Alexander Zemlinsky

14/10/1871 Venna, 15/03/1942 Larchmont, USA  


Alexander Zemlinsky’s parents met in Vienna. His mother, nee Clara Semo, was born in Sarajevo, while the ancestors of his father, Adolf Semlinsky, came to Austria from Upper Hungary (now eastern Slovakia). He changed the spelling of his surname to the Hungarian “Zemlinszky” and added to it the nobiliary particle “von”, although neither he nor his forbears were ennobled. Clara was of Jewish and Muslim descent; Adolf was raised as a Catholic, yet, because of his wife, converted to Judaism. They wed on 8 January 1871 in a Sephardic synagogue in Vienna. Alexander was born on 14 October that year. The second-born child, Bianca, only lived for a month. In 1877, Clara gave birth to twins, the boy Matthias, of whom no information is available, and the girl Mathilde. Alexander grew up in Leopoldstadt, a Viennese district with a high number of Jewish inhabitants. His father worked as a secretary at the local synagogue, which pursued the ancient traditions of the Sephardim from Turkey and Spain, and where Alexander Zemlinsky gained his initial experience with music as a member of the choir. At the age of 13, he enrolled at the Konservatorium der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde (Conservatory of the Society for Friends of Music) in Vienna, where he studied with distinction, graduating in 1892 with the Symphony in D minor. The compositions dating from that period (particularly the Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 3, completed in 1896) reveal the influence the music of Johannes Brahms (1833–1897) had on Zemlinsky. 

Trio for Clarinet, Cello and Piano, Op. 3, dating from 1896, attests to Zemlinsky’s admiration for the music of Johannes Brahms, as also evidenced by its instrumentation. The recording of the first movement of the piece, Allegro ma non troppo, was made by Wolfgang Meyer (clarinet), Markus Hadulla (piano) and Mischa Meyer (cello)

A friend till the end
"Even many years later, he has remained a person to whom I would turn whenever I need advice, and I try to imagine how he would behave." (Arnold Schönberg)

Zemlinsky probably made the acquaintance of Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) in 1895. Notwithstanding all the trials and tribulations fate had in store for them, the two composers would remain close friends and colleagues up until Zemlinsky’s death in 1942. Zemlinsky, just three years older, gave Schönberg composition lessons. Their bond further reinforced when, in 1901, Schönberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde. Zemlinsky not only initiated Schönberg into Vienna’s musical life, he also revised his pupil’s pieces, some of which he even performed. Within his training, Schönberg created a piano reduction for Zemlinsky’s first opera, Sarema (1897). The two artists also shared the same religious inclinations. In 1898, Schönberg converted to Protestantism; a year later Zemlinsky took the same step. Circa 1902, Schönberg began extricating himself from Zemlinsky’s influence and decided to pursue his own path, ultimately arriving at a radically different approach, characterised by starkly dissimilar aesthetics. Prime examples of the transformation of the two composers’ styles are two symphonic poems, Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande, completed in 1903, and Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), based on a fairy tale by Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875), finished in 1905. Yet both Zemlinsky and Schönberg remained keen champions of contemporary music, with their enthusiasm in this domain leading in 1904 to the foundation in Vienna of the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (Society for Creative Musicians).

Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), based on Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale The Little Mermaid, published in 1837, premiered in January 1905 in Vienna within a concert that also featured Schönberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The audience response to Zemlinsky’s piece was largely favourable, which cannot be said of Schönberg’s tone poem. This recording was made by the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, conducted by Riccardo Chailly.

From operetta conductor in Vienna to opera company director in Prague
"All would be well with the world if there were no operettas.
" (Alexander Zemlinsky)

Zemlinsky gained his very first experience as a conductor at an early age, with a synagogue choir. Significant in his development in this respect was his leading Polyhymnia, an amateur orchestra he established in 1895 (its members included Schönberg, who played the cello, reportedly “equally falsely and passionately”, which, however, was not the only reason for the orchestra’s short-lived existence). In 1900, following his father’s death, Zemlinsky had to take care of his family. He became Kapellmeister of the operetta Carltheater in Vienna. Although he rather disliked his job, the engagement afforded him the opportunity to gather experience which he would later on bring to bear – as a composer, opera company director and conductor. After leaving the Carltheater, Zemlinsky joined the Volksoper, and he also had a brief stint at the Theater an der Wien. In 1907, Gustav Mahler (1860–1911) hired him for the Wiener Hofoper. Yet Mahler’s moving to New York in 1908 changed the situation: due to disagreements with his successor, Felix Weingartner (1863–1942), Zemlinsky returned to the Volksoper. In 1911, he accepted an invitation to work in Prague: “Alexander von Zemlinsky, a renowned Viennese conductor and composer, has been engaged by director Heinrich Teweles as first Kapellmeister. He will commence his engagement on 1 September 1911.”

