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  • Writer's pictureGraham Abbott

On the Fringe: Alexander Zemlinsky

It goes without saying that for every so-called great composer there must be a dozen moderately talented composers...and probably a thousand incompetent ones. But I think it's also true that there are many composers who were - or are - very good, perhaps even great, but who for some reason have not remained in the pantheon.

Such things are the bread and butter of history. It even happened to JS Bach, who was known only to a handful of connoisseurs in the half century after his death, before the Bach revival in the early 19th century. Mahler was largely ignored for decades, even in Vienna, until conductors like Leonard Bernstein demanded he be taken seriously. The composer who is the subject of today's post has suffered a similar fate. It's my hope that, if you haven't encountered him, by the end you'll have made a new friend.

Here's some of his music. If you’ve heard this before - or even heard of it - you’ll definitely be in the minority. [listen]

His name is Alexander Zemlinsky and he was born in Vienna in October 1871. To say Zemlinsky came from a mixed background would be an understatement. His father was raised a Catholic, the child of strictly Catholic Austrian and Hungarian parents. His mother was born in Sarajevo to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Bosnian Muslim mother. The entire family eventually converted to Judaism and Alexander was raised Jewish. His father also added the aristocratic "von" to the family name and one still sees the composer's name occasionally as Alexander von Zemlinsky. The "von" was a sign of ennoblement, the equivalent to being made a Lord in the British system, but there are no records of Zemlinsky's father or forebears ever having been ennobled, so it seems the "von" was used without authorisation.

The young Alexander showed musical talent from an early age and studied piano, theory and composition at the Vienna Conservatory. His teachers included Anton Bruckner and early supporters of his compositional aspirations included Johannes Brahms. Zemlinsky's early works - mainly piano works and songs - began to appear in the late 1880s when he was in his late teens. The voice was a natural medium for Zemlinsky; so many of his best works are vocal, be they songs, operas or choral works. Even in his earliest music it's evident that he was a gifted melodist, steeped in the Romantic tradition, steering a middle course between the worlds of Wagner and Brahms. This song dates from around 1889 when Zemlinsky was 18. [listen]

Alexander Zemlinsky (c. 1900)

Running parallel to Zemlinsky's composing work was a career as a conductor. He rapidly became highly-respected in this field and it was conducting that frequently paid the bills, allowing him to compose in his spare time.

In the 1890s Zemlinsky started to teach and one of his pupils was the young Arnold Schoenberg. Schoenberg was an amateur cellist and played in an community orchestra which Zemlinsky conducted in 1895-96. Their relationship developed into a solid friendship, and Schoenberg's early works, steeped in the late Romantic tradition, were written under Zemlinsky's guidance.

Schiele: Arnold Schoenberg (1917)

The first of Zemlinsky's eight operas was written between 1893 and 1895. Called Sarema, it was premiered in Munich in 1897 to great acclaim. The Prelude to Sarema was linked near the beginning of this post; here is some of the vocal writing from the first act. This demonstrates that Zemlinsky's flair for colour and drama was developing well even in his 20s. [listen]

One of Zemlinsky's works which was admired by Brahms was the Clarinet Trio of 1896. Brahms did for Zemlinsky what we had earlier done for Dvořák, which was to recommend the young composer to his own publisher, Simrock. The Clarinet Trio was one of the pivotal works in this turning point in Zemlinsky's career. Scored for the same combination of instruments as Brahms's own Clarinet Trio - clarinet, cello and piano - Zemlinsky's work seems to take up where Brahms left off. There's a passionate twitchiness in this music which is constantly on the move, typical of music written in an era of change. [listen]

Things moved rapidly for Zemlinsky both professionally and personally in the years around the turn of the century. His second opera, Es war einmal... (Once Upon a Time) was premiered in Vienna in 1900 and conducted by Gustav Mahler, who was already a strong supporter. In 1901 Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde, so the friends were now brothers-in-law. Also in 1901 Zemlinsky had a passionate affair with one his students, Alma Schindler. After some months, in which Schindler initially reciprocated Zemlinsky's feelings, she broke it off. Friends seemed to have pressured her to end it, on account of Zemlinsky's lack of an international profile, short stature and supposedly unattractive appearance. The following year Alma married Mahler, thus beginning one of the most famous marriages in music history. Zemlinsky was shattered personally but Mahler continued to support him publicly over the following years.

