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8.223166 - ZEMLINSKY: Symphony No. 1 / Das Glaserne Herz

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942)
Symphony No. 1 in D minor • Das Gläserne Herz


The Austrian composer and conductor Alexander von Zemlinsky was born in Vienna in 1871. His reputation has to some extent been overshadowed by the controversial achievements of his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg, with Alban Berg and Anton von Webern, on the one hand, and by those of his older contemporary Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky continued the traditions of Viennese classicism and the influence of Wagner never led him to abandon tonality. In some measure he represents a generation of Viennese composers who were able to combine the apparently divergent tendencies of Brahms and Wagner.

Zemlinsky was trained at the Vienna Conservatory, where he was a composition pupil of Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, himself a pupil of Sechler, who had briefly taught Schubert and, more extensively, Bruckner. Always a fine craftsman, Zemlinsky was able to instruct Schoenberg, whom he met in 1895 in the amateur orchestra Polyhymnia, in counterpoint and to give him advice on his earlier work. He was to remain for some time a strong influence both on Schoenberg and on younger composers of Vienna.

Gustav Mahler, conductor at the Vienna Court Opera, once advised Berg no to go into the theatre if he wanted to be a composer, this counsel the result of his own experience. Zemlinsky’s career was essentially in opera. In 1899 he became Kapellmeister at the Carltheater in Vienna and later conducted also at the Volksoper, where he was Kapellmeister from 1906 until 1911, with a break during Mahler’s last season in Vienna, 1907–1908, when he conducted at the Court Opera. From 1911 until 1927 he was conductor at the Landestheater in Prague, where he employed Schoenberg’s pupils Webern, Jalowetz and Karl Horwitz. This period was followed by appointment as Kapellmeister at the Kroll-Theatre in Berlin under Klemperer and the continuation of his work as a teacher, which he had carried out in Prague, at the Berlin Musikhochschule. At the accession to power of Hitler and the National Socialist Party, Zemlinsky made his escape to Vienna and when Austria was annexed in 1938 moved first to Prague and then to the United States, where he died in 1942.

Zemlinsky’s close association with Schoenberg, a relationship strengthened when the latter married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, brought early collaboration in the opera Sarema, for which Schoenberg assisted with the libretto. Both men were indebted to Mahler for practical encouragement. It was Mahler who presented Zemlinsky’s second opera Es war einmal at the Court Opera in 1900 and accepted his next opera, Der Traumgörge, for performance. Later operas included two works based on Oscar Wilde, Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg, a version of The Birthday of the Infanta. In addition to these and other stage works Zemlinsky wrote songs, chamber music and four symphonies, the last of these the Lyrische Symphony of 1923, using a text from Rabindranath Tagore. Berg, in his Lyric Suite, quoted Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphony, a mark of respect and admiration for the older composer.

The composition in largely autograph full score bearing the title Ein Tanzpoem in einem Aufzug von Hugo von Hoffmannsthal (“A Dance Poem in One Act by Hugo von Hofmannsthal”) may be taken to be Der Triumph der Zeit, from which Zemlinsky later derived the three act ballet Das Gläserne Herz, with an expanded libretto. Much of the text of Der Triumph der Zeit was included in the autograph score in the composer’s handwriting. Das Gläserne Herz exists in the composer’s sketch-score as do Drei Balletstücke, also in the composer’s own hand.

The fate of Der Triumph der Zeit is explained in a letter of 18 September 1901, from Hofmannsthal to Zemlinsky. To his surprise Mahler, who has had the libretto of Der Triumph der Zeit for some weeks, has taken an unfavourable view of the piece, in spite of the encouragement of Heinrich Lefler, responsible for décor at the Court Opera. Hofmannsthal expresses the suspicion that Mahler lacks any visual imagination and quotes with amazement his remark that what can be done with lighting is of no importance. Mahler, it seemed, condemned the piece because of his dislike of the medium altogether and had criticised the relationship between the music and the text and its lack of definition. Hofmannsthal considers Mahler, under the strong influence of Wagner, to have misunderstood the nature and inevitable limitations of ballet. He had approached Mahler ready to make changes, if these were required, but it is clear that Mahler’s objections to Der Triumphn der Zeit were much greater than the writer suspected in the course of conversation he describes as brief and friendly. Hofmannsthal, in his letter to Zemlinsky on the subject, suggests that the composer should explain to Mahler, in terms that he can understand, the nature of the text.