In the wake of the death of Angelo Neumann (1838–1910), the post of director of the Neues deutsches Theater (NDT) in Prague had been assumed by Heinrich Teweles (1856–1927), a Prague German, who during Neumann’s tenure worked there as a dramaturge and who, as a journalist too, was familiar with the city’s culture. Teweles was fully aware that, so as to maintain the opera company’s quality, he needed a progressive artist, a figure possessing a “vision”. When Zemlinsky arrived in Prague, he had enjoyed esteem as a seasoned conductor, as well as an opera composer. “Alexander von Zemlinsky’s appointment to the post of first Kapellmeister and adviser to the management in musical matters has brought relief to all those caring about the future of our opera. Without arriving at premature conclusions, we can certainly rejoice at this choice.  Zemlinsky’s appointment to the most responsible position on our music scene was by no means random, amid a host of conductors of greater or lesser renown. He is an authority and personality with a clear profile, a bearer of a name that also means a programme. A programme of a genuine musician, not tributary to any trend, an artist who makes no concessions to himself or others, who appears to be capable of fulfilling the tasks assigned to him, an artist who can, in the wider sense, become the head of all those sharing identical musical interests,” thus responded the Prague German press in April 1911 to Zemlinsky’s appointment. In September 1911, Zemlinsky plunged into work with great zeal. His inaugural performance, of Beethoven’s Fidelio, on 24 September 1911, met with enthusiasm: “We left the theatre confident that the works of our masters would be in excellent hands,” wrote Felix Adler in the daily Bohemia

Prague, 1911–1927
"His performance style follows, in the best sense of the word, the noted ‘Viennese tradition‘, the interpretation of music whose most recent proponent was Gustav Mahler. The essence of this style rests in the uttermost freedom, while maintaining absolute purity and naturalness. The specificity of Zemlinsky’s conducting is true objectivity. [...]"  (Heinrich Jalowetz)

During his first season at the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague, Zemlinsky presented new productions of Tannhäuser, Der Freischütz, Die Walküre, Die Zauberflöte, Le nozze di Figaro, Lohengrin, Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Over the 16 years he spent at the NDT (1911–1927), he conducted some 60 opera performances. An ardent admirer of Mozart, the first wish he voiced after assuming his post in Prague is said to have been to procure a “Pultklavier“ for performances of the celebrated composer’s operas. Furthermore, Zemlinsky conducted philharmonic concerts and provided piano accompaniment to singers. Honouring the tradition launched at the NDT by Angelo Neumann, he engaged superb Kapellmeisters. During his era, conductors of such renown as Pietro von Stermich, Eugen Szenkar, Rudolf Götz, Bruno Zilzer, Werner Wolff, Stefan Strasser and Siegfried Theumann worked in Prague, albeit briefly. Moreover, Zemlinsky was the first conductor to present Czech operas at the NDT (though in German translation): Bedřich Smetana’s The Kiss (1924) and The Bartered Bride (1925), and Leoš Janáček’s Jenůfa (1926). When it comes to operas by other Slavic composers, during his tenure the NDT staged Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Zemlinsky also conducted productions of Paul Hindemith’s Cardillac and his triptych of the one-acters Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, Hope of Women), Das Nusch-Nuschi (The Nusch-Nuschi) and Sancta Susanna; Ernst Křenek’s Jonny spielt auf (Jonny Strikes Up); Franz Schreker’s Der ferne Klang (The Distant Sound) and Der Schatzgräber (The Treasure Hunter); and Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt (The Dead City), Der Ring des Polykrates and Violanta. In 1924, the NDT hosted the world premiere of Arnold Schönberg’s monodrama Erwartung (Expectation). As regards Zemlinsky’s operas, the theatre staged Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time, 1912 and 1915), Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy, 1917), Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man, premiere of the revised version, 1922) and Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1926). In 1934, Georg Szell (1897–1970), Zemlinsky’s successor, performed at the NDT the opera Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle).

