EINE FLORENTINISCHE TRAGÖDIE
Bianca, the attractive wife of the merchant Simone is having an affair with the beautiful prince Guido Bardi. Simone catches them and challenges Guido to a duel with swords and eventually strangles him with his bare hands. His wife looks at him admirably: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were so strong?” In turn, Simone becomes aware of the beauty of his wife: “Why didn’t you tell me that you were so beautiful…”
Eine Florentinische Tragödie is based on the last play by Oscar Wilde. The beginning of the play is missing: the manuscript was stolen when Wilde went to prison. Zemlinsky solved the problem by composing a prologue to suggest the love scene between Bianca and Guido.
The opera, which premiered in 1917, provided a lot of gossip. “Eine autobiografische Tragödie” (An autobiographical Tragedy) was the headline of the Vienna Zeitung article by Edwin Baumgartner. Alma Mahler was not amused. She was certain that Zemlinsky had depicted her affair with Walter Groppius.
The Viennese public, on the other hand, thought it was about Schönberg and his wife Mathilde, Zemlinsky’s sister. Mathilde had left her husband for the young painter Richard Gerstl.
When she returned to her husband, Gerstl committed suicide, he was only 25 years old
All in the family in the best tradition, so to speak.
But what do you think: can you consider a fictional character in a work of art as the alter ego of its creator? Do you want to project a composer’s course of life onto the opera he has composed? How far do you involve life in art?
In a letter to Alma Mahler, Zemlinsky wrote that “a life had to be sacrificed in order to save the lives of two others.” But does this immediately make this the central theme of this opera, as many critics write? I don’t know.
One thing is certain: Eine Florentinische Tragödie can be listened to as an exciting, dark thriller, in which you do not sympathize with any of the characters.
In 1997 Decca included the opera in their now expired series ‘Entartete Musik’. Riccardo Chailly conducted the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra (Decca 4551122).
In the same year there was also a (live) recording of the Cologne Gürzenich-Orchester conducted by their then chief conductor James Conlon (once on EMI).
Both recordings are good and I wouldn’t know which one to choose. Chailly’s orchestral sound is fuller and the strings sound more pleasant, but Conlon is undeniably more exciting, perhaps because it was recorded live.
The sound of the Cologne orchestra is more sensual, the sound of the RCO is darker. The singers are equally good in both recordings, although I find David Kuebler (Guido at Conlon) much more pleasant than the slightly shrill Heinz Kruse for Chailly.
Iris Vermillion for Chailly sounds nicer and warmer than Deborah Voigt for Conlon, but the latter has more sex appeal. In the role of Guido, Albert Dohmen (Chailly) is by far preferable to the not entirely idiomatic Donnie Ray Albert.
In 2010 Eine Florentinische Tragödie was recorded by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the very inspiring leadership of Vladimir Jurowsky (LPO-0078). Albert Dohmen is back: his Simone sounds even more impressive than on Decca.
Sergey Skorokhodov’s Guido is a wimp and no match for the macho Dohmen. A Don Ottavio who will take on Hunding, so to speak. Heike Wessels (Bianca) is a mistake.
On YouTube you can find many (fragments) of live performances of the opera, among others from Lyon:
Frühlingsbegräbnis, the cantata that brought Zemlinsky into contact with Alma Mahler.
This cantata is (was?) available on CD, performed very well by the Gürzenich-Orchester in Cologne, conducted by James Conlon, with the soprano Deborah Voigt and the baritone Donnie Ray Albert as soloists. I love this work, it reminds me a little of Brahms’s Ein Deutsches requiem. The cantata was once coupled with several other unknown works by Zemlinsky, who all had their record premieres here: “Cymbeline”-Suite, after lyrics of Shakespeare and Ein Tanzpoem. Unfortunately…. Even YouTube has removed this recording, so second hand (or asking a friend who owns it for a copy) remains the only option.
Strangely enough Frühlingsbegräbnis by Conlon is on Spotify, but in combination with Psalms and Hochzeitgesang in a totally different performance:
On Spotify you can also listen to the recording under Antony Beaumont. The performance is less beautiful than that of Conlon but certainly not bad:
Cymbeline by Conlon can be found on You Tube:
James Conlon about Zemlinsky (and Ullmann):
“The music of Alexander Zemlinsky and Viktor Ullmann remained hidden for decades by the aftermath of the destruction caused by the Nazi regime […] Full recognition of their works and talent is still lacking, more than 70 years after their death […] Their lives and personal histories were tragic, but their music transcends it all. It is up to us to appreciate their story in its full historical and artistic context.”
