Fragile Maturity – Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor

Fragile Maturity – Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor

In “The Almonac” Henrik Almon, library manager at Ricordi Berlin, presents works from the publishers’ inexhaustible repertoire that are worth hearing straight away yet are rather seldom to be found in the programming of the major opera houses and orchestras.

Now, when the Berlin late summer is starting to show a harsher side, with trees bending under a sky of threatening clouds and me already grabbing a jacket before I set off for work in the morning, it is actually quite a suitable moment – it occurs to me in my autumnal frame of mind – to pay homage once again to Alexander Zemlinsky.

Scarcely a text about Zemlinsky’s music appears without at least a brief section on his life, tragically emblematic of a generation of German-speaking artists who commonly suffered oblivion after fleeing into exile amid the turmoil of the Nazi regime and World War II. Zemlinsky, whose brilliant career as a conductor and opera composer began in Vienna and took him to Prague and Berlin, was forced to leave Germany in 1933. He returned to Vienna but then, after the annexation in 1938, fled to New York. It was there that he died in 1942, crippled by nervous illness and a stroke. Already in Zemlinsky’s early works, a feeling of world weariness and an awareness of life’s transience – standard late-Romantic themes – make it virtually impossible not to discern a premonition of his later tragic fate. 

The music that has in this case proved germane to my latent melancholy over Berlin’s vanishing summer is a youthful work of Zemlinsky’s: the Symphony in D minor, composed in 1892 when he was just 20 and premiered the following year in Vienna under Johann Nepomuk Fuchs. Though it possesses a thoroughly and straightforwardly dramatic disposition, its quiet, lyrical moments evince an introspective quality in which beauty’s fragility shines through every second. Is there not a sense of quiet wonderment at the unpitying way of the world expressed by the strings’ wondrously tender sighing motives in the opening movement’s second theme, a whiff of evanescence always seeming ready to hover above the beauty?

By the third movement the similarity to Gustav Mahler can no longer be ignored: elegiac, lost to the world. The beginning of the clarinet and string solo is marked piano, but in the course of only ten bars the music builds up to a sumptuous wall of sound; one surrenders involuntarily to its repeated surges.

The symphony’s last movement, by contrast, ultimately finds its way to a conciliatory ending: a theme in D major marked fortissimo unfolds over cascading waves of string triplets. In this brief but stirring finale, Zemlinsky at last shows himself in harmony with the way of the world. How fitting that in this very moment at my office, the sun peeks out again from the blanket of clouds.

Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor is definitely a symphony that until now has only rarely appeared on the bigger orchestras’ radar, although in the concentration of its musical themes and the pithiness of its musical argument it surely has what it takes to excite a large audience. Its appealing melodies makes it easily accessible to listeners and yet never dull even after intensive involvement.   

It is the number of performances by smaller orchestras that has slowly but steadily increased in recent years. Its fan base should therefore continue to grow because once the piece has gripped you it won’t easily let go.

Probably most attractive from a practical performing viewpoint is the brief, engaging second movement, an Allegro scherzando marked by rhythmic subtleties – the surprising general pauses could well result in an unintended solo by a player of flagging concentration. Otherwise the work poses no particular technical hurdles, and the orchestral calls for no additional instruments.

Alexander Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor was published in 1995 by Ricordi in a scholarly critical edition by Anthony Beaumont and is available for rental.

Text: Henrik Almon

Symphony in D minor (1892-1893)

Edited by Antony Beaumont
for orchestra - - timp - str
WP: Prague, 26.5.1995

Score of Zemlinky's Symphony in D minor

Digital sheet music

The score and the parts of the Symphony in D minor are available on nKoda.
View on nkoda

The author

Henrik Almon has been responsible since 2013 for the rental department of Ricordi Berlin. Since then, he has constantly been rummaging through the labyrinthine entanglements of 200 years of publishing history, music archives scattered across Europe, analog and digital data banks as well as cryptic messages concerning the delivery of shipped parcels.

Prior to his life at Ricordi, Henrik Almon virtuously completed a rock-solid business course before plunging into the academic depths of musicology, media studies and literature. His studies took him from Weimar and Jena via Paris to Brazil, where he worked for a time as a piano teacher. An enduring passion for Brazilian composers culminated in 2018 in the completion of his dissertation “Discourses on Art-Music in Brazil in the First Half of the 20th Century”. Outside of Ricordi he continues to be an ardent violinist in one of the many Berlin university orchestras.

More articles from The Almonac

Go to overview

Illustration: Marie Louise James