While in Prague, Zemlinsky also worked as a pedagogue and organiser of music events. He taught conducting and composition at the Deutsche Akademie für Musik und darstellende Kunst, where he served as vice-chancellor (1920–1922 and 1924–1927). In 1922, he co-founded the Prague branch of the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Music Performances), over which he would preside. Its board was made up of the conductors Václav Talich and Heinrich Jalowetz, the composer Fidelio Fritz Finke, and several dedicated (and highly capable) non-music professionals, including the astronomer and amateur chamber player Georg (Jiří) Alter, possessing a great organisational talent. After Schönberg had moved to Berlin to work at the Akademie der Künste, the Prague branch became the successor to the Viennese Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen, which had ceased its activities, and in 1924 was integrated into the Czechoslovak section of the International Society for Contemporary Music as its German subsection. Schönberg’s idea also inspired the foundation of the Czech Society for Modern Music, which was established in 1920 by the composers Vítězslav Novák, Josef Suk, Otakar Ostrčil, Karel Boleslav Jirák, Václav Štěpán, Boleslav Vomáčka and Ladislav Vycpálek, the violinist Karel Hoffmann, and the conductors Václav Talich and Vincenc Maixner, and the stage director Ota Zítek.

In 1922, Alexander Zemlinsky premiered at the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague the second, revised version of his comic opera Kleider machen Leute (Clothes Make the Man). Prologue: Interlude. Walzertempo. Gürzenich-Orchester Köln, conducted by James Conlon. The recording was made in 2002

Philharmonic concerts
"If today Prague music lovers embrace modern trends, if Schönberg, Debussy, Stravinsky and even Anton v. Webern and Alban Berg have found in Prague audiences wider and more comprehending than elsewhere, it is down to the single-minded, systematic bit-by-bit activity pursued by Zemlinsky. He is not just the head of the local German cultural community, for Czechs too invite him to conduct concerts, with the Czech conductors learning from him and sincerely acknowledging his authority." (Felix Adler)

During his tenure in Prague, Alexander Zemlinsky gained international recognition as a conductor. In 1887, his predecessor in the post of director, Angelo Neumann, launched regular subscription concerts given by the NDT orchestra, which would soon become a significant part of Prague musical life. On 23 November 1911, Zemlinsky conducted his first concert within the series, featuring Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 (“Unfinished”) and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 (“Fate”). The core of the philharmonic concerts’ repertoire was works by Beethoven, Brahms and Anton Bruckner, with Mahler’s music being included in almost every season and Richard Strauss’s occasionally. When it comes to Schönberg, Zemlinsky presented his songs with orchestra, the orchestral version of Verfklärte Nacht (Transfigured Night), the symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande and, in 1921, he conducted the Czech premiere of the Gurre-Lieder. Moreover, Zemlinsky performed music by Franz Schreker, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Igor Stravinsky (L'Oiseau de feu, Pulcinella), Maurice Ravel (La Valse), Viktor Ullmann (Symphonic Fantasy, today missing), Erwin Schulhoff (Variations on an Original Theme), Hans Schimmerling (the song cycle Cherry Blossoms), as well as Alban Berg (scenes from Wozzeck) and Paul Dukas (extracts from the opera Ariane et Barbe-bleue). The philharmonic concerts just once featured music by a Czech composer – on 30 September 1924, Antonín Dvořák’s Cello Concerto, with the soloist Emanuel Feuermann. As regards other Slavic composers, Zemlinsky only included in the programme P. I. Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

In 1924, Prague hosted a festival organised by the International Society for Contemporary Music, which was connected with the celebrations marking the anniversaries of Bedřich Smetana’s birth and death. The programme juxtaposed the work of the founder of Czech modern music with the latest contemporary music. On 4 June, the festival presented in world premiere Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, with the soloists Tilly de Garmo and Josef Schwarz. It also featured Johann Sebastian Bach’s Choral Preludes, as arranged by Schönberg. On 6 June, Zemlinsky conducted the world premiere of Schönberg’s Erwartung, with Marie Gutheil-Schoder portraying the lead role of the Woman. (According to the original plan, the evening was to contain a fragment of Mahler’s Symphony No. 10, yet it could not be performed before its opening night, which would take place on 14 October 1924 in Vienna. Soon after the world premiere, Zemlinsky included the symphony in the programme of a special NDT philharmonic concert, on 11 December 1924.) 

