‘I have always thought and still believe that he was a great composer. Maybe his time will come earlier than we think.’ Arnold Schoenberg was far from given to exaggerated claims for ‘greatness’, yet he could hardly have been more emphatic in the case of his friend, brother-in-law, mentor, advocate, interpreter, and, of course, fellow composer, Alexander Zemlinsky. Ten years later, in 1959, another, still more exacting modernist critic, Theodor Adorno, wrote in surprisingly glowing terms. Zemlinsky had ‘made more of the compromises characteristic of an eclectic than any other first-rate composer of his generation. Yet his eclecticism demonstrated genius in its truly seismographic sensitivity to the stimuli by which he allowed himself to be overwhelmed.’ We perhaps look more warily than Adorno or Schoenberg upon Romantic notions of genius, even as our concert halls, opera houses, and much popular discourse cling to them. Has Zemlinsky’s time come? Or is the question now beside the point?
In that Romantic vein, the Lyric Symphony remains Zemlinsky’s ‘masterpiece’: frequently performed, recorded, and esteemed. His operas are now staged more often, at least in Germany. In that same 1949 sketch, Schoenberg praised Zemlinsky the opera composer extravagantly, saying he knew not one ‘composer after Wagner who could satisfy the demands of the theatre with better musical substance than he. His ideas, his forms, his sonorities, and every turn of the music sprang directly from the action, from the scenery, and from the singers’ voices with a naturalness and distinction of supreme quality.’ What, then, of the invisible theatre of the symphonic poem, historically related to Wagnerian drama from Liszt onwards – as indeed in the œuvre of Richard Strauss? There are no voices, nor is there scenery. But what of ideas, forms, sonorities, and action? Die Seejungfrau (‘The Mermaid’) is Zemlinsky’s sole essay in the genre and now his most widely esteemed non-vocal work.
|Image: Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna|
It was not always so. After only three performances, in Vienna, Berlin, and Prague, Zemlinsky withdrew the score. The first performance on 25 January 1905 was also noteworthy for the premiere of Schoenberg’s tone poem, Pelleas und Melisande, and for being the final concert of the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (‘Society of Creative Musicians’), founded by Schoenberg, Zemlinsky, and fellow conductor-composer Oskar Posa only the previous year. It had already performed Strauss’s Sinfonia domestica and the Vienna premiere of Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder. Here each of the founding members conducted his own premiere, five songs for baritone and orchestra by Posa given between Zemlinsky and Schoenberg’s symphonic poems.
The audience did not react kindly to Pelleas, which had most likely been poorly performed (and conducted). Schoenberg would subsequently recall that ‘reviews were unusually violent and one of the critics suggested to put me in an asylum and keep music paper out of my reach’. That is what musical history has tended to remember. However, Zemlinsky’s piece, although misunderstood as merely ‘charming’, even in one review ‘heart-warming’, was received with greater enthusiasm. Such misunderstanding is nevertheless understandable, given that Zemlinsky’s aesthetic would always remain attached to an old-fashioned notion of ‘beauty’. In a 1902 letter to Schoenberg, he declared: ’A great artist who has everything required to express himself meaningfully, must observe the boundaries of the beautiful, even if he should stretch them further.’ To do so, he continued, would have a trained ear, ‘our era … yours and mine,’ hear mere ugliness. For him, Strauss crossed that line in Ein Heldenleben. Such would not be the path taken in the ‘symphonic poem, Das Meerfräulein, by [Hans Christian] Andersen,’ soon renamed Die Seejungfrau.
|Marie Pappenheim, oil painting by Schoenberg, 1909|
Image: Arnold Schönberg Center, Vienna
It is uncertain why, following those three performances, Zemlinsky suppressed the work. He did not even mention it in a 1910 worklist he sent to Universal Edition. It appears he may have come to regret the persistence of elements of less-than-symphonic repetition, which he saw as more at home in the Viennese operettas he conducted to earn a living. The unpublished score was divided, the first movement given to Marie Pappenheim, a friend of Zemlinsky, now best known, alongside achievements as dermatologist and sexual liberationist, as Schoenberg’s librettist for Erwartung. Zemlinsky retained the second and third movements, taking them with him when he fled Europe for the United States in 1938. Only in the early 1980s did scholars come to realise that the three movements belonged together. Die Seejungfrau was finally published, receiving its first ‘modern’ performance, conducted by one of those scholars, Peter Gülke, in 1984.
In the letter to Schoenberg quoted above, Zemlinsky outlined his plan:
Part I a: At the foot of the sea (entire exposition) b: Mermaid in the human world, storm, the prince’s rescue.