Antony Beaumont: Zemlinsky
Michael Haas: Forbidden Music. The Jewish Composers banned by the Nazis
Like no other renowned conductor, James Conlon has been an ardent advocate of the ‘Entartet composers’ for years. In his Cologne years (between 1989 and 2002 he was chief conductor of the Gürzenich-Orchester and artistic director of the opera) he performed and recorded almost all of Zemlinski’s orchestral and vocal works. I cherish his recordings on EMI (unfortunately most of them are no longer on the market) as the greatest treasures, which they probably are.
In 2006, Conlon was appointed musical director of the Los Angeles opera and one of his first projects was a series of ‘Recovered Voices: A Lost Generation’s Long-Fortgotten Masterpieces.’ The series started in 2008 with a double-bill of Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug and Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg. (Arthaus Music 101 528)
The idea of composing an opera about an ugly man who is in love with a beauty has haunted Zemlinsky all his life, and that’s how he ended up with Oscar Wilde and his The Birthday of the Infanta.
On her eighteenth birthday Donna Clara receives a remarkable gift: a dwarf, who is also hideously ugly. A delightful toy for the infante, especially since the dwarf does not know he is ugly himself – he has never seen his own reflection… Donna Clara makes him fall in love with her and makes him think that she loves him too, after which she puts him in front of mirrors. He doesn’t survive, but that doesn’t interest the spoiled princess.
The very traditional and naturalistic setting is exceptionally beautiful and the costumes are dazzling. You really think you’re at the Spanish court. The whole thing looks like a painting of Velazques, breathtaking.
The execution is also breathtaking. James Johnson sings and acts an excellent Don Esteban. Mary Dunleavy has everything it takes to perform the conceited infante: she is beautiful and capricious. Her voice is silvery and childishly light. As an actress she also knows how to convince.
Rodrick Dixon sings the leading role here in an inimitable way. The only singer I ever liked better in this part was Douglas Nasrawi, whom I heard singing it during a Saturday Matinee at the Concertgebouw.
James Conlon on Ullmann’s Der zerbrochene Krug conducted by him, coupled with Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg:
“The fairy tales must become reality,” sings Görge, after his dream has been laughed at by the farmers and his fiancée Grete. And so it happens: Görge finds his dreamed princess in the form of Gertraud, cast out by the farmers, and his dream comes true.
Zemlinski has provided the story of Görge the dreamer and his search for the unattainable ideal with music of touching beauty. Sehnsucht, shimmering eroticism, symbolism …. You name it and you’ll find it. The work reminds me strongly of Szymanowski’s Król Roger, the same long, spun-out lines in the soprano aria, the same overwhelming choral parts, swelling orchestra. I love it.
Der Traumgörge (Leo Feld’s libretto after Richard von Volkmann-Leander’s fairytale ‘Vom unsichtbaren Königreich’ and Heine’s poem ‘Der arme Peter’) was meant by Zemlinsky as a tribute to his then beloved Alma. Due to circumstances, the opera was never performed during his lifetime; the first – considerably shortened – performance only took place in 1980.
The first complete recording from 1999 proves that the music is not to blame. The Cologne orchestra conducted by James Conlon alone deserves an A-plus and the soloists are absolutely sublime.
David Kuebler plays a beautiful Görge with a radiant height. His voice mixes the right amount of metal with sottovoce, which is necessary for this role.
Patricia Racette, then still a great unknown, is unearthly beautiful as Gertraud (her velvet tones in ‘Oh! Ich wil zu dir in die Welt’ are of a Korgoldian beauty) and Andreas Schmidt has enough of a peasant to be a convincing Hans. The live recording sounds excellent.
DER KÖNIG KANDAULES
In 1938, Zemlinsky fled to New York. His suitcase contained the unfinished opera Der könig Kandaules. Once in New York, he hoped for a performance at the Metropolitan Opera.
Unfortunately for him the libretto based on the play by André Gide (King Kandaules wants to share his happiness and [the beauty of] his wife with everyone. Encouraged by the king and helped by a ring that makes him invisible, Gyges spends one night with the queen. When she finds out what happened, she urges Gyges to kill the king, after which he himself is crowned king) was too risky for the American public. When Zemlinsky died in 1942, his opera was still unfinished.
It was only the English musicologist and Zemlinsky biographer Antony Beaumont who completed the score. In October 1996 the opera was performed in Hamburg, with enormous success. The performance was recorded live and released on the label Capriccio (600712).