Lyrische Symphonie 
“In the summer I wrote something in the fashion of Das Lied von der Erde. I don’t yet have a title.  It is seven fairly related songs for baritone, soprano and orchestra, all without interruption. I am still working out the instrumentation,” wrote Zemlinsky on 19 September 1922 to Emil Hertzka, director of Universal Edition in Vienna. With the sung text taken from a song by the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the Lyrische Symphonie is generally deemed to be Zemlinsky’s seminal work. Owing to its subject and lyrics, as well as conception and treatment, it is indeed akin to Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. Noteworthy is the fact that part of the score went missing and it seemed that the piece would not be performed. Zemlinsky embarked upon the symphony in 1922. He sent the manuscript part by part to the conductor Heinrich Jalowetz in Berlin, who was to make a piano reduction and send it, also part by part, to Universal Edition in Vienna. Yet in 1923, the bulk of the autograph was mislaid on the way, and hence the premiere, scheduled to be given in Vienna on 23 October, had to be cancelled. Fortunately, in early December, the manuscript was found, of which the post office promptly informed Zemlinsky. Consequently, thanks to the fortunate discovery, Prague could host the world premiere of the Lyrische Symphonie, on 4 June 1924.

The Neues deutsches Theater hosted the world premiere of Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie, which many consider the composer’s profession of his affection for Alma Mahler. The recording, made in 1982, captures the impassioned performance of the first movement, Ich bin friedlos, ich bin durstig nach fernen Dingen, by the Berliner Philharmoniker and the baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, under Lorin Maazel.

Departure from Prague, dark clouds over Europe and exile
On 24 June 1927, Zemlinsky bade farewell to Prague, conducting a performance of Le nozze di Figaro by his beloved Mozart. He moved to Berlin to join the Krolloper, Germany’s most progressive opera house, where Otto Klemperer (1885–1973) had been appointed director that year. Klemperer too had gathered conducting experience at the Neues deutsches Theater, in late 1910 and early 1911, yet his and Zemlinsky’s paths did not cross, as Zemlinsky arrived in Prague later. Zemlinsky, then 56 years of age, did not feel entirely comfortable at the Krolloper, owing in part to being surrounded by a galaxy of young stars, including the conductor Fritz Zweig (1893–1984), 20 years his junior, and the director Klemperer, 14 years younger. What is more, Klemperer afforded him few opportunities to showcase his qualities and, although during his previous tenure in Cologne he had presented the opera Der Zwerg, the Krolloper did not perform any Zemlinsky work. 

Zemlinsky did not arrive in Berlin at a good time. The Krolloper was an eyesore for the followers of the rapidly expanding Nazi movement. Klemperer’s decision to present, on 7 June 1930, Schönberg’s Die glückliche Hand (The Hand of Fate) and Erwartung, thus finally giving Zemlinsky the chance to demonstrate his conducting art, met with a fiercely hostile response. In an article published in the Deutsche Zeitung, Paul Zschorlich, one of the most virulent Nazi-supporting critics, even wrote about “Jewish cronyism”: “Schönberg is an autodidact and, more significantly, the brother-in-law of Alexander Zemlinsky, the Kapellmeister of the Krolloper … Schönberg’s ‘creation’ disavows the entire German musical culture, spoiling taste, sense, tradition… Performing Schönberg is like opening cocaine stores to the public. Cocaine is poison. And Schönberg’s music is cocaine. And the very worst is that the listeners accept it with sheepish patience, pretending they understand.”

In 1929, Zemlinsky’s wife Ida passed away, leaving him and their daughter Johanna (Hansi) bereft. A year later, he married the singer Luise Sachsel (1900–1992), whom he had met back in 1914 in Prague, when she auditioned for the Neues deutsches Theater choir. Her family hailed from Nový Bydžov (Neu Bidshow), Bohemia, yet Luise was born in Ukraine, where her father had sought work, before returning to his native land. Although Alexander Zemlinsky and Luise Sachsel’s relationship had lasted for years, they only admitted it in public after Ida’s death. As a wedding present for Luise, in 1930 Zemlinsky began composing the opera Der Kreidekreis, based on a play by Alfred Henschke (1890–1928), better known by his pseudonym Klabund. 

