Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony

Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony
By Marc Moskovitz
The Boydell Press; 313 pages
A review by R.C. Speck

Who is Alexander Zemlinsky? Few Classical music aficionados know much about this often overlooked Viennese composer. And this is a wrong which local author and cellist Marc Moskovitz hopes to right with his splendid biography Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony.

Riding the line between the Romantic and Modern periods of classical music, Zemlinsky wrote brilliant and adventurous music that often bordered on atonality but remained true to classical modes of composition. He lived in times that were both musically and politically turbulent. Starting as a disciple of Johannes Brahms, he made a name for himself in the early 1900s as a Gustav Mahler devotee. Yet he tirelessly championed the avant-garde work of Arnold Schoenberg and Schoenberg’s students Anton Webern and Alban Berg.

In his day, Zemlinsky was best known as a conductor. Anything but flashy, he won over crowds with his legendary work ethic, perfectionism, and deep understanding of music. Moskovitz suggests that lack of self-promotion may have held back his career. Perhaps Zemlinsky would have composed more had he not conducted so well? Either way, bad timing, rather than bad luck, seems to have plagued Zemlinsky. Consider the timeline of Zemlinsky’s constantly changing professional fortunes:

  • Mid-1890s: Brahms began actively championing Zemlinsky’s music—shortly before he died.
  • Mid-1900s: Mahler appointed Zemlinsky as a conductor for the Vienna Court Opera—shortly before he left for America and subsequently died.
  • 1911: Zemlinsky embarked on a successful conducting stint in Prague—shortly before the start of World War I.
  • 1927: Zemlinsky began conducting in Berlin—shortly before the Great Depression and the advent of Nazi Germany.

Despite being lucky in love for most of his life (with two seemingly stable marriages), Zemlinsky garnered notoriety around the turn of the century with his doomed relationship with the beautiful but capricious Alma Schindler. Enraptured by his talents but repulsed by his lack of stature and homely looks (referring to him once as a “hideous gnome”), she dumped him the moment she met her future husband Gustav Mahler.

Moskovitz lays down the narrative of Zemlinsky’s life in prose that is clear, direct, and engaging. He expertly describes Zemlinsky’s music, from the Brahmsian Clarinet Trio, to the revolutionary String Quartet no. 2, to Zemlinsky’s crowning achievement, the Lyric Symphony. Like any capable biographer, Moskovitz ties in political history. Most poignantly, he chronicles Zemlinsky’s ill-fated tenure in Berlin amid the financial rubble of the Depression and the rise of Hitler. Brilliant as he was, Zemlinsky was dismissed as being provincial (because his last conducting post had been in Prague), decadent (because he performed modern music), or half-Jewish. Good reviews were rare in the Berlin press.

So why is Zemlinsky so overlooked as a composer? Moskovitz suggests that he was tragically lost in the turmoil of the times. Once, in 1913, he helped organize a concert in Vienna featuring works by (in order of appearance) Webern, Zemlinsky, Schoenberg, Berg, Mahler, and Wagner. Despite high hopes, the evening ended in disaster as the audience refused to put up with the modernist experimentation of Schoenberg and his students. Pandemonium cut the concert short, and the press covered the event for days. Utterly forgotten was that amid the chaos the audience had sat enraptured by four beautiful songs composed by Alexander Zemlinsky.

This book review appeared in the spring 2011 issue of Quarter Notes, the member magazine of WCPE Radio, The Classical Station. To receive a subscription, become a member today!

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