Vienna’s hapless missing link

Zemlinsky’s music is arresting and his ideas fertile and diverse, but he often goes unnoticed

On Music

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Has there ever been an unluckier composer than Alexander Zemlinsky? Mentored by Brahms, commissioned by Mahler, Zemlinsky gave music lessons to Arnold Schoenberg and Erich Korngold and wrote orchestral suites that were literally the last word in late romanticism as the world hurled itself into war.

In the 1920s he did more than anyone to advance modern opera in Prague and Berlin, narrowly escaping Hitler’s clutches in 1939. But with each step up the ladder, Zemlinsky hit a snake. Mahler left Vienna months after he signed on. His students outshone him, opera houses took him for granted and no sooner did he find a publisher in America than he was felled by a stroke, dying in slow stages aged 70.

Zemlinsky is a vital missing link in the musical chain, a voice from a Vienna that is neither white nor Christian

Posterity has been no kinder. Riding the Mahler wave in the 1980s, his music paled by false comparison. A 150th anniversary revival planned for 2021 has been choked off by Covid clamps on big orchestras and audiences. Zemlinsky has lost out again. And so have we, because Zemlinsky is a vital missing link in the musical chain, a voice from a Vienna that is neither white nor Christian, not mainstream, but melting pot.

Zemlinsky’s heritage is Balkan, his parents Muslim, Catholic and ultimately Jewish, his father serving as secretary to Vienna’s small Sephardic synagogue, custodian of Turkish and Iberian traditions. Top of his class at the Vienna Conservatoire, the budding composer flattered Brahms with a D-minor symphony, a clarinet trio and a Schubertian string quartet, none of striking originality.

He found his voice in the clutches of a voluptuous teenager, Alma Schindler, a piano-stool lust that was (according to her diaries) on the very cusp of consummation when Alma met Gustav Mahler at dinner and Zemlinsky got dumped. “Forgive me,” begs Alma, “I no longer know myself.” In the same letter she writes, “if you are the man I think you are you will come here on Monday, give me your hand and our first kiss of friendship. Be a good fellow, Alex.”

Good fellow that he was, Zemlinsky polished up Alma’s gawky love-songs and became her husband’s gateway to a new generation, introducing Mahler to his radical brother-in-law Schoenberg. Mahler took up Zemlinsky’s fairytale opera Once Upon a Time and hired him as a junior conductor. But he proclaimed Schoenberg the future of music, leaving Zemlinsky in muted dismay.

Zemlinsky composed a sumptuous orchestral suite, The Mermaid, a proximate yet impenetrable love object. His simmering Alma frustration is brought out richly in Vasily Petrenko’s new recording with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic.

The suite was a huge public success but Zemlinsky immediately suppressed it for reasons we can only conjecture. He went on to write a set of orchestral songs, opus 13, heaving with sweaty flesh and moonlit foreboding, a meditation of Mediterranean nights. Alma, by now, disparaged Zemlinsky as “the ugliest man in Vienna”, underscoring the gulf between his scrunched-up features and her raw-boned Aryan ideal.

Mahler’s death in 1911 prompted Zemlinsky to write his Lyric Symphony for two vocalists and large orchestra, a replica of Das Lied von der Erde. Where Mahler set Chinese texts, Zemlinsky preferred Rabindranath Tagore, the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize in Literature. Otherness and outsiderhood were his perpetual preoccupations.

His one-act opera, The Dwarf, is an Oscar Wilde story of a deformed slave who falls in love with his beautiful Spanish princess, another Alma surrogate. Its companion piece, Wilde’s Florentine Tragedy, is a limp tale of marital betrayal.

None of his operas seemed to hit the spot. “I most certainly lack that special something that one must have — today more than ever — in order to come out on top,” he told Alma. “It does little good to have elbows — one must also know how to use them.” He was director of Prague’s German Theatre and Kapellmeister of Berlin’s Kroll-Oper. But he proved unable to use these positions of influence to advance his own work, inhibited by an outlier’s crippling insecurity.

Long before Bertolt Brecht, he wrote an opera on the Chinese legend of the chalk circle, just as Hitler came to power.

Korngold and Schoenberg made it to Hollywood. The Metropolitan Opera conductor Arthur Bodansky got the New York Times to run a news story headlined “Zemlinsky Comes to Live Here” and set him up with a music publisher. Zemlinsky wrote a song called “Misery”. Schoenberg sent sun-kissed invitations to California but there was not enough life left in him to make the trip.

We ought to be hearing lots more of Zemlinsky this summer. There seems to be nothing at the Salzburg Festival and only the juvenile clarinet trio at the BBC Proms. This is more than a consequence of Covid constraints. It amounts to a fundamental misreading of Zemlinsky’s place in the evolution of music. Mostly, he is written down as sub-Mahler or semi-Schoenberg when he is kaleidoscopic and multicultural, an amalgam of civilisations, a voice from elsewhere.

We ought to be hearing lots more of Zemlinsky this summer

My path into Zemlinsky was lit by the LaSalle Quartet’s recordings of his chamber music, each work tracking Schoenberg’s headlong charge into atonality and serialism without in any way yielding its own principled dissidence. The second quartet, written in 1915, is a synoptic history of the genre from Schubert’s Death and the Maiden to Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, as instructive as it is absorbing.

The third quartet, dated 1924, is edgily discordant though not serially dogmatic; the fourth, in 1936, hints at an impending cultural apocalypse. Zemlinsky’s music stands as a barometer in a hurricane’s path, recording climate data before its ultimate destruction.

I have not given up hope of resurrection. Zemlinsky’s music is arresting, his ideas fertile and diverse, his personality elusive yet unusual enough to demand attention. Zemlinsky’s luck must surely turn. His time will come.

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