Arnold and Mathilde Schoenberg
Kokoschka: Alma Schindler (1917)

The work into which Zemlinsky poured his feelings after Alma's rejection of him was an orchestral piece, Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid). Based on the story by Hans Christian Andersen which is usually referred to in English as "The Little Mermaid", Zemlinsky started work on the score a few days before Alma's marriage to Mahler. He wrote about his own feelings, saying, "I feel distraught, cheerless and utterly discouraged". Die Seejungfrau is a major work in three movements lasting about 40 minutes. In it Zemlinsky paints an overwhelming musical picture of love, death and immortality in a magnificent score which deserves to be much better-known. It really is a major work of its time. [listen]

In one of the ironies of history, the 1905 concert in which Die Seejungfrau was premiered was also the event which saw the premiere of Schoenberg's now-famous symphonic poem Pelléas and Mélisande. Zemlinsky's work was received with rapturous applause; Schoenberg's (which is not atonal but one of his late Romantic works) was booed and jeered. Yet Zemlinsky's work fell into immediate obscurity and was considered lost until the score was rediscovered in 1984.

Zemlinsky's influence as a teacher continued to grow in Vienna during the first decade of the 20th century. He and Schoenberg, with the support of Mahler, founded a society to promote new music, but he also worked as a theatre conductor in order to pay the bills. He was primarily an operetta conductor at first but later had the opportunity to conduct operas by Mozart and Wagner. He even conducted the first Viennese performance of Richard Strauss's Salome in 1906, and later the Viennese premiere of Dukas' Ariadne and Bluebeard.

Zemlinsky was on the podium when his own opera Kleider machen Leute (Clothes make People, usually translated as Clothes make the Man) was premiered in 1910. Although his new works were greeted enthusiastically, the acclaim never really lasted, and it was as a conductor rather than as a composer that he made his mark publicly. In 1910 he wrote one his large-scale psalm settings for choir and orchestra, a setting of Psalm 23. The beauty of the opening of this work, clearly intending to evoke the pastoral atmosphere of the "shepherd psalm", is reason enough for it to be taken up by choirs and orchestras more often. [listen]

In 1911 Zemlinsky's increasing reputation as a conductor led to his appointment as Musical Director at the New German Theatre in Prague, a position he held for sixteen years until 1927. During the years in Prague, he managed to continue to compose and in fact produced some of his finest works.

A set of six songs setting texts by Maurice Maeterlinck were completed in 1913, which Zemlinsky later orchestrated, making a cycle of orchestral songs worthy of comparison with similar works of Strauss and Mahler. This is the fourth song of the set. [listen]

The second of Zemlinsky's four string quartets was written in Prague and completed in 1915. It covers some difficult emotional territory for the composer, being an attempt to revisit traumas from the preceding decade. It is clear from the composer's correspondence that the second quartet seeks to exorcise the demons of the Alma Schindler episode. However a break with Schoenberg is also part of the personal territory covered here. In the previous decade Mathilde Schoenberg, Zemlinsky's sister and Schoenberg's wife, had been embroiled in a scandal over an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl. Gerstl had eventually committed suicide over the incident and it seems Schoenberg in part blamed Zemlinksy for what happened.

Musically speaking this also marks a parting of the ways between Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. Although he flirted with dissonance and highly-charged chromaticism, Zemlinsky never followed his former pupil into atonality and serialism. Zemlinsky's view of tonality was stretched and more inclusive as he grew older, to be sure, but the diatonic system was never abandoned. In the second quartet the emotions being unleashed certainly make this one of the works in which Zemlinsky came close to the edge. [listen]

Other works from the Prague period include the Lyric Symphony for soprano, baritone and orchestra, and the opera A Florentine Tragedy.

