closed, arc-like forms, in which the end refers back to the beginning. In the Rhapsody, dating from 1989, she realises such symmetry in the overall form and in the way in which individual sections are organised. Five sections succeed one another in the sequence fast – slow – fast – slow – fast (with a slower conclusion). The first fast section is characterised by hurried gestures deriving from melodic cells or repeated single notes. The second section is a pointillistic scherzo. The final section unites elements of the remaining two. The instrumentation of the slower and longer sections in between is economical. They offer different views of a melody with a few accompanying notes and chords scattered across it. The musical material is organised symmetrically (though rhythms and tone-colours are not). The Rhapsody has a two-fold relationship to other works in Ursula Mamlok’s oeuvre. She uses passages from her 1998 Bagatelles for clarinet, cello and piano. Similarly, passages particularly from the slow sections later reappear in Confluences.

It took Ursula Mamlok a long time to find her way to the style to which she aspired. Her First String Quartet, dating from 1962, is one of the first works in which she realised it. The Quartet comprises three movements. In the first and most complex, a few striking gestures and their return in similar guise suggest a network of cross-connections that carry the structure and meaning of the composition. As far as the musical material is concerned, the piece runs backwards from the middle back to its opening, but Mamlok has not created an exact vertical symmetry, instead altering the relationship between gesture, note allocation and voicing in the string parts. Her short introduction to the work calls the first movement “fantasy-like”. One’s first impression may indeed be that the four players are reacting to one another by answering one another imitatively or contrastively. The impression of an improvisation is reinforced by the fact that each part has its own characteristic type of movement because it subdivides the basic pulse differently: into two, thee, four or five. But what seems to be a fantasia is precisely organised. “I tried to free myself from the rhythmic monotony of my earlier works. My interest in working polyphonically on multiple levels of temporal organisation remained the most important characteristic of my music. Whilst I employed this procedure in the first two movements of my String Quartet [the second is a scherzo and trio with a coda], I decided to build the last movement out of individual notes.” It is totally different from the first two movements, is composed like a Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-colour melody), whose notes not only migrate from one instrument to another, but are played in different ways—bowed, plucked, without vibrato or with a lot of vibrato, on the bridge or bowed normally, etc. The verse-like structure is marked by a fixed concluding phrase that recurs seven and a half times. From the second verse—which lengthens the first significantly—onwards, each one that follows is shortened by two bars. This produces a funnel-like form. This quiet finale is a monophonic piece, whose melodic line is divided between four instruments and seven different ways of playing. In Polyphony I Mamlok achieved virtual polyphony with a single melody instrument. In the finale of the First String Quartet, by contrast, she fans out one voice across several instruments and tone colours.

Habakuk Traber

English translation: Susan Baxter

¹ For more detail, see: Habakuk Traber: “Time in Flux”. Die Komponistin Ursula Mamlok Vienna, Cologne, Weimar 2012.

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