About this Recording
8.570240 - ZEMLINSKY, A.: Seejungfrau (Die) / Sinfonietta (New Zealand Symphony, Judd)
English  German 

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942)
Sinfonietta • Die Seejungfrau


The music of Alexander Zemlinsky has come to the attention of an increasingly wide public over the past quarter-century. Although symphonic music features right through his career, symphonies as such are found only during and just after his study at the Vienna Conservatory. That in E minor from 1891 seems never to have progressed beyond its middle movements, while those in D minor from 1893, and B flat from 1897 [both on Naxos 8.557008], exhibit increasing mastery over a symphonic template laid down by Brahms.

This disc features what might have been designated as symphonies, had the composer not avoided the term in his maturity. Thus Die Seejungfrau is termed a ‘Symphonic fantasy’: one that has its origins in the aftermath of Zemlinsky’s ill-fated affair with his pupil Alma Schindler, whose attentions had latterly been drawn to his sometime advocate Gustav Mahler. In 1902 Zemlinsky embarked on a sizeable project inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy-tale, completing it a year later. The work received its first performance in Vienna on 25 January 1905, the composer conducting, and was well received, but critical attention was largely focused on Arnold Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelléas et Mélisande that occupied the second half. After further performances in Prague and Berlin, Zemlinsky seems to have lost interest in Die Seejungfrau, with the result that it was allowed to languish in obscurity until many years after his death. The first two movements had been taken to the United States in 1938 but the third remained in Europe, giving rise to much confusion as to whether it had survived complete. Only in 1984 were the separate scores reunited and the piece given its fourth performance. Since then Die Seejungfrau has established itself as the most often heard of Zemlinsky’s large-scale works beside the Lyric Symphony [Naxos 8.572048].

The three movements closely follow the course of Andersen’s story: the first depicts the mermaid’s life in the ocean, her saving the prince from drowning in a storm and her decision to seek an earthly existence with him; the second depicts her pact with the sea-witch who cuts out her tongue in return for human guise, whereon she is received at the royal palace only to find that the prince is betrothed to another; while the finale depicts her sorrowful return to the sea, where she is transformed into foam and borne away on the wind. The idea of one who is and must remain apart was one to which Zemlinsky often returned, yet his treatment places far greater emphasis on thematic elaboration than on mere illustration. Had he chosen to describe the work as a symphony, few would surely have objected.

The first movement begins with sombre undulating lower strings and woodwind, an atmospheric theme emerging on higher instruments. Solo violin and woodwind sound a more expressive note before the initial music is elaborated and gains in intensity. A recall of the solo violin ushers in a theme which is more emotionally charged as well as opulently scored (and not without its Tchaikovskian overtones), unfolding at some length before the main climax is reached, its initial ecstasy rapidly taking on a more desperate intensity. A brief pause, then the music continues its sensuous course but is again undermined by unrest. This time the tension evaporates and the music regains its earlier calm as it heads on to a conclusion with the atmospheric tolling of bells and in a mood of eloquent repose.

The second movement bursts into life with a surging motion across the whole orchestra, albeit briefly interrupted by a recall of the work’s opening theme. At length an expressive and even capricious theme emerges, decorated with graceful woodwind arabesques, that draws on the Tchaikovskian aspect heard earlier before passing into music whose underlying melancholy is itself offset by a significant hymn-like phrase from the brass that soon builds to a noble apotheosis. The livelier music resumes, heading towards an animated climax which brings numerous motifs into play before subsiding. The hymn-like phrase is heard afar on upper strings, but the prevailing calm is unexpectedly shattered by the peremptory final chords. The third movement commences with melancholic transformations of earlier themes, the solo violin melody prominent among them. This presages greater activity as the music passes through some of its most resourceful scoring on the way to a powerful climax before dying down to muted brass. From here a further climax is suddenly cut off to reveal a musing uncertainty that gradually builds to a climax of impassioned intensity. This subsides into recollections of the undulating music from the work’s opening, over which solo horn is heard in pensive regret. A pause, then the hymn-like phrase is magically reasserted by harps and violins, the movement heading to its final climax in which the salient motifs are transformed and any lingering anxiety is laid to rest in a mood of serene acceptance.

The peak of Zemlinsky’s highly personal brand of Romanticism was reached in his vocal Lyric Symphony of 1923, after which he went through a period of soul-searching in which numerous pieces were begun then abandoned. Only at the end of the decade did he resume composing in earnest, but his music now took on a more astringent manner that well reflected the spirit of the times. A highpoint is the Sinfonietta of 1934, first heard in Prague on 19 February the following year, where elements of Mahler are fused with those of Stravinsky and Hindemith in a work whose impact is the greater for its brevity.

From its questioning initial woodwind phrases, the first movement proceeds with a purposeful string theme that soon gains in intensity. An expressive violin theme brings more introspective music, which presently develops a lilting motion on woodwind and upper strings before leading to a short-lived climax on the opening theme. Its successor now reappears in an idyllic transformation that reaches a point of near stasis; from here various fragments of the first theme re-emerge but the inward calm still prevails until it suddenly bursts forth in a climactic recall of the opening music. The second movement is centred on a hesitant theme for woodwind and lower strings, shot-through with yearning but fatalistic expression which are both intensified in the stark outburst toward its centre. The main theme then brings about the movement’s (indeed, the whole work’s) tragic climax, dying down to a limpid clarinet solo from where the initial music effects an inward yet heart-felt close. The finale springs into action with a lively theme for strings and brass, to which a more sensuous melody provides the necessary contrast. Both of these themes are then drawn into a heady central development, before a freely varied reprise in which the first theme appears with renewed vigour. The second theme makes a fleeting but highly poignant reappearance, as if recalling lost contentment, before its predecessor inevitably reasserts itself and the work powers to its close with a resolve bordering on the aggressive.

Richard Whitehouse

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