ANNIVERSARIES: Alexander Zemlinsky Born 140 Years Ago


A late-Romantic composer who occasionally worked in a more modern style, Alexander Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871 – March 15, 1942) was something of a prodigy. Anton Bruckner was among his teachers. Brahms, impressed by the Symphony in D and a quartet, recommended Zemlinsky to Simrock, Brahms's publisher and arranged a stipend for the young composer. Zemlinsky was friends with the slightly younger Arnold Schoenberg and taught him counterpoint (in which Brahms had tutored Zemlinsky); Schoenberg later married Zemlinsky's sister.

The connection to Schoenberg (who studied music with no-one else) probably contributed to the revival of Zemlinsky's music, which was largely forgotten in the decades after the Nazis drove the Jewish composer first from Germany back to his native Vienna, and then to America, where he found none of the success Schoenberg achieved in exile.A few choice volumes Decca's Entartete Musik series ("decadent music," the Nazis' phrase for music they found insufficiently Aryan or overly modern) jumpstarted the Zemlinsky revival in the '90s, and it burgeoned as EMI issued an extensive series of Zemlinsky recordings conducted by James Conlon in the following decade. Fans of Mahler and early Schoenberg will find Zemlinsky similarly attractive.

Lyric Symphony, Op. 18

Alessandra Marc/Håkan Hagegård/Willard White/Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (Decca)

Zemlinsky's most famous work by far is the Lyric Symphony. Like Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde, it is for two singers (who alternate movements) and orchestra. The texts in the seven connected movements are selections from Hans Effenberger's German translation of Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore's long poem The Gardener. The harmonies are lush and full of achingly beautiful dissonances, the orchestration is delicately tinted but powerfully emotive, and the perfumed aura of fin-de-siècle Vienna is pervasive (though the symphony was composed in 1922-23, past that period). The symphony impressed Alban Berg so much that he quoted it in his own Lyric Suite. The titles (first lines) of the movements give a good idea of the general atmosphere:

I. "I am restless. I am athirst for far-away things"
II. "O mother, the young Prince"
III. "You are the evening cloud"
IV. "Speak to me, my love"
V. "Release me from the bonds of your sweetness, Love"
VI. "Then finish the last song"
VII. "Peace, my heart"

It's tough to pick a favorite recording of this work. Conlon has a wonderful assortment of filler tracks (seven instrumental preludes and interludes from some of Zemlinsky's operas) and perhaps the best soprano, Soile Isokoski, but a lightweight baritone where a heroic one (according to the composer) is needed; Michael Gielen (Arte Nova) leads the most thrilling interpretation, but his baritone also lacks heft. Håkan Hagegård is plenty heroic, and Chailly leads the most sensual performance. His filler is a chronologically and stylistically compatible orchestral song set (for more on which, see below).

Symphonies Nos. 1 in D minor; 2 in B-flat major

Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker/James Conlon (EMI Classics)

Lovers of late-Romantic symphonies will find much to enjoy in these relatively little-known works. Zemlinsky wrote them while in his twenties; unlike the Lyric Symphony, these are strictly instrumental. Fairly conservative compared to Zemlinsky’s later works, his First Symphony is clearly indebted to Brahms (though slightly more harmonically adventurous in spots), and the theme of the slow third movement recalls Bruckner. This forgotten work had to be put together from several sources, but eventually all but one bar was found (and that bar is filled in by editor Antony Beaumont). The Second has more Wagnerian harmonies at times but retains the Brahmsian structures; the final movement is a passacaglia in honor of the then-recently deceased Brahms, who ended his Fourth Symphony in similar fashion. Conlon offers polished readings, and if you want both on one CD, this is it.

Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid); Sinfonietta, Op. 23

Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker/James Conlon (EMI Classics)

These are two rather remarkable works. Die Seejungfrau (1902-03) is a three-movement symphonic poem (44 minutes plus in this recording) inspired by Hans Christian Andersen's story. It hints that Zemlinsky was paying attention to Richard Strauss's orchestrational style, though still following his own harmonic Muse as inspired at that time by Mahler. Surprisingly, he told Schoenberg that he was writing it "in the spirit of Brahms"; Malcolm McDonald (Master Musicians: Brahms (Oxford University Press)) writes, "Zemlinsky seems to have recognized that to retain a convincing musical form, even 'programmatic' works now needed to manifest the subtle and far-reaching structural unity that characterized Brahms's compositions…." Die Seejungfrau garnered negative reviews on its 1905 premiere and Zemlinsky tucked it away without getting it published, then left one movement behind when he fled Austria; it was not until 1984 that it reappeared whole, by which time the critics liked it much more. The Sinfonietta (1934) is one of Zemlinsky's later works. Also in three movements, it's much more compact in both length (22-1/2 minutes here) and construction, its material meticulously built up from motivic cells. It is, I believe, a minor masterpiece, to which Conlon of course does full justice. This album, formerly on a separate CD, is now available as the first disc of a budget-priced three-CD set, which is what the link above takes you to. 

