Alexander Zemlinsky and Arnold Schönberg

Zemlinsky: composer in between two worlds

13 September 2021

The 20th-century musical scene is very often conceived as a schism between two opposite movements: modernists such as Schönberg and Stravinsky were working on a radical redefinition of the musical scene, whereas traditionalists such as Rachmaninov and Sibelius were faithful to the aesthetics of the nineteenth century. This disparity is unfortunate, because Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) – amongst others – positioned himself in between these opposites.

Text: Arne Herman 

Although Zemlinsky dared to experiment with modernism at some points, he was more moderate than his eagerly innovative contemporaries. Because of this intermediate position, Zemlinsky became underacknowledged in history books. However, Zemlinsky’s interesting oeuvre is being rediscovered only recently. The Dutch National Opera, for instance, presented his opera Eine florentinische Tragödie a few years ago, people appreciate Zemlinsky increasingly because of his expressive or, even better, ‘expressionistic’ style, with which he yet succeeds to maintain a melodic richness. It is time to revisit one of the most brilliant orchestrators.


Confusing times

The beginning of the previous century was a confusing time, not in the least for music. The dominating romantic style in the nineteenth century reached its limits at the beginning of the twentieth century. Gustav Mahler’s 8th Symphony expanded the orchestra outrageously, the strict approach to formalistic principles such as the sonata were already considered restrictive, and, ensuing Wagner, some composers had made the harmonic language too complex. More than ever, music was in a state of crisis: what could music express, if everything was already expressed?

The first decennia of the twentieth century knew the rise, development and decline of answers to this question in the context of modernism. The epicenter of this modernist vigor was Vienna, a fairly traditionalist bastion to whose naïve nineteenth-century splendor this progressive movement reacted. Underneath the flamboyant surfaces of golden ballrooms and Viennese waltzes, innovations by writers, philosophers, painters, architects and composers – such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus, Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and Sigmund Freud – were blooming. The composer who fits this collection of innovators most aptly, is Arnold Schönberg. By radically moving to atonal music, Schönberg redirected musical history in a complete different direction. After all, atonal music does not entail a hierarchic relationship between the different tones, thereby breaking down the fundamental structure that had been used throughout two centuries of music. However, Schönberg was not exactly an innovative deus ex machina, but rather a leading figure of a small number of like-minded souls who revived the musical culture together. One of those souls, of course, was Alexander Zemlinsky.


“Zemlinsky moved between tradition and experiment, marching forward while looking behind.”

Mahler and Schönberg

During his lifetime, Zemlinsky was famous as the conductor of, for instance, the Viennese State Opera and the Vienna’s People’s Opera, which made him a direct colleague of Gustav Mahler, the most respected conductor of his time. Working with the best symphonic orchestras daily, both composers developed an exquisite expertise in composing symphonic music, and, in Zemlinsky’s case, operas as well. In the context of his conductorship, Zemlinsky met the young Schönberg, with whom he maintained a life lasting friendship. Very often, Zemlinsky is considered as Schönberg’s (only) teacher, but that might be an overstatement. In a very small number of private lessons, Zemlinsky advised his colleague about the most technical side of composing, and in 1897, Schönberg presented a string quartet in order to receive feedback. After master Zemlinsky’s appreciation, Schönberg retrieved as a student in order to ‘go his own way’.


Second Viennese School

Nevertheless, both composers did share one ambition: to shake up the dull musical culture of their time. In 1904, Zemlinsky and Schönberg founded the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler, an alternative concert organization that offered a forum to composers who cherished innovative musical ideas. When this organization turned out not to be profitable after one season and had to be cancelled, Schönberg began to encourage students to join him. Alban Berg and Anton Webern were the first and most influential generation of this group. With his so-called Second Viennese School, Schönberg entered the center of the Viennese avant-garde. The name ‘Second Viennese School’ refers to the ‘First’ Viennese School, which consisted of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, three composers who also share a master-student relationship. However, this name can be confusing, as it might imply that Schönberg was a guru who wanted to spread his radical innovations amongst his students. This was not the case: apart from the few lessons with Zemlinsky, Schönberg was autodidact, thus not envisioning a fixed, drawn-up pedagogical project, but aspiring to be a mentor for his students, whom he considered to be his equals.


The artist’s idiosyncrasy

Although Zemlinsky’s career was launched before Schönberg’s, their creative paths ran parallel for a long time. Around the turn of the century, both of them made grand compositions in Wagnerian style (Schönberg’s Gurrelieder and Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie, for instance), both sharing a fascination for modern themes such as madness and the divergent (such as Schönberg’s Erwartung and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg). Although both their experiments with increasingly audacious harmonies represent a search for music that could voice the turbulent era, it is exactly the nature of this representation that made them go their separate ways. Whereas Schönberg’s considered his creative quest as a contribution to the musical culture in general (as he thought of himself merely as a conscientious craftsman), Zemlinsky saw himself as a ‘romantic’ artist. That is, just as his nineteenth-century predecessors, Zemlinsky attached great importance to the artist’s idiosyncrasy and his place within society; thus, he identified strongly with the main character of his opera Der Zwerg. This tension is also present musically: in Zemlinsky’s orchestral sound, the solo passages and orchestral fragments alternate, as if the composer balances the individual and the collective constantly. Schönberg left this romantic approach to music as an individual affair ever since he declared death to tonal music in 1909.


Mild modernism

Although Zemlinsky was a founding father of the Second Viennese School, he did not join Schönberg’s ultimate musical ambition. His biographer Antony Beaumong wrote the following about Zemlinsky’s dissociation of Schönberg: “To follow Schönberg on the road of atonality would mean that he should give up everything in which he believed: the expressive, coloristic and symbolic characteristics of tonalities and the divine order of musical numbers”. Zemlinsky’s mild modernism is strongly similar to expressionism. The harmonic language used by the expressionists is quite daring, but is always based on a fundamental plan that follows some basic rules (‘divine order’). However, Zemlinsky did follow Schönberg’s path of the ‘emancipation of the dissonant’: wringing harmonies do not longer have to dissolve in a harmonic consonance, thereby being able to remain independent. The liberty which Zemlinsky took with this strategy makes his music exceptionally rich and expressive.


In between tradition and experiment

Alexander Zemlinsky felt the attraction of far-reaching, musical innovations, but eventually stuck nostalgically to a Late-Romantic tonal language. He went back and forth between tradition and experiment, marching forward while looking behind. In this sense, his life course is very similar to Richard Strauss’. Both composers were extraordinary orchestrators with a refined command of musical dramaturgy. Just as Zemlinsky, Strauss marched into musical modernism only to take some steps back. However, the great Strauss had an everlasting influence on the European musical culture, while Zemlinsky had to move to the United States, together with other Jewisch composers such as Schönberg and Korngold. In contrast with these collegues, Zemlinsky did not have a successful career in the United States, where he died as a complete unknown composer. Consequently, his name was a mere footnote to Schönberg’s for a very long time, waiting for a long-expected rediscovery.  


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