Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942). – Naxas blog


2021 marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of Alexander Zemlinsky, Austrian composer, conductor and teacher. This blog presents an introduction to his life and music.

Born in Vienna on October 14, 1871, Zemlinsky studied at the Vienna Conservatory and in the early 20th century became increasingly important on the Viennese music scene; his music began to enjoy the renaissance as the 21st century approached. He was both a friend and mentor of Arnold Schoenberg, and later became his brother-in-law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Matilda. He also taught Alma Schindler, who married Gustav Mahler.

Zemlinsky’s previous career was as the musical director of the Vienna Folk Opera, followed by periods in Prague and Berlin. A Jew by birth, he was forced to flee Berlin in 1933 amid the rise of the Nazi party and returned to Vienna, from where in 1938 he fled via Prague to the United States, dying there in 1942.

Although symphonic music has been played throughout Zemlinsky’s career, symphonies as such occur only during and immediately after his studies at the Vienna Conservatory. The Symphony in E minor of 1891 never seems to have gone beyond the middle parts, while the D minor from 1893 and the B flat from 1897 show increasing skill over the symphonic pattern laid down by Brahms. Here is a piece of scherzo from the Symphony in D minor, written when Zemlinsky was 22 years old. Brahms himself attended the performance of the work, and later became a fan of the young composer’s music.

Symphony in D minor (8.557008)


We will return to Zemlinsky’s symphonic music at the end of the blog. In the meantime, I turn to his music for the stage, first with an example from one of his operas. Zemlinsky’s close ties with Schoenberg led to the beginning of collaboration on Zemlinsky’s opera Sarem, for which Schoenberg assisted in the libretto; and both men were indebted to Mahler for the practical encouragement in the project. Indeed, it was Mahler who presented Zemlinsky’s second opera, Was once, at the Vienna Court Opera in 1900, after also taking his next, The brazen dream, to perform. Later operas included two operas by Oscar Wilde: The Florentine tragedy (Florentine tragedy) and Dwarf (Dwarf), which is Wilde’s version Birthday lnfanta.

Zemlinsky transformed Wilde The Florentine tragedy into a one-act opera, creating a score reminiscent of Strauss Salome with its erotic musical sonority. The premiere took place in January 1917; Zemlinsky himself conducted at the New German Theater in Prague two months later. In the same month she went to the Vienna Court Opera. Alma Mahler was present at the Vienna premiere, after which she strongly expressed her dissatisfaction with Zemlinsky, who, you remember, was her former teacher. She probably felt exposed, as the plot was reminiscent of her own affair with architect Walter Gropius a year before Mahler’s death. In contrast, Alban Berg was so fond of work that it was in musical parallels The Florentine tragedy can be found in his opera Carriage, which premiered eight years later, in December 1925.

Here is an excerpt that presents all three characters of the work – Bianca, Simon and Guido Bard.

What’s new, my prince? (C5325)

Now Zemlinsky’s three-act ballet The triumph of time (“Triumph of Time”), which he worked on in 1901, hoping that Mahler would take him for a performance at the Vienna Court Opera. At the time the composition was composed, Alma Mahler was still Alma Schindler, and it was becoming increasingly clear that Mahler was not particularly enthusiastic about the score, if not the entire project, and remained coldly contemplating it for performance. Alma accidentally met Mahler at dinner and found that she was talking to her future husband about male beauty. Mahler cited the ugly philosopher Socrates as a pertinent example, to which Alma responded by suggesting that Zemlinsky was a man whose intellect gave him beauty despite his physical ugliness.

The conversation became more lively when she took on Mahler about Zemlinsky’s new ballet. Mahler seemed to keep the score of the work for a whole year, giving the composer no answer: he had no right to do so, she said. Mahler angrily jumped from foot to foot, claiming that the ballet was worthless. She insisted that Zemlinsky deserved an answer, and offered to explain to Mahler the complex symbolism of the work. Despite her propaganda, the project had to be postponed, but Zemlinsky saved from the score, which he called, a concert suite with 4 parts Glass heart (Glass Heart).

Here is the third movement.

Glass heart (8,223166)

I’m going to move on to one of Zemlinsky’s later works to demonstrate the stylistic development that took place between the charm of music just heard to a much more exciting image. Zemlinski’s fourth string quartet was written in 1936 in memory of Alban Berg and is a corresponding completion of his important work, which connected the romantic world of the XIX century with the modern era of the twentieth. Let’s listen to the second movement, Burlesque.

Burlesque (8.572813)

It is hard to believe that the next work was written three years later after the music has just been heard. These are Earthlings Humorous for wind quintet.

Humorous (SWR10626)

Finally, two symphonic works, written with a difference of twenty years and represent the most performed music of Zemlinsky. Finished in 1923, temptation Lyrical symphony for orchestra and two solo voices is probably Zemlinsky’s most famous work, which inspired Alban Berg to such an extent that he quoted a third of it in his own Lyrical suite. Zemlinsky’s rich musical symphony, a post-romantic song cycle under any other name, is reminiscent of Mahler Song of the Earth and Schoenberg Gurr song. To confirm this, here is a brief fifth, Freed me from the gangs (Free me from the shackles of your mercy, love).

Freed me from the gangs (8.572048)

Finally, we have Zemlinski’s lavishly designed “symphonic fantasy.” Mermaid (“The Mermaid”), written in 1903 based on the tale of Hans Christian Anderson about a mermaid who sacrifices herself for her unhappy love for the prince. Three movements closely follow the course of Andersen’s story: the first depicts the life of a mermaid in the ocean, her rescue of the prince from drowning in a storm and her decision to seek with him an earthly existence; the second depicts her contract with a sea witch who cuts off her tongue in exchange for a human appearance, causing her to be received at the royal palace only to discover that the prince is engaged to another; and the finale reflects her mournful return to the sea, where she turns to foam and is blown away by the wind.

Here is the final section of the work to play us out.

Mermaid (8.570240)



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