On 3 July 1931, the Krolloper was closed down. Without any official post, Zemlinsky concentrated on composing and occasional guest conducting, including in Prague, where on 19 January 1933, 11 days prior to Hitler being appointed Chancellor of Germany, he performed with the Czech Philharmonic Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9. In February of that year, he conducted in Prague another two concerts, one of them made up of Richard Wagner works (significantly featuring, among other items, Hans Sachs’s monologue “Wahn! Wahn! Überall Wahn!” [Mad, mad, all the world's mad!] from Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), and the other containing  Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. On 23 and 29 April 1933, Zemlinsky performed Tannhäuser at the National Theatre in Prague, thus becoming one of the few foreign conductors entrusted with such a task by the prime Czech institution. In the spring of 1933, within the celebrations marking the 150th anniversary of the opening of the Estates Theatre, he conducted at the National Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

In 1933, rehearsals of the opera Der Kreidekreis commenced at the Stadttheater Zürich, where Robert Kolisko (1891–1974), a pupil of Zemlinsky’s, held the post of first Kapellmeister. The premiere took place on 14 October 1933. At the end of September, Zemlinsky fled from Berlin to his native Vienna to become principal conductor of the Wiener Konzertorchester. Yet vicious attacks against him in Nazi Germany multiplied. “Zemlinsky is a wolf in sheep’s clothing, who in the guise of an earnest composer again seeks to smuggle in the music whose captains (Schönberg and Schreker) have at long last left Germany. Should Zemlinsky be approved, those two men will all the more demand that they be received with honour,” thus bellowed one of the (relatively moderate) voices lambasting Zemlinsky. Nonetheless, four German theatres were bold enough to present Der Kreidekreis. On 16 January 1934, the opera was staged in Stettin (Szczecin, today Poland), yet an overzealous local official banned any further performances, claiming that the piece “contradicts the moral thinking of the German nation …” Subsequently, the Stadttheater in Stettin had to submit the matter to the Reich’s supreme dramaturge, who, albeit ordering several deletions and modulations of some passages of the text, proclaimed the work unobjectionable, concluding that “nothing stands in the way of the opera’s performances in other towns either.” After Stettin, Der Kreidekreis was staged in Coburg, Berlin (the opening night, on 23 January, was followed by another 21 performances) and Nuremberg (on 25 January). In February, the opera was presented in Graz, Austria. On 9 December 1934, the piece was performed at the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague, conducted by Georg Szell. On the previous evening, Zemlinsky and the Czech Philharmonic delivered Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. The two nights were among the last joyous moments of Zemlinsky’s artistic career. The situation in Austria was becoming increasingly fraught and the country was no longer safe. In the wake of the assassination of Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (1892–1934), it was high time to flee. What is more, four years after its formation, the Wiener Konzertorchester ceased its activity owing to lack of funds and Zemlinsky was left without a post. 

Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle), based on a play by Alfred Henschke, is the final opera Zemlinsky completed (1932). Radio-Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, conducted by Stefan Soltesz, 2010

Flight from Europe
"I am coming with you." (Alexander Zemlinsky, in a letter to his wife, 1938)

Schönberg left Europe in 1933, yet Zemlinsky tarried for another few years. On 12 March 1938, Austria was annexed to the German Reich. In the middle of September of that year, Zemlinsky and his family arrived in Prague and subsequently, after he had received the right of residence from the village of Strančice, Central Bohemia, applied for US visas. The record of his paying 2,000 Czechoslovak koruna has been preserved in the Strančice chronicle, curiously between the receipts of 205 koruna for construction fees and the expenditure for 10 public lighting bulbs amounting to 67 koruna. But the amount Zemlinsky paid was peanuts compared to the “Reich Flight Tax” to the tune of 27,000 Reichsmarks the Nazi authorities imposed upon Jews with the aim to prevent export of capital. In the middle of December, Zemlinsky, his wife Luise and daughter Johanna boarded a ship in Rotterdam and set sail to New York, where they landed on 23 December 1938. The composer brought along with him the unfinished score of the opera Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules). 

Upon the request of Artur Bodanzky (1877–1939), a Metropolitan Opera conductor, the New York Times published a full-page article welcoming his colleague to the USA, titled “Zemlinsky Comes to Live Here!” Bodanzky also arranged for him a contract with a music publisher. Yet, exhausted by the difficulties he had faced over the past few years, Zemlinsky’s health had suffered. In the middle of 1939, he had his first stroke. What is more, the circle of people ready to lend him a helping hand in the USA (he could not speak English) narrowed – in November 1939, Artur Bodanzky died; in December 1940, Louise’s brother Otto, who had arrived in America earlier and provided the Zemlinskys with both financial and moral support, passed away. As regards Schönberg, he lived in Los Angeles, and thus he and Zemlinsky could only write to each other. The two friends just got together once in the USA, when Schönberg visited New York to conduct a performance of his Pierrot lunaire. Zemlinsky’s last, handwritten, letter to Schönberg, dating from the end of 1939, reads: “Dear Schönberg, soon after arriving in New York I developed a serious nervous disorder. What is more, it was immediately clear that we would not stay in the city, and now it is certain that we will move to the West. We will leave here on the first day of spring. For months, I was bed-ridden with enormous pain. That which we experienced and saw in Vienna could have led to nothing but a total nervous breakdown. I will write to you more, as soon as I am capable of doing so. […]”

