Ursula Mamlok lived until the age of sixteen in her native Berlin, where she began composing as a child. She studied with Professor Gustav Ernest and Emily Weissgerber. In recent interviews she has recalled her family’s mainstream synagogue affiliation and Jewish holy day observances, and she also remembers anti-Semitic slurs against her as a child even prior to the Nazi era. When, during the early years of the National Socialist regime, Jews were excluded from the Hausmusik programs in public schools, her father organized private musicales in their home, for which she wrote music. Following the infamous orchestrated nationwide pogrom in 1938 known as Kristallnacht, the family left Germany for Ecuador—for the American immigration quotas precluded their entry into the United States by that time (1939). But in Ecuador, feeling alienated, her parents became disaffected from Judaism and abandoned Jewish observances and celebrations altogether. “We were angry,” she has recalled. “Suddenly all of our family members were in concentration camps or were being murdered, and somehow we didn’t feel like celebrating anything.”
Eventually, in 1940, the family was able to settle in New York, where she studied with George Szell at the Mannes School of Music for four years. In 1956 she studied composition with Vittorio Giannini at the Manhattan School of Music, where she received her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. During that period her music tended to reflect the traditional, tonal approach of Giannini. But her subsequent studies with Roger Sessions—and additional work with such exponents of a more advanced modern musical language as Stefan Wolpe and Ralph Shapey—broadened her harmonic bases and techniques and freed her from complete reliance on conventional tonalities. “It [the music written after those exposures] is probably the same music I wrote before, only with a different technique.” She also studied piano with Edward Steuermann, one of New York’s leading piano pedagogues of that time, whose pupils included such major concert pianists as Lorin Hollander, Alfred Brendel, and Joseph Kalichstein.
Steuermann had a close association with Arnold Schoenberg, and this also played an influential role in Mamlok’s own musical development. She agrees, however, with those who maintain that no music is technically “atonal,” even if it may disregard common practice foundations. “My music is colorful, with the background of tonality—tonal centers....I can’t shake it completely.”
In addition to her Cantata based on the First Psalm, her significant works are her string quartets; Panta rhei (Time in Flux), for piano trio (1981); Der Andreas Garten (1987), for flute, harp, and mezzo-soprano, to poetry by her husband, Gerard Mamlock; Grasshoppers (1956), for solo piano; Two Thousand Notes (2000), a millennium celebration; and Constellations (1993), commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony. She was honored with a festival and symposium at the Manhattan School of Music in April 2006.