The String Quartets: Nos. 1 in A major, Op. 4; 2, Op. 15; 3, Op. 19; 4, Op. 25

LaSalle Quartet (Deutsche Grammophon)

 This set could be considered the seed of the Zemlinsky revival. The LaSalle Quartet specialized in the Second Vienna School composers (the Schoenberg circle), and the group's taut 1978/82 readings of Zemlinsky's quartets -- the latter three in his most progressive style -- earned him much respect when they were issued in a beautiful and superbly annotated three-LP set (also including Hans Erich Apostel's String Quartet No. 1).

The First (1896) is an early work, heavily indebted to Brahms's style but nonetheless excellent and with some personal touches. In the vicinity of forty minutes, and vastly more harmonically daring, the monumental Second (1913-15) was a great leap forward in ambition. One of the obsessions of the progressives was more unified structures. Zemlinsky came up with a new organization of the form that kept separate movements but with thematic threads in common in a sort of gigantic modified Rondo form with elements of Sonata form. There is a feverish level of expression at times, and a quotation from Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht. Schoenberg by that time had moved into a fully atonal style; while Zemlinsky would never go that far, he took tonality much farther in the Second than he had in the relatively conservative First.

The Third (1924), still using Sonata form in its first movement, is more condensed in organization, more dramatically contradictory in its emotional expressiveness, and even more harmonically adventurous. Zemlinsky's six-movement Fourth (1936) is in memory of his friend Alban Berg, and emulates the form of Berg's Lyric Suite (which had quoted Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony and been dedicated to him). There's an exquisitely painful level of Expressionism in some of Zemlinsky's tonality-stretching harmonies in the Fourth, but also beautiful melodies, notably in the third (Adagietto; Adagio) and fifth (Barcarole: Theme with Variations) movements. An energetic, slippery double fugue crowns the work.

In terms of absolute music, Zemlinsky's String Quartets Nos. 2-4 are his supreme achievements. The LaSalle Quartet plays them with concentrated power and emphasizes their progressiveness, which probably contributed to their positive reception (the LaSalle is perfectly at home in the First as well). For a more Romantic take on them in a set that also includes the fine Two Movements for String Quartet (1927) and "Maiblumen blühten überall" (1898) for soprano and string sextet, there's the Schoenberg Quartet on Chandos (with Susan Narucki the soprano). In all the quartets, the Schoenberg Quartet offers more expansive tempos than the LaSalle -- only a minor different in the first, but significant in all the rest.

 Der Traumgörge (Görge the Dreamer)

David Kuebler/Patricia Racette/Susan Anthony/Iride Martinez/Andreas Schmidt/Michael Volle/Lothar Odinius/Zelotes Edmund Toliver/Julian Rodescu/Natalie Karl/John Pierce/Machiko Obata/Opernchor der Musikhochschule Köln/Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker/James Conlon (EMI Classics)

Ever wish that Mahler had written an opera? At times, that's what this sounds like. In fact, Zemlinsky's third opera was to be presented at the Vienna State Opera by Mahler, but when he resigned in 1907 during the rehearsals, his successor, Felix Weingartner, scrubbed it from the schedule. It went unheard until 1980. Just to make the history of the work even more psychologically fraught, Mahler's wife, Alma, had inspired the work -- when Zemlinsky was her music teacher, they'd had an affair.

