Today marks 150 years since the birth in Vienna of composer, conductor and teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky.
Zemlinsky is a figure of great historical importance in classical music, with a marked impact behind the scenes on the direction it was to take in the 20th century. In his early twenties, he caught the attention of Brahms, who was impressed with the Clarinet Trio published as a composer’s Op.3 in 1896. Around this time Zemlinsky also met Schoenberg, and then Alma Schindler, with whom he had an intense relationship. Their union was unexpectedly and suddenly broken in 1902, however, when Alma married Gustav Mahler.
Zemlinsky’s musical family tree is an intriguing one. As a teacher he mentored and encouraged Berg, Webern and Korngold. As a conductor he received unreserved praise from Schoenberg, Stravinsky and Weill. Stravinsky declared in 1964, “I do believe that of all the conductors I have heard, I would choose Alexander Zemlinsky as the most outstanding, and this is a mature verdict.” Schoenberg admired his “natural, unforced and obvious greatness”.
It is as a composer that we remember him here, however, for Zemlinsky’s music has not yet reached the audience it deserves. One of his greatest works, the Lyric Symphony made a strong impression at the Proms in 2016, and the Clarinet Trio was performed at the same festival this year. Those are just two of many fine compositions, however. Brahms was also impressed with Zemlinsky’s symphonic writing, and as an orchestral composer both his tone poem Die Seejungfrau and the Sinfonietta are fine works. The magical opening bars of the former, as heard in a new recording from the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra and Vasily Petrenko for Onyx Classics, are to be treasured:
The four string quartets are also highly regarded, as is the output for solo piano, while another strong area for Zemlinsky was Lieder. Here there are many fine settings, perhaps the best of which are his 6 Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck of 1910-13.
The Spotify playlist below brings a number of these pieces together – while you can visit the Alexander Zemlinsky website to learn more about his life and work. Meanwhile a biography by Antony Beaumont, published in 2000 by Cornell University Press, is also highly recommended.