Part II a: The mermaid’s longing; with the witch. b: The prince’s wedding and mermaid’s demise. Thus two parts, but four sections.
As work progressed – Zemlinsky wrote far more slowly than Schoenberg – the four sections remained, yet spread across a ‘fantasy in three movements for large orchestra’. The shift to three movements speaks of developing symphonic ambition; ‘symphonic poem’ is how Zemlinsky persistently referred to it in correspondence with Schoenberg. Even the narrative and pictorial ambition of the first movement, its storm included, are bound together by a Brahmsian mode of thematic working. ‘I had been a “Brahmsian” when I met Zemlinsky,’ Schoenberg recalled; ‘his love embraced both Brahms and Wagner and soon thereafter I became an equally confirmed addict.’
The scherzo has less in the way of narrative; it is more of a symphonic movement ‘after’ Andersen. Not for nothing do the waves of La Mer, Debussy’s three ‘symphonic sketches’, come to mind at its opening. The third movement too proceeds in notably symphonic fashion, earlier music revisited and transformed. It may ultimately offer a hymn to ‘man’s immortal soul’, yet far from dependent upon a programmatic idea, let alone a detailed narrative. We should not push such claims too far. Zemlinsky’s themes are motifs, associated with objects, ideas, emotions, as that ‘New German School’ of Wagner, Berlioz, Liszt, and even their successor Strauss would have understood. ‘Home’, ‘joy’, ‘despair,’ seabed, mermaid, ‘human world’, and many others speak of a conceptual dramaturgy extending beyond ‘absolute’ music, even if it eventually returns us to that realm. An age old problem of ‘programme music’ – do we need the ‘programme’ or not? – is resuscitated in a tale of neither fish nor fowl that, both in subject matter and in aesthetic controversy, redramatises and rephrases that very same problem.
|Routledge translation, 1883|
It is generally wise to beware reading autobiography explicitly into music. In this case, however, the romantic ardour Zemlinsky had felt prior to rejection by his pupil, Alma Schindler (subsequently Mahler) seems unavoidably related, at least in generalised fashion, to the work’s subject matter. Such would be the case more specifically in two operas, Der Traumgörge (‘Görge the Dreamer’) and Der Zwerg (‘The Dwarf’). The history and hysteria of the merwitch music, ‘bei der Meerhexe’, cut by Zemlinsky and only latterly restored in Antony Beaumont’s critical edition of the original version, tells its own bitter story. Dark brass writing at the opening proves unsurprisingly Wagnerian, although Strauss may be just as relevant. Disentangling the two hardly seems relevant. Haunting string chords, woodwind solos too, suggest Mahler’s early cantata, Das klagende Lied, which had finally received its first performance in Vienna, in 1901, albeit in heavily revised, truncated form. We might continue, isolating affinities with Till Eulenspiegel, Tod und Verklärung, and so on, yet what would be the point, without broader critical observation? Affinity is not necessarily influence; even when it turns out to be, there remains the question: ‘so what?’
Perhaps we come closer to appreciation of the work’s particular qualities when we recall that Zemlinsky, like Mahler and Strauss, yet unlike Schoenberg, was also a conductor of the first rank. The detail of his orchestral scores is noteworthy in itself and for its practicality, born of experience. That is not to say that he does not make strenuous demands; however, they are never absurd. (One might draw a comparison with, say, Liszt in his piano writing.) Beaumont identifies in this work the birth of an especially ‘singular aspect of Zemlinsky’s art,’ namely his ‘exploitation of the glissando,’ as opposed to Mahlerian portamento, ‘as an expressive device in its own right’. It could hardly have been signalled more emphatically, nor indeed originally, than in the scherzo: four unison trombones at fortissimo. Beaumont rightly acknowledges one contemporaneous usage: Schoenberg’s Pelleas, which requests muted trombones at ppp. Mere coincidence is unlikely. Who influenced whom? We shall probably never know – although Schoenberg’s greater speed at writing may just give him the edge of probability.
At any rate, as Adorno realised, Zemlinsky’s voice, impulse, and general priorities were more typical for ‘Vienna 1900’ than Schoenberg’s. Erik Levi has astutely described Zemlinsky as ‘very much a child of his time, a composer who enthusiastically absorbed a wide array of contemporary cultural influences, but whose distinctive voice only emerges after sustained exposure to his music.’ We stand in a better position to receive and learn from such exposure than previously; indeed, we have now for a little while. Zemlinsky’s time may have come upon us earlier than we knew.
(This essay was first published to accompany the Pentatone recording of Die Seejungfrau by the Netherlands Philharmonic Orchestra and Marc Albrecht. See below.)