The plot is actually quite good, and perhaps informed by Freudian psychology. Görge is an idealist who wants the fantasy world of fairy tales to be real, for which he is ridiculed, in the wake of which his girlfriend, Grete (whose father only wanted her to marry Görge because he will inherit the village mill), leaves him when her old boyfriend returns from military service. Görge then has a vision of a Dream Princess. Three years later, in another village, Görge's new girlfriend, Gertraud, suffers from accusations of witchcraft and the loss of her job at the inn because the innkeeper offered her the job in return for sex, and the innkeeper's wife, well aware of that, chases her away. The villagers set Gertraud's house afire because of her supposed witchcraft; Görge rescues her and his anger drives away the mob. Görge returns to his home village with Gertraud, expands the mill, and starts a school, while Gertraud helps the poor. The villagers realize they are grateful to him, and he has built a happy life in the real world, with Gertraud his Dream Princess.

This was the first (and, so far, the last) recording of the complete work (the original publication included Mahler's cuts), and thus the obvious recommendation even if it weren't such an excellent performance in which the work's great beauty is blazingly apparent. Now that it's been reissued at bargain price (two CDs for $12 list), it's an even easier decision.

Der Zwerg (The Dwarf)

Soile Isokoski/Iride Martinez/David Kuebler/Andrew Collis/Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker/James Conlon (EMI Classics)

Based on an Oscar Wilde story, but as reshaped by Zemlinsky, this is another opera inspired by his affair with Alma. He was supposedly rejected because he was short and less handsome than Mahler, and he clearly identifies with the title character. The Dwarf is a birthday present to a Spanish princess; he has never seen himself in a mirror and doesn't know he is deformed. He falls in love with the princess and sings her a love song; she gives him a rose. Later he sees a mirror for the first time. Upset, he tries to get the princess to kiss him, but is spurned. He dies of a broken heart, still holding the rose; the princess rejoins her party. When the opera was premiered in 1922, it was conducted by Otto Klemperer. After four years, it fell from the repertoire, and on first revival in 1981, it was stupidly altered to make it closer to the more mean-spirited and cynical Wilde story. Conlon restores it to its original glory and revels in the richness of the score. Kuebler's portrayal of the Dwarf is vocally beautiful and emotionally touching. It's a tragedy that this recording is no longer available. There's a more recent Conlon performance on video, with different performers, that I haven't seen/heard.

Complete Orchestral Lieder: Waldgespräch; Maiblumen blühten überall; 2 Songs for Baritone & Orchestra; 6 Songs, Op. 13, on Poems by Maurice Maeterlinck; Symphonic Songs, Op. 20

Soile Isokoski/Violetta Urmana/Andreas Schmidt/Michael Volle/Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker/James Conlon (EMI Classics)

As we've already seen with his Lyric Symphony, the genre of the orchestral song is one in which Zemlinsky was both comfortable and adept. "Waldgespräch" and the two cycles with opus numbers are familiar to not only Zemlinsky fans but also to vocal mavens. "Waldgespräch" (Forest Talk), a ballad for soprano, strings, harp, and two horns, dates from 1895/6 and is the earliest work here. It sets a Joseph von Eichendorff poem that, despite its titular setting, is about Lorelei. Absent are the edgy harmonies of mature Zemlinsky, though as pure Romanticism it's pretty enough. The Six Songs, Op. 13, on poems of Maurice Maeterlinck are small masterpieces for mezzo-soprano and full orchestra. Dating from 1910 and 1913, they are ripely Romantic works positively bursting with expression. Harmonies are sometimes ambiguous (think Tristan und Isolde but more '30s Hollywood), but the rich melodies -- not only in the vocal line, but also in the strings and woodwinds -- always pull the music forward as it expresses a nearly decadent weltschmerz, or sometimes an almost painful yearning, entirely apt to the purple poems.

The superb 1929 cycle Symphonic Songs, Op. 20 sets German translations of Harlem Renaissance poems, four by Langston Hughes and one each by Jean Toomer, Countée Cullen, and Frank Horne. They're in a clearly different style, occasionally much sparer in orchestration and considerably more angular both melodically and harmonically. The mood throughout is quite dark, even in the three songs that have jazzy rhythms (the instruments include extra percussion and a mandoline). There's a hint in "Bad Boy" of the insouciance of Kurt Weill, but abjuring his lightness and irony. It's no surprise that the Nazis banned this cycle as "degenerate music," but now it seems robustly refreshing, if far from uplifting.