Mahler’s treatment of Der Triumph der Zeit was the subject of argument between him and Alma Schindler at their first meeting. The daughter of a distinguished painter and step-daughter of Karl Moll, founder of the Sezession, Alma Schindler had had an early infatuation with Gustav Klimt, followed , when she turned her attention from painting to music, by a curious attraction to her teacher Zemlinsky, a man she described as of astonishing ugliness, chinless, toothless and very dirty. Zemlinsky at least was completely infatuated with his pupil. Mahler had been of the greatest help to Zemlinsky in mounting the opera Es war einmal at the Court Opera in January, 1900. Alma Schindler met Mahler for the first time at a dinner party given by Berta Zuckerkandl at which Klimt and the writer, critic and former theatre-director Max von Burckhard were also present. A young woman of determined opinions and manifest charm, she found herself talking to Mahler on the subject of male beauty. Mahler offered the ugly philosopher Socrates as an example, to which Alma replied by suggesting Zemlinsky as a man whose intellect gave him beauty in spite of his physical ugliness. The conversation became more animated when she tackled Mahler on the matter of Zemlinsky’s new ballet. Mahler, it seemed, had kept the score of the work for a year without giving the composer any answer: this he had no right to do. Mahler hopped angrily from foot to foot, claiming that the ballet was worthless. She insisted that Zemlinsky deserved a reply and offered to explain the complex symbolism of Hofmannsthal’s text. To Mahler’s ironical acceptance of the proposal, Alma demanded in her turn an explanation of a particularly absurd ballet then part of the Court Opera ballet repertoire. The quarrel, heated enough at the time, elicited at least Mahler’s promise to speak to Zemlinsky on the matter. It led, too, to Mahler’s own infatuation with Alma and their marriage six month later.

Das Gläserne Herz, the title of the three-act ballet taken from the first act of Der Triumph Der Zeit, was completed in 1904. An orchestral suite derived from it was given a first concert performance on 8th February, 1903, under Ferdinand Löwe. The work was conceived at the time when Zemlinsky’s infatuation with Alma Schindler was at its height and she may therefore be considered to some extent its inspiration.

The Tanzpoem, forming the second act, and interlude, in the three-act work, opens in the fields of Parnassus. There is a rock, covered with ivy, the beginning of a forest. The rocky outcrop is where the Hours live, sleeping, dreaming and playing. Around each of the Hours dance small groups of children, the Moments, as the curtain rises to livelier music. A horn-call opens the second scene, a signal at which the sleeping Hours rouse themselves and which recurs, as four heralds announce the appearance of further symbolic dancers, introducing the faster third section and, with the trombones, the last section. There is a pageant of human characters, a baby in its cradle giving way to a boy, then a young man, a butterfly to be replaced in darkness by a grey-haired old man, moths flying about his head. Hope returns with the Hours bearing in a dove that dies, but rises again into a starry sky. The Tanzpoem forms an interlude in the whole work, framed by scenes of a generally more earthly relevance.

Zemlinsky’s First Symphony, written in 1892, came at the close of his period of study with Fuchs and is a thoroughly competent work, very much of its age. By 1892 the first of Mahler’s symphonies had already been performed, as well as the tone-poem Tod und Verklärung of Richard Strauss: Brahms had just written his Clarinet Trio and Clarinet Quintet for Mühfeld, and Bruckner, with some assistance, was diffidently revising his Eighth Symphony. Zemlinsky’s Symphony is part of the rich classical symphonic tradition of Vienna. Lacking the blatant irony of Strauss or the diffuse originality of Mahler, it represents an excellent example of the late 19th century symphony. Its sometimes grandiose and sometimes ominous first movement is followed by a lively Scherzo, with its vividly competent scoring and contrasted Trio. The third and final movement, marked “Sehr innig und breit”, opens with an air of lyrical introspection and contains moments of considerable beauty, as it move towards its pensive conclusion.

Keith Anderson

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