The performance, conducted by Gerd Albrecht, is without a doubt excellent and the leading roles of James O’Neal (Kandaules), Monte Pederson (Gyges) and Nina Warren (Nyssia) are very adequately cast. In the small role of Nicomedes we hear a young debutant, Mariusz Kwiecień.
In 2002 Salzburg programmed the opera and the performance was recorded live – phenomenally cast – and released on 2 CD’s (Naïve 3070) in a very elaborate edition. The role of Kandaules was sung with dedication by Robert Brubacker and Wolfgang Schöne was an excellent Gyges. The Swedish Nina Stemme, who was then still in the lyrical ‘fach’, sang a beautiful Nyssia. The Deutsches Symphonie Orchester conducted by Kent Nagano sounds very exciting.
Our unsurpassed Saturday Matinee performed the opera in November 2007 as a concert performance, unfortunately there is no recording of it. Too bad, because the conductor Bernhard Kontarsky conducted with great dedication and Stuart Skelton and Jeanne-Michèle Charbonnet were unforgettable as the royal couple.
Gyges (or was it Zemlinsky himself?): „Der, der ein Glück hält, soll sich gut verstecken! Und besser noch, sein Glück vor Andern“.
In the nineties of the last century the (once very renowned) classical music label Decca started an unsurpassed series ‘Entartete Musik’. Under the supervision of producer Michael Haas, works were recorded by composers who were persecuted by the Nazis, many of whom were murdered in concentration camps and then ignored and even forgotten for decades.
The series didn’t last long. Sales figures were disappointing, Haas was fired, and most of those CDs are now out of print.
Every true fan of film classics knows the music of Franz Waxman. His compositions for Rebecca, Sunset Boulevard and A Place in the Sun, among others, have earned him numerous Oscar nominations and twice he was actually awarded the statuette.
For Humoresque by Jean Negulesco, starring Joan Crawford and John Garfield, he composed an outright hit: ‘Carmen Fantasie’ (played in the film by Isaac Stern), a virtuoso piece for violin and orchestra that is ubiquitous in concert halls and on recordings.
However, few people know that he has also composed ‘serious’ music. It is simply ignored.
Zeisl’s name is almost completely forgotten nowadays. Harmonia Mundi once recorded some of his chamber music works, but these recordings too have since disappeared from the catalogue. Both composers were contemporaries with a similar fate, who ended up in Hollywood on the run from the Nazis. If their respective fates are similar, their music in no way is.
The song cycle Das Lied von Terezín consists of eight poems, written by Czech children between the ages of 12 and 16 during their stay in the Theresienstadt concentration camp.
Deeply affected by the fate of these children, Waxman composed a very moving piece of music in 1965 that, in terms of its power of expression, can be compared to Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw. The majority is written in the twelve-tone technique, but there is also a clear influence of Zemlinsky (‘Der Garten’) and in ‘Dachbodenkoncert in einer alten Schule’ a motive from Beethoven’s Mondscheinsonate is quoted. The whole is performed very movingly by the two choirs and the mezzo-soprano Della Jones.
Eric Zeisl’s Requiem Ebraico is based on Psalm 92 and is dedicated to the composer’s father and ‘all the victims of the Jewish tragedy in Europe’. Zeisl’s music is very melodic and strongly influenced by Jewish and Hebrew themes. It is unbelievable that it is not performed more frequently!
Franz Waxman: The Song of Terezín
Eric Zeisl: Requiem Ebraico
Deborah Riedel, Della Jones, Michael Kraus
Rundfunk-kinderchor Berlin, Rundfunkchor Berlin, Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin conducted by Lawrence Foster (Decca 4602112)
Translated with http://www.Deep
It is very hard to believe, but the first post-war performance of the Lyrische Symphonie dates from the late 1970s. This absolute masterpiece was composed between 1922-23 and premiered in Prague on 4 June 1924. Like Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, it is a kind of cross between an orchestral song cycle and a symphony.
Zemlinsky wrote the work on the text of the Bengal poet Rabindranath Tagore ‘The Gardener’, in a German translation by Hans Effenberger. The seven love poems are cast in the form of a dialogue between a prince (baritone) and a girl in love (soprano). Many musicologists consider the work to be autobiographical and there is certainly an element of truth in that.
Or was it the (still?) raw break with Alma Schindler, as some critics would have us believe? I don’t think so, I’m much more inclined to believe Antony Beaumont (the Zemlinsky connoisseur and biographer) that the work was about his relationship with Louise Sachsel, which had just begun at the time.