Zemlinsky hoped that his opera Der König Kandaules would be staged in the USA, yet to no avail. Similarly to Nazi Germany, works of art underwent “moral assessment” in prudish America. The local censors rejected the opera due to its subject’s sexual subtext. Deeply disappointed, Zemlinsky put the score of Der König Kandaules aside and resolved to conceive a new opera, titled Circe, yet would only manage to complete the first act. In December 1940, he suffered another stroke, from which he would never recover. Zemlinsky died on 15 March 1942, four days after he and Luise had moved into a new house in Larchmont, a village located about 30 kilometres northeast of Manhattan, where they hoped to escape the big-city bustle. In 1985, his ashes were relocated to his native Austria and laid to rest at the Vienna Central Cemetery.

Zemlinsky brought the unfinished score of the opera Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules) to New York, where he arrived in 1938. He hoped it would be staged at the Met, which, however, rejected the piece because of its featuring a nudity scene. The Prelude to Act 3, as performed by the ORF Radio-Symphonieorchester Wien, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, 2020

An opera composer
"He is at home in opera." (Franz Werfel)

“I am now pondering writing an opera,” Zemlinsky wrote to Schönberg in 1902. “I think something will come out of it. I only have an idea, or rather a character to consider, nothing more, no story yet. In brief: ‘Poor Peter’ is a young dewy-eyed idealist or dreamer (I do not yet know his social background), desperately longing for love, yet he remains unloved throughout his short life. Spurned by women and everyone else, no one understands his dreams, for he is entirely different from all around him. A friend, a beloved maiden, everyone turns away and scorns him, probably even being afraid of and distrusting him. Perhaps initially his mother believes, hopes that he will cope with his life, yet she, seeing his feeble nature, is worn to death, as a result of which he dies too.” Zemlinsky’s intention to write the opera, titled Der arme Peter (Poor Peter), would never materialise, yet the idea of conveying through music the feelings of a sensitive, physically unattractive man is fleshed out in his other operas, psychologically profound, inspired by fairy tales and treating erotic, sexual motifs. 

The very first opera Zemlinsky completed is Sarema, which received its premiere on 10 October 1897 at the Hofoper in Munich. Based on the dramatic poem The Rose of the Caucasus by the German author Rudolf von Gottschall (1823–1909), it depicts the tragic love story of a Circassian girl and a Russian military commander, set in 1841 in the Caucasus. Opting for the subject was in line with the trend prevailing at the end of the 19th century among Central European artists, marvelling at the Far East and other exotic regions. The libretto was penned by Alexander Zemlinsky and his father Adolf, as well as Arnold Schönberg. The critical response to the opera was generally positive, highlighting the composer’s natural sense of drama: “A splendid, sublime orchestral sound. Especially praiseworthy is the music’s dramatic vein, attesting to a great talent for theatre.

Zemlinsky’s second opera, Es war einmal, premiered on 22 January 1900 at the Wiener Hofoper. The libretto, based on a fairy tale by the Danish author Holger Drachmann (1846–1908), was written by Maximilian Singer (1857–1928), whose involvement remains shrouded in mystery, as it is not known how Zemlinsky became acquainted with him. The music was explored by Mahler, who conducted 11 of the total 12 performances at the Hofoper, with the other one undertaken by his young colleague Josef Hellmesberger (1855–1907). The production boasted an excellent cast: the Princess was portrayed by Selma Kurz, the Prince by Erik Schmedes, the King by Franz von Reichenberg, while Kaspar was performed by the Czech bass Vilém Heš (Wilhelm Hesch), who joined the Hofoper in 1897 along with Mahler, with whom he had previously worked in Hamburg. Zemlinsky “commits the errors peculiar to the young,” wrote one of the Viennese critics, adding: “He aims at the heavens, yet often overestimates his powers. Moreover, his music still contains too much reason. Striving to apply intellect in tones, he loses independence … Now and then, he is bombastic, with his expression being cumbersome … He will have to mature, settle down. He is yet to move beyond cubhood. He wants to be original, but in the most haywire mystical musical idiom becomes an eclectic, half-Wagnerian, with the manners of the Romantic school. Nevertheless, he is one of the precious few evidently capable of giving opera stages something proper, grand and remarkable.”