There are also two works on this disc that make it immediately self-recommending to Zemlinsky buffs: The first recording of the original version of the fragmentary 1903/04 song "Maiblumen blühten überall" (Mayflowers were blooming everywhere) for soprano and string sextet (the fully orchestrated version is better-known) and the premiere recording of Two Songs for Baritone and Orchestra, the first parts of a projected five-song cycle dating to 1900/01 that was never completed (the orchestration here is by Anthony Beaumont). The sextet format of "Maiblumen blühten überall" may suggest Schoenberg's Verklärte Nacht, and in fact Zemlinsky was even setting the same poet who inspired Schoenberg, Richard Dehmel. There are similarities, but here Zemlinsky is harmonically somewhat closer to Mahler in style. Still, this is a deeply affecting work that already sounds in many respects like later Zemlinsky.

The shadow of Mahler also touches the Two Songs for Baritone and Orchestra, though this is partly ascribable to Beaumont's full-orchestra arranging decisions in a work that was left in short score. In fact, at times the harmonies waft with an Impressionist-like ambiguity that makes the first song especially (Eichendorff's "Der alte Garten") seem more French than Viennese.

Aside from the two soprano works (both well-sung by Soile Isokoski), these are concert recordings, though one would be hard-pressed to tell. Baritone Andreas Schmidt scales his voice back nicely so as to not overwhelm the Two Songs, yet retains a winning richness of tone. Mezzo-soprano Violeta Urmana and baritone Michael Volle get to sing with considerably more oomph in the heftier cycles and despite heavier competition in these works need not be ashamed of comparisons, though Urmana's vibrato presses a bit at times. Conlon again provides nicely buffed yet emotionally communicative readings. If Anne Sophie von Otter (Op. 13) and William White (Op. 20, above), on separate recordings, are not eclipsed, this nonetheless is an entirely welcome package that all lovers of Late Romantic song should acquire. 

Complete Choral Works: Psalm 13, Op. 24; Psalm 23, Op. 14; Psalm 83; Frühlingsbegräbnis; "Minnelied"; "Hochzeitsgesang"; Two Poems for Chorus and String Orchestra; "Frühlingsglaube"; "Geheimnis"; "Aurikelchen"

Deborah Voigt/Donnie Ray Albert/ Chor des Stadtischer Musikvereins zu Düsseldorf/Mühlheimer Kantorei/Gürzenich-Orchester Kölner Philharmoniker/James Conlon (EMI Classics)

This collection, a mix of live and studio recordings, helpfully fills in several gaps in the catalog. Conlon as usual offers polished readings that swell with emotion. Most of these works -- all in German -- have orchestral accompaniment. The latest work is heard first: Psalm 13, Op. 24, which dates from 1935 and suggests a restless, harmonically edgy cross between Mahler and early Schoenberg. Psalm 23, Op. 14 (1910) is also Mahlerian in its alternation of uneasy harmonies and more lyrical passages. Psalm 83 (1900) still shows Zemlinsky's early major influence, Brahms, but shows him finding his own voice in a sometimes stormy piece which exhibits skillful use of orchestral chiaroscuro. All three Psalms were recorded in concert, and as is so often the case in live performances with orchestra and choir, balance of forces is an issue. The chorus is less distinct than ideal, but the perspective is realistic and the singing impassioned; if a few words are lost in the mix, the overall effect is fine.

Frühlingsbegräbnis (The Burial of Spring) is the longest work here (24:21) and dates from 1896. This cantata includes soprano and baritone soloists (Voigt and Albert) and shows the composer still strongly under the sway of Brahms harmonically, if not necessarily melodically, but more Romantically inclined. The chorus in this (also from a concert performance) and the Psalms is the Düsseldorf group. In between come shorter works: "Minnelied" (1895), for men's chorus and chamber ensemble; "Hochzeitsgesang" (1896), for tenor solo, men's chorus, and organ, composed for a synagogue wedding and using verses from Psalm 118; Two Poems for Chorus and String Orchestra (1896), "Frühlingsglaube" and "Geheimnis," for chorus and string orchestra; and the short, undated "Aurikelchen" for women's chorus. With the possible exception of the latter, these are all early works, strong on charm but relatively unconcerned with innovation. The Mühlheimer Kantorei performs on these studio recordings.

There is strong competition in the Psalms from Chailly, whose versions on Decca offer clearer sound. Conlon's inclusion of the shorter pieces makes his disc the obvious choice for choral fans, although EMI doesn't make it easy to find (besides the original single-disc issue, it was later issued in a two-fer with the orchestral lieder album above). - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based poet and composer who is halfway through recording his five songs composed on texts from James Joyce's Pomes Penyeach with singer Kate Leahy and cellist Suzanne Mueller.


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