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Alexander Zemlinsky and his “Lyric Symphony”

Alexander von Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871–March 15, 1942) was an Austrian composer, conductor, and teacher who was born in Vienna to a highly multicultural family. His grandfather, Anton Semlinski, emigrated from Žilina, Hungary, now in Slovakia, to Austria and married an Austrian woman. Both were from staunchly Roman Catholic families, and Alexander’s father, Adolf, was raised as a Catholic. However, Alexander’s mother was born in Sarajevo to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Bosnian Muslim mother. His entire family converted to the religion of his grandfather, Judaism, and Zemlinsky was raised Jewish. His father added an aristocratic “von” to his name. He also began spelling his surname with a “Z.”

Alexander studied the piano from a young age. He played the organ and was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory in 1884. He studied piano with Anton Door, winning the school’s piano prize in 1890. He continued his studies until 1892, studying theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. At this time he began writing music. In 1893 Johannes Brahms attended a performance of Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor. Impressed with Zemlinsky’s music, Brahms later recommended the younger composer’s Clarinet Trio (1896) to the N. Simrock company for publication.

Zemlinsky also met Arnold Schoenberg when the latter joined Polyhymnia, an orchestra in which he played cello and helped found in 1895. The two became close friends and later and brothers-in-law when Schoenberg married his sister Mathilde. Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint, thus becoming the only formal music teacher Schoenberg would have. In 1897 Zemlinsky’s Symphony No. 2 (chronologically the third he had written, and sometimes numbered as such) was a success when premiered in Vienna. In 1899 Zemlinsky secured the post of Kapellmeister at Vienna’s Carltheater. His reputation as a composer was further helped when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal… (Once Upon a Time) at the Hofoper in 1900.

Zemlinsky’s large-scale symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) premiered in 1905 at the same concert as Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. In 1906 Zemlinsky was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper, from 1907/1908 at the Hofoper in Vienna. Zemlinsky married Ida Guttmann in 1907. Following Ida’s death in 1929, Zemlinsky married Luise Sachsel in 1930, a woman to whom he had given singing lessons since 1914. This was a happy relationship, lasting until Zemlinsky’s death. From 1911 to 1927, he was conductor at Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, premiering Schoenberg’s Erwartung in 1924. Zemlinsky’s best-known work is the Lyric Symphony (1923), a seven-movement piece for soprano, baritone and orchestra, set to poems by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore in a German translation.

Zemlinsky then moved to Berlin, where he taught and worked under Otto Klemperer as a conductor at the Kroll Opera. With the rise of the Nazi Party, he fled to Vienna in 1933, where he held no official post, instead concentrating on composing and making the occasional appearance as guest conductor. A three-movement Sinfonietta written in 1934, admired by Schoenberg and Berg, is written in a style comparable to contemporary works by Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill. In 1938 he moved to the United States and settled in New York City.

Other works include eight operas (including Eine florentinische Tragödie (1915–16) and the semi-autobiographical Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1919–21), both after Oscar Wilde); chamber music (including four string quartets) and the ballet Der Triumph der Zeit (1901). He also composed three psalm settings for chorus and orchestra and numerous song cycles, both with piano and with orchestra, of which the Sechs Gesänge, Op. 13, to texts by Maurice Maeterlinck is the best-known. As a conductor, Zemlinsky was admired by, among others, Kurt Weill and Stravinsky. As a teacher, his pupils included Erich Wolfgang Korngold. In 1942, Zemlinsky fell ill, suffering a series of strokes, and ceased composing. Zemlinsky died at Larchmont, NY, of pneumonia.

The only work by Zemlinsky in my collection is:
Lyric Symphony in Seven Songs after poems of R. Tagore, op. 18 (1923).


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