In 1900, the year that saw the premiere of Es war einmal, Zemlinsky met Alma Schindler (1879–1964). She had previously seen him at a concert in February, conducting his cantata Beerdigung des Frühlings (Burial of Spring), set to a text by Paul Heyse (1830–1914). Alma would recall the impression Zemlinsky made on her, describing him in her diary as a “caricature – chinless, short, with bulging eyes and conducting wildly”. After she met him in person two weeks later, she noted: “… terribly ugly… yet, still and all, I somewhat liked him.” During their conversation, she found out that they shared an admiration for Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde. Zemlinsky would soon become Alma’s teacher (which her mother resented) and duly fell in love with her. Their strange relationship, during which Alma would constantly change her moods, by turn ridiculing, humiliating and showing affection, only lasted about a year. In 1902, she married Gustav Mahler.

Mahler also undertook Zemlinsky’s third opera, Der Traumgörge (Görge the Dreamer), set to a libretto by Leo Feld (1869–1924). In May 1907, the Austrian press announced that its premiere was scheduled for 4 October, the Emperor’s name-day, when the Wiener Hofoper traditionally presented new or remarkable operas (in 1896 it had performed Bedřich Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, in 1899 his Dalibor). The information published in the press, however, seems to have been at odds with the Hofoper records, according to which the company only received the opera’s libretto and piano reduction on 7 July and in which the note of the planned date of the premiere, 4 October, only appeared in August 1907. Be that as it may, the announced performance of Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge was cancelled. In December, the press reported that the opera would premiere at the end of January 1908, adding that it was “enormously difficult. As the performers have pointed out, in comparison, preparing Tristan and Isolde is a piece of cake”. At the time, the Hofoper management changed – in January 1908, Gustav Mahler was succeeded as director by Felix von Weingartner (1863–1942), who, eager to distinguish himself from his predecessor,  ushered in the new era by taking a number of steps, including immediate withdrawing from the repertoire the productions of Mozart’s operas presented by Mahler. Zemlinsky’s new opera too fell victim to Weingartner’s programme policy. In this connection, Mahler wrote to Zemlinsky from the USA: “Unfortunately, your adventure with the new management could have been expected. Still and all, I would not have thought that Herr W. would without further ado ignore his promise to primarily produce an opera of yours.” The opera Der Traumgörge would have to wait over seven decades to be staged: it was finally performed on 11 October 1980 in Nuremberg. 

The comic opera Kleider machen Leute, to Leo Feld’s libretto based on a novella by Gottfried Keller (1819–1890), premiered on 2 December 1910 at the Volksoper Wien, with Zemlinsky conducting. “There has been unceasing demand for comic operas, yet precious few have worked out well. Our fidgety, hasty time lacks naïve souls, while composers lack naturalness and simple feeling,” a contemporary critic wrote with regard to the situation in the genre. “Without a shot of melodic poignancy, the music of such a kind of opera is not viable; the most entangled, ornate constructions, using the most complex modern techniques and the most ingenious accumulation of musical idioms simply cannot be sufficient replacement.” Later on, Zemlinsky revised the opera and premiered its new version in 1922 at the Neues deutsches Theater in Prague.

Zemlinsky’s fifth opera, Eine florentinische Tragödie, based on the unfinished play A Florentine Tragedy by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), received its premiere on 30 January 1917 in Stuttgart. On 4 March of that year, it was performed in Prague, with the composer conducting. Owing to its new director, Hans Gregor (1866–1945), the piece was soon, on 27 April, staged at the Wiener Hofoper, within a mixed bill that also included the one-act ballet Klein Idas Blumen (Little Ida’s Flowers), to music by Paul von Klenau (1883–1946) and inspired by a story by Hans Christian Andersen (1805–1875). Yet whereas Eine florentinische Tragödie would only be given five performances before disappearing from the repertoire, Klenau’s “delightful little ballet” was performed until 1940. The Wiener Hofoper’s attitude towards Zemlinsky would remain problematic. Over the course of time, he offered the company six of his works, yet during his lifetime it only presented one more, the opera Der Zwerg, in 1923.

