ZEMLINSKY: Symphonies Nos. 1 and 2
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Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor Symphony No. 2 in B flat major
The Austrian composer and conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky was born in Vienna in 1871. His reputation has to some extent been overshadowed by the controversial and influential achievements of his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg, with Alban Berg and Anton Webern, on the one hand, and by those of his older contemporary Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky continues the tradition of Viennese classicism, the influence of Wagner never leading him to abandon tonality. In some measure he represents a generation of Viennese composers who were able to combine the apparently divergent tendencies of Brahms and Wagner.
Zemlinsky was trained at the Vienna Conservatory, where he was a composition pupil of Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, himself a pupil of Sechter, who had taught Schubert briefly, and of Bruckner, in the intervals of writing his daily fugue. Always a fine craftsman, Zemlinsky was able to instruct Schoenberg, whom he met in the amateur orchestra Polyhymnia in 1895, in counterpoint, and gave him advice on his earlier work. He was to remain for some time a strong influence both on Schoenberg and on younger composers in Vienna. He also taught Alma Schindler, later the wife of Mahler, who in 1897 became conductor at the Court Opera in Vienna. The daughter of a distinguished painter and step-daughter of Karl Moll, founder of the Sezession, she had had an earlier infatuation with Gustav Klimt, followed, when she turned her attention from painting to music, by a curious attraction to her teacher Zemlinsky, a man whom she described as of astonishing ugliness, chinless, toothless and very dirty. Zemlinsky, in his turn, seems to have been fascinated by his pupil. It was at a dinner party that Alma had her first contact with Mahler, when the discussion turned to male beauty. Mahler cited the example of Socrates, the relative ugliness of whose appearance was evidently transformed by the beauty of his mind. In reply Alma suggested Zemlinsky as a man whose intellect gave him beauty in spite of his physical ugliness. An argument arose about a new ballet by Zemlinsky, Der Triumph der Zeit, the production of which at the Court Opera Mahler had up to then opposed. The dispute, heated enough, elicited a promise from Mahler to speak to Zemlinsky on the matter and led, before long, to Mahlers own marriage.
Mahler once advised Berg not to go into the theatre if he wanted to be a composer, a counsel prompted by his own experience. Zemlinskys career was essentially in opera. In 1899 he became Kapellmeister at the Carltheater in Vienna, and later conducted also at the Volksoper, where he was Kapellmeister from 1906 until 1911, with a break during Mahlers last season, 1907-08, when he conducted at the Court Opera. From 1911 until 1927 he was conductor at the Deutsche Landestheater in Prague, where he employed Schoenbergs pupils Webern, Jalowetz and Karl Horowitz. This period was followed by appointment as Kapellmeister at the Kroll Theatre in Berlin, under Klemperer, and the continuation of his work as a teacher, which he had carried out in Prague, at the Berlin Musikhochschule. At the accession to power of Hitler in 1933, Zemlinsky made his escape to Vienna, and at the Anschluss in 1938 moved first to Prague and then to the United States, where he died in 1942.
Zemlinskys close association with Schoenberg, a relationship strengthened when the latter married Zemlinskys sister Mathilde, brought early collaboration in the opera Sarema, for which Schoenberg assisted with the libretto. Both men were indebted to Mahler for practical encouragement. It was Mahler who presented Zemlinskys second opera Es war einmal at the Court Opera in 1900, and accepted his next opera Der Traumgörge for performance. Later operas included two works based on Oscar Wilde, Eine Florentinische Tragödie, and Der Zwerg, a version of The Birthday of the Infanta.
In addition to these and other stage works, Zemlinsky wrote songs, chamber music and four symphonies. The last of these, the Lyrische Sinfonie of 1923, using a text from Rabindranath Tagore, was quoted by Berg in his own Lyric Suite, as a sign of respect and affection.
Zemlinskys First Symphony, written in 1892, came at the close of his period of study with Fuchs and is a thoroughly competent work, very much of its age. By 1892 the first of Mahlers symphonies had already been performed, as well as the tone poem Tod und Verklärung of Richard Strauss: Brahms had just written his Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet for Mühlfeld, and Bruckner, with some assistance, was diffidently revising his Eighth Symphony. Zemlinskys symphony is part of the rich classical symphonic tradition in Vienna. Lacking the blatant irony of Strauss or the diffuse originality of Mahler, it represents an excellent example of the late nineteenth century symphony. Its sometimes grandiose and sometimes ominous first movement is followed by a lively scherzo, with its vividly competent scoring and contrasted trio. The third and final movement, marked Sehr innig und breit, opens with an air of lyrical introspection and contains moments of considerable beauty, as it moves towards its pensive conclusion.
In 1897, the year in which his opera Sarema was first performed, Zemlinsky completed his Second Symphony, a work that was to attract a favourable reaction from the public. The symphony opens with a movement that has its own forthright grandeur, with a suggestion of Wagner. There follows a dramatic scherzo and a romantically contrasted trio. The slow movement, marked Adagio, has about it something of the poignancy of Mahler, happily resolved in conclusion. It is followed by a final movement that interrupts this mood of serenity with something more ominous, before the final resolution of conflict.
In 1896 Bruckner had died, and the death of Brahms came in the following year. Among the younger generation of composers, Richard Strauss, who was to outlive them all, had completed his series of symphonic poems, while Hugo Wolf, near to his final madness, had quarrelled with Mahler over the merits of Rubinsteins opera The Demon, and unilaterally declared himself director of the Vienna Opera. This was the Vienna of which Zemlinsky was a part, and in which the Symphony in B flat major was written.