On the 11th of February 1900, during the world premiere of the Frühlingsbegräbnis, a cantata in memory of Brahms, Alexander Zemlinsky and Alma Schindler met for the first time.
She thought his appearance was terrible (in her autobiography she talks about a ‘hideous gnome’), but as a future composer she was only too eager to meet him: Zemlinsky was not only admired for his compositions, he also had the reputation of being the best composition and harmony teacher. By the end of that year Schindler was not only his pupil but also his lover.
It was not an obvious choice, as Zemlinsky was not really what we could call an attractive man. He himself felt quite badly about it: “Short and skinny (weak points: inadequate). Face and nose: impossible; every other part of the face: ditto. Hair too long, but something can be done about that. I looked more closely at myself in the bath ( with your permission!!): no excesses or deformities, muscles not too weak, amazingly well developed potential! Everything else as mentioned above. Hence the conclusion: hideous.”*
Does the description remind you of Der Zwerg, the ugly, deformed person from the opera of the same name who does not recognise his own reflection?
And yet Zemlinsky had the reputation of a real womaniser and his many mistresses cannot be counted. In 1907 he married Ida Guttmann, the younger sister of his former fiancée Melanie. It was not a happy marriage, Zemlinsky was a passionate philanderer.
Around 1914 he met the then fourteen-year-old Louise Sachsel. A twenty-nine year younger girl, who was not only an aspiring singer but also a gifted painter, came to him to take singing lessons. Six years later they became lovers and in 1930, one year after Ida’s death, they got married.
Alexander Zemlinsky was born in Vienna in 1871 into a highly multicultural family. His Slovakian grandfather and the Austrian grandmother on his father’s side were both Roman Catholics. His other grandmother was a Bosnian Muslim and his grandfather a Sephardic Jew. When his parents married the whole family converted to the Jewish faith. Alexander was born as a Jew and was raised as such, he also played the organ in his synagogue. In 1884 he started his studies at the Conservatory of Vienna. He studied piano with Anton Door, music theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. It was also at that time that he began to compose.
In addition to being a composer, Zemlinsky was also appreciated as one of the best conductors of his time, and his remarkable interpretations of Mozart were widely praised.
Zemlinski conducts the overture from Don Giovanni. The recording probably dates from 1926:
He was a great advocate of the compositions of Gustav Mahler and his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg, and was regarded as a champion of contemporary music. His compositions can best be regarded as a kind of bridge between late romanticism and modernism.
Zemlinsky was also a great lover and connoisseur of literature. That his origins and upbringing influenced him in this is quite obvious: both his grandfather and his father were journalists and his mother’s family counted several publishers. His father had written the history of the Sephardic community in Vienna. Zemlinsky based many of his compositions on literary works, which resulted in Der König Kandaules after André Gide and in Eine florentinische Tragödie and Der Zwerg after Oscar Wilde.
After the rise of the Nazis in 1933, Alexander Zemlinsky was declared ‘Entartet’ and his works were banned and forbidden. In 1936 he fled Berlin: first to Vienna and after the Anschluss in 1938 on to the United States, where he had great difficulty assimilating. He died on March 15, 1942 near New York, and no one paid any attention to his death.
And then he was forgotten, a fate he shared with most of the Jewish composers who were banned by the Nazis. His music disappeared from the concert and opera programs, and his name dissolved in the fog, as if he had never existed. It was only at the end of the 1980s that it became clear that Korngold was more than a composer of Hollywood scores; that without Schreker and Zemlinski there would probably not have been a Strauss either, and that Boulez and Stockhausen were not the first to experiment with serialism.
After a brief renaissance in the nineties, mainly thanks to James Conlon and Riccardo Chailly, things have become a little quiet around one of the greatest Jugendstil composers of the fin de siècle. Just ask the average music lover: he won’t get any further than the Lyrical Symphony. If he knows the name Zemlinsky at all.