The one-acter Der Zwerg depicts the story of a dwarf slave who falls in love with a beautiful Spanish princess (evidently yet another parallel with the composer’s affair with Alma). It premiered in May 1922 in Cologne. Zemlinsky entrusted the opera’s first Prague production, with the first night on 28 May 1926, to the newly engaged conductor Wilhelm Steinberg (1899–1978). The libretto of Der Zwerg was loosely adapted from Oscar Wilde’s short story The Birthday of the Infanta, which before Zemlinsky had been set by Franz Schreker (1878–1934), as a pantomime, titled Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin (The Toy and the Princess), and Bernhard Sekles (1872–1934), as a ballet, titled Der Zwerg und die Infantin (The Dwarf and the Infanta). The Prague premiere was impeded by the Norwegian tenor Karl Aagard Østvig, cast in the lead role, cancelling (he would sing in subsequent performances), but the understudy Franz Fellner acquitted of the part with aplomb. The opening night met with spontaneous enthusiasm and critical acclaim, as attested to by a contemporary review:  “Zemlinsky’s score is a masterpiece. His music is devoid of the hypertrophy of modern opera, it does not cover nudity with a garb of muzzy sounds, nor does it stumble over dead passages without ideas; it is here and we believe that it cannot be otherwise. It is surprisingly intelligible, with distinct motifs lodging themselves in the mind and the orchestra’s pellucidity not allowing for losing the thread for a moment.”

Shortly before Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany, Zemlinsky completed the opera Der Kreidekreis, retelling a Chinese legend. It premiered to acclaim on 14 October 1933 at the Opernhaus Zürich. “The opening night was a resounding success, and we can hope that the piece will take hold elsewhere too. [...] Zemlinsky possesses colossal imagination and highly gradated art alike. The score’s reliable voice leading, refined instrumentation, engrossing variety of colour, forcible rhythm and naturally flowing melody bears witness to the emergence of a master who evidently copes with the complex stage apparatus effortlessly,” wrote one of the critics. The opera Der König Kandaules, whose unfinished score Zemlinsky brought with him to the USA, received its world premiere in 1996 in Hamburg, after it had been completed by the British conductor and musicologist Anthony Beaumont (b. 1949).

Musical legacy
"I’ve always firmly believed that he was a great composer. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think." (Arnold Schönberg, 1949)

In his works, Zemlinsky absorbed in a singular manner the musical trends of the first half of the 20th century. A distinguished figure possessing the ability to fully understand and superbly bring to bear other composers’ forms of expression, he blended in a compelling way the contemporary tendencies with his own idiom. After the initial phase, when he clearly drew inspiration from Johannes Brahms and Richard Wagner, the young artist was particularly influenced by Gustav Mahler, his model as a composer, conductor and spiritual mentor. For his part, Mahler held Zemlinsky in great esteem. In 1910, the composer and librettist Rudolf Stefan Hoffmann (1878–1931 or 1939), a pupil of Zemlinsky’s, wrote: “[...] impossible to make out whether Zemlinsky belongs to the Mahler clique, or Mahler belongs to the Zemlinsky clique.” Given their expressiveness, some of his pieces may bring to mind Strauss’s Salome or Elektra, although Zemlinsky probably did not feel any affinity to Strauss as a person. From the late 1920s, Zemlinsky ever increasingly embraced music that was not rooted in Vienna and did not harbour the tense atmosphere dominating the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. His creations reveal the stylistic influence of Kurt Weill, Paul Hindemith, Ernst Křenek and Alban Berg. The latter, who – after Zemlinsky and Schönberg temporarily suspended their contact – was most akin to Zemlinsky, his teacher, in musical and human terms. 

Just like Mahler, in his time Zemlinsky was first and foremost perceived as a top-notch conductor. Crucial too was his role as a teacher (even though mainly informal). He nurtured and influenced a whole generation of composers, including – besides the aforementioned Schönberg and Berg – Anton Webern, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hans Krása and Viktor Ullmann. Zemlinsky’s music has enjoyed revived interest since approximately the 1970s. His legacy has also been honoured by the State Opera (formerly the Neues deutsches Theater) in Prague, which in 1993 presented the one-acters Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg (under the title The Birthday of the Infanta), and in 2000 staged the opera Es was einmal. In 2021, the Zemlinsky150 festival, marking the 150th anniversary of the artist’s birth, took place within the Musica non grata project, and in February 2023, more than a century after its first Prague performance, the State Opera staged Zemlinsky’s comic opera Kleider machen Leute.

By Vlasta Reittererová

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