Program Notes


BORN: October 4, 1871. Vienna, Austria

DIED: March 15, 1942. Larchmont, NY

COMPOSED: February 1902 through March 20, 1903; following that, Zemlinsky effected substantial cuts prior to the work’s premiere

WORLD PREMIERE: January 25, 1905. The composer conducted at Vienna’s Musikverein in a concert presented by the Association of Creative Musicians in Vienna


INSTRUMENTATION: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th doubling piccolo), 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, low bells, triangle, cymbals, two harps, and strings

DURATION: About 47 mins

THE BACKSTORY Among the array of powerful talents populating turn-of-the-century Vienna was Alexander von Zemlinsky. (He would drop the aristocratic “von” after World War I.) He instructed and championed a heady roster of composers whose works would become more remembered than his own. He took the young Arnold Schoenberg under his wing, taught him personally, and employed him as a musical assistant; Schoenberg’s Opus 1, a set of songs, is dedicated to his “teacher and friend Alexander von Zemlinsky.” They became brothers-in-law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde in 1901. The preceding year, another friend, Gustav Mahler, conducted the premiere of Es war einmal. . . (Once Upon a Time. . . ), the second of Zemlinsky’s eight operas, at the Vienna Hofoper. Another of his pupils was Alma Schindler, with whom he became romantically involved in 1901. Their intense, teasing affair lasted about nine months, after which she cast him aside and married Mahler instead. Alban Berg and Anton Webern were among his pupils in the art of orchestration.

He held a succession of prestigious conducting appointments, including at the Vienna Volksoper (where he led the Vienna premiere of R. Strauss’s Salome), the Hofoper (where he worked alongside Mahler), and the Neues Deutsches Theater in Prague (later renamed the Deutsches Landestheater). Apart from his sixteen-year tenure in Prague, he moved frequently from one post to another, and he sometimes became swept up in aesthetic disagreements and personal rivalries. Inevitably he ran afoul of the Nazis, and during the dark years his oeuvre was consigned to the forbidden list of “degenerate music.” His mother issued from a mixed Sephardic-Turkish Muslim marriage and his father, born a Catholic, had converted to Judaism. A few months after the Anschluss, Zemlinsky and his wife fled from Vienna, via Prague, to New York, where he found little success. He was disabled by a stroke in 1939, and his death three years later went largely unnoticed.

As the nineteenth century ceded to the twentieth, the musical world was embroiled in an aesthetic controversy that pitted “program music” (founded on a literary narrative or some other extra-musical source) and “absolute music” (in which tones themselves were the sole impetus). In recent decades, traditionally constructed symphonies were being challenged by symphonic poems, with their specific illustrative overtones—single-movement works that offered listeners an anchor for listening that proved increasingly helpful as orchestral pieces stretched toward gigantism and the processes of harmony grew ever more complex. Richard Strauss’s symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben set tongues wagging after its

Vienna premiere in 1901, and some listeners argued that such a piece had gone as far as the genre could go. “Any further expansion of the symphonic poem beyond Ein Heldenleben seems scarcely conceivable,” wrote the conductor Gustav Brecher in a 1900 article on Strauss. “In this line of development [Strauss] has carried the art of musical composition to its highest, ultimate peak.”

Zemlinsky and Schoenberg set out to prove that Ein Heldenleben was not an end-point. They both acquired scores of that piece, studied and discussed it in depth, and set out to write their own symphonic poems in parallel, sharing their scores-in-progress with each other. Schoenberg selected Maurice Maeterlinck’s play Pelléas et Mélisande as his inspiration—a text he selected on Richard Strauss’s advice.

Zemlinsky chose Den lille havfrue (The Mermaid—or, in German, Die Seejungfrau) a tale published by Hans Christian Andersen in 1837. They worked out their pieces in 1902-03 and unveiled them on the same program in January 1905, with the two composers conducting their own works. Die Seejungfrau was greeted with nearly unanimous praise, Pelleas und Melisande with disparagement. At least some of the discrepancy doubtless arose from the fact that Zemlinsky was a more expert conductor than Schoenberg and accordingly leading a more compelling interpretation.

Andersen’s tale recounts the story of a young mermaid who, on turning fifteen, is allowed to swim to the surface of the sea to glimpse the world in which humans dwell. She saves a prince from drowning in a shipwreck, and she is so smitten with him that she bargains with a sea-witch to exchange her tongue for legs; this will allow her to seek him out in the world of humans, even though she will be able to communicate with him only through dancing (and legs prove unfortunately painful for her). The prince ends up marrying a human princess, as a consequence of which the mermaid is doomed to meet the fate of all mermaids when they die, which is to dissolve into sea-foam. Andersen later appended a “happy ending” in which her soul proves immortal and she ascends to the skies to join other spirits of the air.

THE MUSIC Zemlinsky initially envisioned his piece as a single movement divided into two parts, each of which would be in turn divided into two episodes. The first would depict the sea-bed setting and then move to the mermaid’s rescuing the prince in the storm. The second part would depict the mermaid’s longing and her encounter with the sea-witch before proceeding to the prince’s wedding and the mermaid’s subsequent demise. As Zemlinsky worked on the piece, it grew into three discrete movements, none bearing programmatic titles. In his correspondence with Schoenberg, he continued to refer to the piece as a symphonic poem (with the single-movement implication that carries), but the program for the premiere labelled it a Fantasy for Orchestra.

It appears that he wrote a somewhat detailed program, at least for the first movement, but it has not survived. When he discarded it, he also cut numerous musical passages meant to illustrate specific images. “Little by little,” wrote his biographer Antony Beaumont, “he dismantled the programmatic scaffolding and softened the story-line into a panorama of moods and colors.” The composer’s command of orchestral color is indeed admirable, summoning up sensations of underwater undulation and cavorting creatures in the first movement, a hunting scene for the prince in the second, and the grandeur of the prince’s court in the third. At this point, lining up portions of the score with “plot points” would be an exercise in speculation, notwithstanding the fact that the music includes numerous Wagner-style leitmotifs—descriptive melodic fragments—the most recurrent of which oddly resembles a theme from Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony (premiered in 1888). Many passages reveal Zemlinsky’s absorption of Wagnerian harmony, with the chromatic surging of Tristan-esque passion sometimes rising to the surface. Zemlinsky was himself feeling love pangs as he worked on this piece, since Alma Schindler broke up with him shortly before he began to sketch Die Seejungfrau.—James M. Keller

James M. Keller is Program Annotator of the San Francisco Symphony and the New York Philharmonic. His book Chamber Music: A Listener’s Guide (Oxford University Press) is now also available as an e-book and as an Oxford paperback. 

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