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Ursula Mamlok

I came to the Mannes College from Ecuador in 1941, because we couldn't come straight here from Berlin. There was a quota system. I got a scholarship, and I came by myself as a teenager. George Szell was stranded here also. I studied only "model" composing " à la Brahms and as far as, maybe, Strauss and early Stravinsky. If I had brought in anything that was of an experimental nature, Szell would just sort of almost throw me out, because he couldn't relate to the sounds of my attempts. The name Schoenberg was never mentioned, so I didn't know that such a composer existed. This was now the beginning of the war, when nobody was really studying composition, especially at Mannes, where we had two students, George Rochberg and myself, and later, Martin Boykan.

I went one summer to a music institute at Black Mountain College, and there assembled all the European refugees. A big festival of Schoenberg's 75th birthday was celebrated, 1944, and they played all Schoenberg's early music. I still didn't get familiar with what was going on in the first half of the century that I lived in. I was very isolated from that. I noticed after going to Black Mountain College that the kind of music I was writing was not getting me anywhere. It was sort of à la Prokofiev and Hindemith, while I was searching for other ways to compose. Roger Sessions was at Black Mountain, and I went to him, but he left pretty soon to go to California to teach, and so I was for many years without a teacher.

I had no degree, so I couldn't teach. I went to the Manhattan School, but unfortunately the opposite happened from what I wanted to happen. Giannini was a very conservative composer. With Sessions I had already gotten another language of composing for myself. With Giannini I had to compose tonal music that was somehow related to what he could understand. And while I got my degree, I still felt I wasn't ready. I remember Giannini making fun of me and saying, "With whom are you going to study next?"

Well, I knew already it would be Wolpe, because I had heard a great deal about Wolpe being such an influential composer. I met Netty Simons at some occasion, and she said she had studied with Wolpe. I called a friend at the time by the name of Beatrice Witkin, and I told her that I'm going to go to study with Wolpe, and she said, "Oh, I'll go with you. We'll try to both study with Wolpe and share a lesson." We both had no money. This I should never have done, because our personalities were very different. So these lessons we took together didn't work out for me. I called Wolpe one day and said that I have to stop these lessons. He would not hear of it and said, "You come to me, there will be no charge for it. Come twice a week. No student has ever left me."

I composed with Wolpe a piece which is now my most recorded and most played piece, Variations for Solo Flute. I wanted to learn twelve-tone composing. Wolpe actually is not a twelve-tone composer. He did talk about it, but in a very allusive kind of way. I somehow needed something to hold on to to get a new language, and I didn't know quite what to do with Wolpe's teaching. I did write pieces at the time which I didn't understand myself, which I thought somebody else had written. Wolpe liked what I did, but I couldn't believe it, because I felt anybody can do this, I'm faking, I'm not doing something that is true to me. But I fought on. Later I said I would like to have him give analysis classes, because I felt he had so much to offer that should be shared. I told him there are other students like me from the Manhattan School who are really held back in their development. They know nothing about Schoenberg and Webern and about their important influences on other composers. Wolpe needed the money badly, and I said: "I'm going to bring you people in need of your knowledge." There was Bill Karlins and Howard Rovics, and some other students, and we all sat around in the evening and had very interesting times hearing Wolpe discuss the Webern Piano Variations.

Wolpe's teaching at that time was too allusive for me. It wasn't technical enough. He talked very poetically. Today, I could take this, and I use his approach in my own teaching. He would say, "Well, imagine three objects. They could be placed this way, and they could be placed that way." He spoke about the cars in the street. "You watch the traffic, and you get inspired, you compose." Now that at the time meant nothing to me. I wanted to know something about the pitches. Today, thinking about his ideas, they seem very appropriate, and can be very helpful, but not having the technique and having been based in a sort of extended tonal technique, I couldn't do anything with this valuable information. I saw in the lessons that we took together the students composed his music. Of course with many teachers you come up with a language of the teacher. This is a natural thing. At the time, I found this disturbing. All of a sudden I didn't hear myself any more. I couldn't identify with his very original music. But, on the other hand, what else could he have taught if I wanted to learn from him. [...]

But I learned from Wolpe and still maintained how he would free me from writing in narrow ranges and limit myself to symmetrical phrases. Those are very important technical points which I learned through his music. Actually I still have sketches where he would say, "well, this should be this way." And today I can't fathom not accepting his suggestions. It has become a natural language for me to write long arches melodically, and that is something that he showed. He wrote something down, he sometimes also would write down some numbers, he would write down some words--very much like you would teach a child--a sentence where the words could be rotated and there would still be a meaning. There would be permutations of a sentence. I think that's a valid way of teaching music, especially to a beginner.

Born in Berlin (1928) Ursula Mamlok immigrated to the United States in 1941. She studied at the Mannes College and also took private instruction from Wolpe, Sessions, Steuermann, and Shapey. Her work has been recognized by the Fromm, Koussevitzky, and Guggenheim Foundations, and her music has been performed by the Jubal Trio, Parnassus, the Group for Contemporary Music, Speculum Musicae. Her work has been commissioned and performed by the San Francisco Symphony and is published by C.F. Peters. Interview: AC, New York City, 16 February 1985.


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