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Zemlinsky, Alexander

Amongst the ceremonial graves of Vienna‘s Central Cemetary lies that of Alexander Zemlinsky. His corpse was buried there after being transferred in 1985 from the USA, which is where the Nazis drove him in 1938 from his native city of Vienna, and where he died, embittered, on 15.3.1942. Amidst the imposing gravestones that stood over the graves of Arnold Schönberg, Franz Schmidt, Carl Michael Ziehrer etc., Zemlinsky had to make do for ten years with a simple wooden sign – it was as if the grave was as forgotten as the composer.

Thinking back on Zemlinsky, one normally begins with his end. However typical his reception may be of a century inscribed with World Wars and National Socialism, it is still worth noting how differently this composer, born 14.10.1871, was judged from one era to another. In January 1900 Mahler premiered him at the Vienna Hofoper, his brother-in-law and pupil Schönberg respected him above all others, and he was venerated as musical director of the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague (1911-27). Yet during his lifetime Zemlinsky was also to fall prey to musical and political vicissitudes: he was persecuted and forgotten.

Despite the heartfelt radio essay that Adorno devoted to him in 1959, a posthumous revaluation was not yet in prospect. It was not until 1974 that he was featured at the “Steirischer Herbst” in Graz, which not only allowed one to hear his main works, but also involved a symposium whose notable contributions were published in 1976 by Zemlinsky's Viennese publisher Universal Edition. One year later, the first comprehensive monograph on him appeared, written by Horst Weber; it has remained the basis and inspiration for subsequent work on Zemlinsky. And then, in the 80s, as Zemlinsky's major works began to excite audiences – turning points included the 1980 premiere of the opera Der Traumgörge in Nuremberg, the one-act operas A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf in Hamburg in 1981, and the LaSalle Quartet‘s recording of the four string quartets in 1982 – one could really start talking about a “Zemlinsky Revival”.

Today we are back at the beginning. Zemlinsky is seen to be a great composer; his works are played, and are no longer in the aggravating position of being hidden behind comparable works by his famous contemporaries. And now that Ricordi Berlin has been issuing works which were not even available during the composer‘s lifetime, one realises that the complete output fulfills the promise offered by the 2nd String Quartet, the Maeterlinck Songs, and A Florentine Tragedy.

The rediscovery of Zemlinsky is readily attributed to post-modernism. It‘s not that Zemlinsky‘s work is being interpreted in a post-modern context, as is the case with Mahler. But one needed post-modernism to proclaim the end of the teleological view of art history, to draw the attention of experts to composers like Zemlinsky who lay outside the Main Thread leading from Beethoven via Brahms and Schönberg to Boulez. These days, the Economic Miracle-based theory of the Fifties, according to which there was an innate progress in composition that was the measure of whether musical outcomes were right or wrong, lies on the scrap-heap of music history. Yet one should not make fun of it. The search for an objective “material tendency” was a thoroughly appropriate response to the emotional corruption fostered by National Socialism.

In this respect, Zemlinsky‘s return to the repertoire does not merely reflect the post-modern passion for whatever has been marginalised, if only through being forgotten. Rather, it signals the need to sense new things in what is familiar. The unique richness of invention in Zemlinsky's music, in terms of melody, harmony and form, is still complex enough, 100 years after it was written, to radiate a modern aura while still being grounded in the rules of the Classic-Romantic movement. It thus unites the 19th century, whose musical language still seems to be understood by a broad public, with the 20th century, whose language reaches more people than present-day apologists imagine.

In particular, Zemlinsky‘s preference for variants holds the key to a way of composing that, on the one hand, confirms what was once The Law enough for it to be recognised as such, yet on the other, changes it so much as to be irritatingly novel. The constant tacking between resemblances, associations and déjà-vu effects points towards the 19th century, which, since Liszt at the latest, no longer vindicated the construction of a work in terms of formal theory, but through the personal “history” of a gradually changing theme.

However, the ideal model for the introduction of minor modifications is the oral tradition of (folk) song; it is no coincidence that Zemlinsky first tried composing with variants in his early lieder, where the variant technique helps to convey textual subtleties, even in conventional strophic songs. Variants on a grand scale are found in Zemlinsky's only symphonic poem, Die Seejungfrau (1902/03) – one need only look at the skewed harmonisation and orchestration of the main theme in the middle of the second movement – and in Der Traumgörge (1904-06), whose variety of themes and variants is not exceeded in any of Zemlinsky‘s other operas. Finally, in the 2nd String Quartet (1913-15) and the Lyric Symphony (1922/23), the variants not only attest to Zemlinsky‘s inexhaustible imagination, but also secure the construction of the work: what seems to be a chance alteration to the melody often turns out, on closer inspection, to be the detail that forms the link to another theme. Thus, for this admirer of Brahms and Mahler, the technique of variants becomes the main vehicle for composition whose ramifications extend to the smallest detail.

Zemlinsky‘s variant technique sheds light on how, in the 20th century, someone can transform a heritage into something of his own. Naturally, there were and still are countless composers who have sought to create on the basis of the old rules. What makes Zemlinsky stand out from many of them, even to this day, is his unstinting personal devotion to almost every bar. Zemlinsky‘s fear of his own words – there are no notes on his own works, apart from a couple of prosaic lines on the Lyric Symphony, and his letters to his friend Schönberg are often startlingly impersonal – forced him to convey his feelings about the world around him through music, and through the texts he set. Even if one doesn’t want to apply the term “musical biography” to Zemlinsky‘s more than 100 lieder, for fear of detracting from the compositional diversity and seriousness of a genre which takes a central place in Zemlinsky‘s work alongside the eight operas and four string quartets, one can‘t help noting that his music begins to glow wherever he seems to be relating direct personal experience.

© Christoph Becher
English Translation: Antony Beaumont