Alexander Zemlinsky was an Austrian composer, conductor and teacher. His pupils included Erich Korngold, Hans Krása, Alban Berg, Anton Webern and Karl Weigl, and he was friendly with Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. Zemlinsky fled Germany in 1933 and arrived in America in 1938, but his career did not flourish abroad and he was almost forgotten after the war. Nevertheless, there has been renewed interest in his work in the past thirty years, and he is now regarded as one of the twentieth century’s most significant composers. Best-known for his Lyric Symphony (1923), a seven-movement work for soprano, baritone and orchestra, Zemlinsky’s output includes eight operas, chamber music, a ballet, choral settings and song cycles. 

Zemlinsky had Hungarian Catholic heritage on his father’s side, and Jewish and Muslim heritage through his mother, but the family had converted to Judaism before Alexander was born. He studied the piano and organ at the Vienna Conservatory with Anton Door, theory with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Johann Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. Early in his career, Zemlinsky was supported by Brahms, who attended the performances of some of his early compositions and recommended his Clarinet Trio (1896) for publication. Zemlinsky conducted Vienna’s Polyhymnia orchestra, through which he met Schoenberg. They became brothers-in-law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde. Zemlinsky also briefly tutored Schoenberg in counterpoint (his only formal musical training). Zemlinsky converted to Protestantism in 1899 and, although he was not especially religious, he set religious texts and Psalms to music. He had a relationship with Alma Schindler, but it ended when she chose to marry Gustav Mahler; Zemlinsky married Ida Guttmann in 1907.

The composer gained further recognition in 1900 when his opera, Es war einmal (Once upon a time) was premiered at the Vienna State Opera by Mahler. Zemlinksy conducted in various venues across Vienna including the Carltheater, Volksoper and Hofoper. With Schoenberg, he founded the Vereinigung Schaeffender Tonkünstler in 1904 to promote the performance of contemporary music in Vienna. He moved to Prague in 1911 to become musical director of the Deutsches Landestheater, which became one of the most esteemed opera houses in Europe under his direction. From 1923, Zemlinsky was a guest conductor for the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, where he encouraged the performance of Czech composers such as Smetana, Janáček and Suk, and contemporary composers such as Schoenberg. Viktor Ullmann was his chorus master. Zemlinsky composed many of his most successful works whilst living in Prague, including his Second Quartet and the opera Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), adapted from Oscar Wilde’s short story ‘The Birthday of the Infanta.’ He also toured Europe as a conductor.

In 1923 Zemlinsky had turned down an offer to become musical director at the Staatsoper in Berlin, a move which he later regretted. In 1927, however, he accepted an offer from Otto Klemperer to conduct at the Kroll Opera, and subsequently stayed in Berlin until 1933, guest conducting in France, Spain, Italy and Russia. Just after Hitler came to power in January 1933, Zemlinsky began preparations for the premiere of his seventh opera, Der Kreidekreis (The Chalk Circle), which was to be staged at the Staatsoper in Berlin in April before touring major cities in Germany. However, the premiere was postponed a number of times as staff at the Staatsoper were reluctant to programme a premiere before Nazi officials had established official policy on what could be performed. Frustrated, Zemlinsky asked his publishers, ‘Are the problems with the libretto – the music – myself?’ On April 7 the Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service excluded Jews from employment in the civil service. Zemlinsky wasted no time in leaving Berlin for Vienna in April 1933. The name ‘Israel’ was written in his Viennese residency application – whether he volunteered the information about his heritage is unknown. Der Kreidekreis received its world premiere in Zurich in October 1933, and its critical success resulted in the granting of permission for it to tour Germany in 1934.

Zemlinsky’s professional engagements ceased by 1935; whether he resigned by choice is unknown. Despite this, he composed prolifically throughout the 1930s, and received some performance and conducting opportunities in Vienna, Prague and Leningrad during this time. During 1936 he worked on his opera Der König Kandaules (King Kandaules), which had a libretto adapted by the French author André Gide, although he did not finish its orchestration. After the Anschluss in 1938, widespread attacks took place against Austrian Jews, and Zemlinsky and his second wife, Luise, destroyed photographs of Zemlinsky’s Muslim and Jewish grandparents, in case they could be used against him. The family was granted permission to leave Austria for the US thanks to the sponsorship of friends in America. They travelled through Prague, Rotterdam and Paris before arriving in New York in December 1938. They later found out that Luise’s mother and aunt had been deported to Terezín and perished in the camps.

In New York, Zemlinsky struggled to receive recognition for his work. He wrote a few popular songs, and his Sinfonietta was performed by the Philharmonic Society of New York in December 1940 and broadcast by NBC. Efforts to get Der König Kandaules premiered in at the Metropolitan Opera received little interest. He began work on a new opera, Circe, in 1939, but it was never finished. Zemlinsky’s health rapidly declined after he suffered a number of strokes, but he did meet Schoenberg for a final time – the composers had not seen each other since 1933, when they had allegedly argued over the application of twelve-tone technique. Zemlinsky died of pneumonia in 1942.

Zemlinsky’s musical style was influenced by Brahms, Mahler, Wagner and Schoenberg, consolidating late-Romanticism and twentieth-century modernism. His works experiment with tonality, but he did not embrace atonalism or twelve-tone technique; his later works show movement towards neoclassicism and jazz. His music disappeared from concert halls until the 1960s, when a revival of works by Mahler initiated a revival for Zemlinsky, too. His Fourth Quartet and Psalm XIII were discovered in his posthumous papers, and the symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), which had been premiered in 1905 but was thought lost, was assembled in 1984 from manuscripts found in Vienna and Washington and is now one of Zemlinsky’s most-performed works. His opera Der Traumgörge (Görge the Dreamer) was supposed to receive its premiere at the Vienna State Opera in 1907 with Mahler as conductor, but the concert was cancelled by Felix Weingartner; it was finally premiered in 1980 in Nuremberg, Germany. Der Kreidekreis received 14 performances in the 1980s, and was revived in Zürich in 2003. Decca released recordings of Zemlinsky’s work in the 1990s through the Entartete Musik series of recordings set up by Michael Haas.

By Abi McKee 


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