Alexander Zemlinsky

1871 1942

Alexander Zemlinsky



Through a life that included recognition as both a composer and conductor, Alexander Zemlinsky stands in the background in a musical culture dominated by Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, and Arnold Schoenberg. As a composer he wrote in a lyrical, post-romantic style while giving a nod to neoclassicism.

Zemlinsky was born on 14 October 1871. His father was a Catholic and his mother the daughter of a Sephardic Jew and a Bosnian Muslim. The Zemlinskys converted to Judaism and Alexander was raised Jewish. To give the name an aristocratic air, Zemlinsky’s father added the “von” to the name, though neither side of the family had ties to noble blood.

Alexander studied music at a young age and was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory in 1884. There, he studied piano with Anton Door, theory with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs.

Following his years at the conservatory, Zemlinsky became highly regarded as a composer in Viennese circles. He attracted the attention ofBrahms in 1893 when the elder master heard a performance of Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor. Brahms also attended a performance of one of Zemlinsky’s quartets and recommended his Clarinet Trio for publication. Also in 1893 he joined the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein, and began to perform several of his chamber pieces.

Zemlinsky also received encouragement from Gustav Mahler, who presented the composer’s second opera,Es war einmal at the Hofoper in 1900. Mahler also championed Zemlinsky’s third opera,Der Traumgörge, though the conductor resigned from his post before the performance could take place.

In 1899, Zemlinsky converted to Protestantism, and his adopted faith found its way into several compositions. The text ofTürmwachterlied, for example, contains allusions to Jesus and the Christian cross.

Around the same time, Zemlinsky embarked on a noteworthy conducting career. In 1899, he served as Kapellmeister at of the Carltheater in Vienna and also conducted opera performances at the Volkoper, which had been transformed into a repertory theater He served as Kapellmeister there from 1906 to 1911.

He also kept busy with composition. His Die Seejungfrau premiered in 1905 in the same concert as Schoenberg’sPelleas and Melisande.

Zemlinsky met Arnold Schoenberg in 1895 while playing in an amateur orchestra. The two composers would remain friends throughout their lives, and Schoenberg would marry Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde in 1901.

The relationship between the two men naturally involved music. Zemlinsky instructed Schoenberg in counterpoint for a few months and advised him on his compositions, the most noteworthy example being the String Quartet in D minor. A champion of new music, Zemlinsky, with help from Schoenberg, founded the Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler in 1904. He also also arranged for the first performances of several of Schoenberg’s works.

Meanwhile, Zemlinsky continued to enjoy success. His Symphony No. 2—actually the third one he had written—was premiered in Vienna in 1897. His style flowered from a lean classicism, which can be heard in his aforementioned Clarinet Trio. But he went on to develop a informed by the works ofRichard Wagner. His String Quartet No. 2, dedicated to Schoenberg, and his most popular work, theLyrische Symphonie, bear the markings of a Wagnerian romanticism.

Despite his friendship with Schoenberg, Zemlinsky held firm in his use of tonality and did not delve into the atonal and twelve-tone techniques. He maintained, however, a progressive musical language, and hisMaeterlinck Songs, Op. 13 and String Quartets Nos. 2 and 3 are outstanding examples of post romanticism of the early twentieth century.

His personal life during this time was turbulent. He fell in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students, in 1900. Schindler initially reciprocated his feelings, but she broke off the relationship due to pressure from her family and friends over the composer’s lack of an international reputation. Schindler married Mahler in 1902.

Zemlinsky married Ida Guttman in 1907, though the relationship, which lasted until Ida’s death in 1929, was an unhappy one. In the meantime, he kept busy with conducting engagements. His skills as an opera conductor took him to Prague, where he was appointed conductor at the Deutsche Landestheater in 1911. He remained at the post until 1927.

While in Prague, Zemlinsky kept in touch with Schoenberg’s circle, engaging a number of his pupils, includingAnton Webern and Heinrich Jalowitz. Zemlinsky also founded and served as president of the Prague Verein für Musikalische Privataufführungen, an affiliate of Schoenberg’s society that ran from 1921 to 1924.

In 1923, he composed his best-known work, the Lyrische Symphonie, a seven-movement piece for soprano, baritone, and orchestra set to poems by Rabindranath Tagore. Alban Berg paid homage to Zemlinsky with his ownLyric Suite,which quotes a section from “Du bist mein Eigen.”

From Prague, Zemlinsky ventured to Berlin, where he served as Kapellmeister at the Kroll Opera under Klemperer from 1927 to 1930. During the same period, he guest conducted with many European orchestras, and, until 1933, taught at the Musikhochschule.

His personal life also took a turn for the better. In 1930 he married Luise Sachsel, one of his former singing pupils who was 29 years his junior. But despite the age difference, the marriage was a happy one.

In his writing, Zemlinsky’s long affair with romanticism began to change. In later works, such as the Sinfonietta, theSymphonische Gesänge, and the Third and Fourth String Quartets, Zemlinsky incorporated elements of neoclassicism.

With the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, Zemlinsky fled to Vienna and remained there until the occupation in 1938. He then moved via Prague to the United States. Unlike Schoenberg, who enjoyed popularity in his adopted country, Zemlinsky and his music fell into neglect in the last years of his life. He died in Larchmont, New York on 15 March 1942.

As a conductor, he was admired by Stravinsky and Kurt Weill not only for new music by Mahler and Schoenberg, but also for his interpretations ofMozart . As a pedagogue, he taught Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hans Krasa, and Kurt Weigel. But as a composer, Zemlinsky’s is still a name with which to reckon. Through recent recordings and biographical research, his life and music are finding much-deserved attention.

Images courtesy of and public domain