Seen in this context, it is perhaps interesting to know that Alban Berg quoted the third movement of the symphony (‘Du bist mein Eigen’) in the ‘Adagio Apassionato’ of his Lyrical Suite for string quartet. As you know, Berg had a secret love affair at the time with Hanna Fuchs, for whom he composed the work.
Below is the Adagio appassionato performed by the Galimir String Quartet. The recording dates from 1935:
There are quite a few performances of Zemlinsky’s once so mercilessly forgotten but now best-known and most frequently performed work. Two by James Conlon and Riccardo Chailly immediately stand out.
Chailly wins, mainly because of the unparalleled sound of the RCO, but in the fourth movement Conlon manages to elicit such sweet tones from the orchestra that I am totally won over by his performance.
Recording under Riccardo Chaillly:
The soloists are also better for Conlon. Bo Skovhus convinces me much more than Håkan Hagegård. The latter has a warm, round baritone with something soothing in his timbre and I find that a disadvantage here. The restlessness in the voice of Skovhus gives his words more impact.
I also find Skovhus’s interpretation more transparent and his pronunciation better. Listen how he sings the words “Du bist mein Eigen, mein Eigen, du, die meinen endlosen Träumen wohnt”… !
Soile Isokoski is also preferable to Chailly’s soprano, Alexandra Marc, however beautifully she sings.
Recording with James Conlon:
Bo Skovhus has always been an artist with a more than warm heart for ‘Entartete Musik’. He showed this by, among other things, the choices he made for the works he sang.
Lyrische Symphonie was often featured in his concert programmes all over the world, including in Amsterdam (March 2007, with Hillevi Martinpelto and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra conducted by Donald Runnicles). In addition to the EMI recording with Conlon, Skovhus recorded the work also for RCA, this time with the incredibly beautiful lyrical soprano Luba Orgonasova.
The conducting of Claus Peter Flor is a bit unbalanced, but the six extra songs, sung by Skovhus and beautifully accompanied on the piano by Helmut Deutsch, make up for a lot.
Below is a recording with Bo Skovhus, Maria Bengtsson and the Staatskapelle Berlin conducted by Kirill Petrenko, recorded in the Berlin Philharmonic on 30 December 2011:
In the recording on BBC Classics from 1996 the vocal parts are sung with great understanding and even more nuances by Thomas Allen and Elisabeth Söderström. Michael Gielen shows an enormous affinity for the score.
I regularly hear cellists complain that the repertoire for their instrument is not that large, which is why they (have to) play and/or record more or less the same pieces over and over again. But is this really true?
Well, only if you limit yourself to the more or less well-known composers. And certainly if you still ‘forget’ to look back at the black period in history, when books went up in flames and art, including their creators, was declared ‘entartet’. Fortunately, we still have enough musicians who do everything in their power to ensure that the once forbidden works are not forgotten.
In 2016, Raphael Wallfisch, one of the greatest advocates of the ‘forgotten repertoire’, recorded two previously unknown cello concertos: those by Hans Gál, originally from Austria-Hungary, and the Italian Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco. Both composers survived the war: Castelnuovo-Tedesco in Hollywood and Gál in Scotland. Both are barely being played, although it is impossible for a serious guitarist to ignore the Italian’s oeuvre.
Things are worse with Hans Gál’s compositions, which are still rare on concert stages. His cello concerto, composed in 1944, is not easy to dissect. Or, in other words: you don’t get it automatically ‘under your skin’. I had to listen to it a few times before I surrendered to it. Gál’s language seems rigid and even though the work is not atonal anywhere, you really have to make an effort. But maybe that’s the way it should be? Because you don’t forget it easily!
No greater contrast than with Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s predominantly virtuoso composition! The composer wrote his cello concerto for the great cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, the premiere took place in 1935, Arturo Toscanini conducted the New York Philharmonic. And that was it. Since then, the concerto has been totally forgotten for eighty years. Until Raphael Wallfisch took care of it.
Raphael Wallfisch gives an excellent interpretation of both concertos, with sufficient attention to the various writing styles of the composers. Gál’s concerto sounds almost classicistic in his hands; for Castelnuoco-Tedesco he has enough virtuosity and romance to enthuse the listener.
Hans Gál: Cello concerto in b, op. 67
Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco: Cello concerto in F
Raphael Wallfisch (cello), Konzerthausorchester Berlin conducted by Nicholas Milton
CPO 555 074-2
Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator
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.