A Florentine Tragedy is a one-act opera based on Oscar Wilde's unfinished verse drama of the same name. It was composed in 1915-16 and premiered in Stuttgart in 1917. It rapidly had performances throughout Germany and Austria and was probably Zemlinsky's most successful stage work during his lifetime. [listen]

The Lyric Symphony is a work which crosses the boundaries of symphony, song cycle and opera, and is regarded by many as Zemlinsky's finest composition. It is reminiscent of Mahler's The Song of the Earth but has major differences in terms of structure and drama. Zemlinsky's work, completed in 1923 and premiered in 1924, is in seven connected movements lasting some three quarters of an hour. It is, above all, his categorical statement regarding his own decision not to follow Schoenberg and the other atonal composers. The scope of the work is vast, sweeping us up into a whirlwind of emotions. [listen]

Zemlinsky's conducting career took a major step forward in 1923 when he started working as a guest conductor with the Czech Philharmonic, playing a pivotal role in developing that orchestra's Mahler tradition. As an opera conductor he was especially famous as an interpreter of Mozart and Strauss. Stravinsky recalled hearing Zemlinsky conduct Mozart's Figaro in Prague and claimed it was the most satisfying opera performance he'd ever heard.

Despite the growing rift with his brother-in-law, Zemlinsky conducted the premiere of Schoenberg's Erwartung in Prague in 1924. Still, professional rivalries arose with others in Prague in the mid-20s, leading Zemlinsky to move to Berlin in 1927 to accept Otto Klemperer's invitation to be one of the staff conductors at the Kroll Theatre. The Kroll closed in 1931, but Zemlinsky remained in Berlin, taking on more teaching and using the city as a base for his guest conducting which took him all over Europe.

Alexander Zemlinsky

In 1933 Zemlinsky's first new work for six years was premiered in Berlin: the opera Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle). Zemlinsky's reputation was such that several theatres vied for the honour of presenting the premiere, and simultaneous premieres were planned for Berlin, Frankfurt, Cologne and Nuremberg in April 1933. However, politics intervened. Because Zemlinsky was Jewish, the Nazis ordered the work be withdrawn. The premiere eventually took place in Zürich in Switzerland in October 1933 and, as expected, was a massive success for the composer. The whole opera is linked here, but the opening of the third act will give a taste of this gorgeous music. [listen]

Zemlinsky was forced to leave Germany in 1933 although his music continued to be performed there until 1935. Even Der Kreidekreis was performed in Berlin in 1934. He returned to Vienna and completed the short score (that is, the complete work in sketched out form, rather than fully orchestrated) of his last opera, Der König Kandaules. He was forced to flee Vienna in 1938 because of the Anschluss and, like Schoenberg and so many others, ended up in the United States.

Based in New York, Zemlinsky's final years were not happy ones. Der König Kandaules was initially accepted for performance at the Met but rejected on the grounds of the libretto being deemed unsuitable. Zemlinsky never finished the orchestration; this was undertaken in the 1990s by Antony Beaumont. Zemlinsky composed trivial pieces to make a living but the near-total indifference of America towards him is in stark contrast to the way in which Schoenberg was treated as a celebrity on the west coast. (And this was the same period that Erich Korngold, another European refugee, was revolutionising the Hollywood film score.) He started a new opera but work on this was brought to an end by a series of strokes which began in 1939.

Near the end of his life Zemlinsky had a partial reconciliation with Schoenberg but their personal and professional differences were never far from the surface. Dimitri Mitropoulos conducted a nation-wide radio broadcast of Zemlinsky's Sinfonietta [listen] - a rare public outing for any of his music - but for the most part the composer's final days were very dark indeed.

Alexander Zemlinsky died in Larchmont, NY, on 15 March 1942. He was 70. The New York Times published an obituary. In a Europe embroiled in the middle of the second world war his death went largely unnoticed.

The article in Grove Online, used as the main source for this post, describes Alexander Zemlinsky in the following terms:

Zemlinsky was no outright revolutionary. While undisputedly a conductor of the first rank and an interpreter of integrity, he lacked 'star quality' and was overshadowed by more domineering personalities. His music is distinguished by an almost overpowering emotional intensity. It took several decades before it became known and began to be appreciated.

I hope this article has helped you to become one of the growing number of music lovers who are starting appreciate Zemlinsky's music. There's a lot more out there to explore. We'll end with his setting of Psalm 13, composed in Vienna in 1935. [listen]

This article is based on a Keys To Music program first aired on ABC Classic FM (now ABC Classic) in January, 2010.

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