There are still a small number of composers who were born to Jewish families in Germany and Austria in the 1920s, who escaped and came to musical maturity in new homelands. Walter Arlen has already been featured on this site – one could also mention Lukas Foss, Andre Previn, Alexander Goehr, Joseph Horowitz and the recently deceased Ruth Schoenthal . Yet Ursula Mamlok, born in 1923, is quite different from the others. If this generation of younger composers would be inclined to take on the musical personas of their new countries, she maintained a German sensibility that shaped her identity both as an individual, and as musician. Only one composer from the generation born in the 1920s felt comfortable returning. Ursula Mamlok now lives in her native Berlin, and when we met, unlike so many of the other ‘younger’ generation of musical émigrés, she showed no sign that her German was in need of reviving.
Her family found refuge in Ecuador but at the age of 17, she was offered a scholarship to study at New York’s Mannes School of Music with Georg Szell, whom even at such a young age, she found too conventional. Her true musical personality seems to have been ignited at Black Mountain in North Carolina, which despite its provincial location became the post-war meeting spot for central European modernists. Isolated from bustling metropolises, they found their way back into a familiar artistic community, together with like-minded Americans, such as John Cage and Roger Sessions. At Black Mountain, Mamlok encountered Ernst Krenek, Stefan Wolpe and Jerzy Fitelberg along with Eduard Steuermann who composed a piano trio for her. I also know from my conversation that she, like Walter Arlen, studied at least for a short period, with Roy Harris. This fact is missing from the Wikipedia article and her official website, so it’s clear that she never considered his instruction to have had any relevance in her development. Yet I see this omission as something quite different: a composer is not only shaped by influences, but also by that which they reject. When comparing Arlen with Mamlok, it’s clear that Harris represented the dividing line. Harris was American musical establishment and it would have seemed understandable that young refugees would see him as not only a teacher, but as a means of escaping their European identities. If Walter Arlen became more American in his musical outlook following his studies with Harris, Mamlok rejected him entirely. She took Schoenbergian methods learned from Steuermann and Krenek, honed by Sessions and over time used them to her own expressive ends.
In conversations with composers of the Mamlok generation, I’ve encountered either active of passive bitterness towards native countries. The actively bitter can never forgive and never forget, whereas the passively bitter supress their past lives altogether and become musical stalwarts of their adapted homelands. What struck me when speaking with Ursula Mamlok was the serenity of someone coming home – of a circle being completed. There is a marvellous film, which is being shown in Berlin – see the link below. A complex but inspiring and inspirational artist.
KINOSTART: 5. Juni 2014
KINOPREMIERE + ZEITZEUGENGESPRÄCH
mit der 91jährigen Ursula Mamlok und der Filmemacherin Anne Berrini – 5. Juni, 20 Uhr, Hackesche Höfe Kino Berlin