Alexander Zemlinsky: Es war einmal...

Zemlinksy Es war Einmal Critical Edition by Ricordi

Edited by Antony Beaumont

fairy-tale opera in a prologue and three acts 
Libretto: Maximilian Singer (in German)
World premiere: 22.01.1900, Vienna


The royal palace. In the presence of the assembled court, a gallant seeks the favour of the king’s daughter. His singing fails to impress and he is shown the door. A second suitor – a prince – is shown in. The princess tries to make him kneel but he refuses. She withdraws in anger. The Prince now determines to win her by guile.
The palace garden. Disguised as a gypsy, he offers her a magic kettle in exchange for a kiss. She agrees but is apprehended by the King, who banishes her from the court. Her only choice is to go with the gypsy. 
A woodland hut. His only demands from the recalcitrant young woman are understanding and reason. He consoles her with a tender folksong. Gradually her fear turns to affection. Finally she falls into his arms.The annual fair. Disguised as a soldier, the Prince makes uncouth advances to the Princess. There is a brawl and her wares are smashed. A herald enters: the Prince is intending to marry, only the bride has yet to be chosen. The wedding dress is tried on and fits the Princess perfectly, but – she still loves the gypsy. Only when the Prince reveals his true identity does she join him on the throne.


In the autumn of 1897, Mahler expresses his interest in Zemlinsky’s first opera, Sarema. When he learns that the 26-year-old composer is working on a second opera, he schedules that premiere at the Vienna Court Opera. The new opera is based on the Danish playwright Holger Drachmann’s folktale comedy Der var engang (Once upon a time; premiere in 1887), in turn derived from Shakespeare, Gozzi, the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. Marie von Borch translates the story of defiance and reconciliation from Danish into German, Maximilian Singer adapts it for the opera stage, and Mahler himself, with advice from his friend Siegfried Lipiner, undertakes some further alterations. Zemlinsky completes the score in March 1899. The star-studded premiere follows on 22 January 1900 and is a great success. Between 1912 and 1926, new productions are staged in Mannheim, Prague and Aussig (Ústí nad Labem). Then the opera falls into oblivion.

Critical edition

In 1987, Danish Radio revives the work. Stylized sounds of nature, arabesque and ornament, avoidance of the straight and narrow: the music is revealed as a true offshoot of Jugendstil – and thus diametrically opposed to the aesthetic of Mahler. No wonder the opera at first does not appeal to him, but he sets to work on it – also borrowing the pentatonic opening for his Fourth Symphony – and undertakes cuts and textual alterations as well as drastically reducing the lavish orchestration. Zemlinsky is not entirely pleased, especially as he now has to compose a new finale for Act I. Nonetheless the work is hugely successful in Mahler’s heavily revised version. Henceforth only this version is performed, and therefore it was also decided to use it exclusively as the basis for the new critical edition.

Text: Antony Beaumont

Recommendations for concert

Vorspiel - - timp.perc - hp - str 

3.2.2.bcl.2 - - timp.perc - 2hp - str 

1st Act No. 1, Duo Prince of Norderland, Princess of Illyrien Ich kann nicht mehr
S.T - - - timp- str