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.
Mathilde Schönberg Zemlinsky with child
and with her husband
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.
Mathilde Schönberg with child. Painting by Gerstl
When she returned to her husband, Gerstl committed suicide, he was only 25 years old
Richard Gerstl: ‘Selbstbildnis (“Akt in ganzer Figur’) from 1908. Courtesy Leopold Museum / Neue Galerie
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
ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY. Part 1: The Man
Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 2: ‘Du bist mein Eigen.’
Alexander Zemlinsky. Part 3: dreams and the happiness that needs to be hidden
Alexander Zemlinsky at his desk
Alma Schindler in 1900
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.
Philharmonic Chorus in 1912 in Praag tijdens de uitvoering van de achtste symfonie van Mahler. Zemlinsky, Schönberg en Schreker staan vooraan links op de foto
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.
Zemlinsky’s Memorial at the Zentralfriedhof in Vienna
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.
But: who knows? His brother-in-law, friend and colleague Arnold Schönberg already said “Zemlinsky can wait.” In recent years, it seems as if Schönberg is gradually starting to prove himself right in this assertion.
*This quote is taken from the article by Ronald Van Kerckhoven in Erfgoedklassiek.
In Dutch: EINE (AUTO)BIOGRAFISCHE TRAGÖDIE: ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY. Deel 1: de man
On the threshold of the twentieth century, many artists were guided in their work by the desire – and the search – for a perfect world. It had to do with the spirit of the times, among other things, and it influenced many painters, writers, poets and composers in their work. But with no other artist it was as prominent as with Franz Schreker (1878-1934). The search for ‘the’ sound dominated his entire life, he was fascinated and obsessed with it. A sound that would die of its own accord, but not really, because it had to continue to be heard – if only in your thoughts. It had to be a pure sound, but one with orgasmic desire and interwoven with visions. Intoxicating. Narcotic. In his music I really hear the perfect sound that he so desired which makes me intensely happy.
For Schreker you can wake me up in the middle of the night. The fusion of shameless emotions with undisguised eroticism and intense beauty turns me into an ‘Alice in wonderland’. I want more and more of it. Call me a junkie. I consider his operas to be the most beautiful in existence, alongside those of Puccini and Korngold.
The idea came from Zemlinsky. He wanted to compose an opera about an ugly man – his obsession – and commissioned the libretto from Schreker. After finishing his work, it was hard for Schreker to give up his text. Fortunately, Zemlinsky abandoned the opera so Schreker started to compose himself.
Zemlinsky, Schoenberg and Schreker in Prague 1912
Like Der Ferne Klang, perhaps his best-known work, Die Gezeichneten also deals with the search for unattainable ideals. Alviano, a deformed rich nobleman from Genoa, dreams of beauty and perfection. On an island he has ‘Elysium’ built, a place where he hopes to realize his ideals. What he doesn’t know is that the noblemen abuse his island: they are engaged in orgies, rapes and even murders.
The title of the opera is ambiguous. Not only are the main characters ‘marked’ (Alviano by his monstrous appearance and Carlotta by a deadly illness), Carlotta also makes a drawing of Alviano, in which she tries to capture his soul.
Alviano: photo from the premiere in Frankfurt 1918 via Green Integer Blog
This beautiful opera, with its thousands of colours and sensual sounds (just listen to the overture, goosebumps!), is being staged more and more nowadays. In 1990 it was performed at the Saturday Matinee, with an ugly singing but very involved and therefore very vulnerable William Cochran as Alviano and a phenomenal Marilyn Schmiege as Carlotta (Marco Polo 8.223328-330).
When the Nazis came to power, Schreker was labelled an ‘entartet’. His works were banned and no longer performed. In 1933 he was dismissed from all his engagements and suspended. Schreker was devastated. In December of that year he suffered a heart attack which became fatal to him. But even after the war Schreker was hardly ever performed. The same fate awaited him as (among others) Korngold, Braunfels, Goldschmidt, Zemlinsky, Waxman …. An unprecedented number of names of composers. They were once labeled ‘Entartet’ by the Nazis and banned, reviled, expelled and murdered. Forgotten. And that was not just the fault of the Nazis.
After the war, the young generation of composers did not want to know about emotions anymore. Music had to be devoid of any sentiment and subject to strict rules. Music had to become universal: serialism was born. The past was dealt with, including composers from the 1930s. It is only in the last twenty years that the once forbidden composers have regained their voices. The Saturday Matinee has played a major role in this and I thank them on my bare knees for that.
Vorspiel zu einem Drama’, a Prelude created by the composer himself for ‘Die Gezeichneten’:
Evelyn Lear (Carlotta) and Helmut Krebs (Alviano), scene from the second act:
On Spotify you can find several performances of the complete opera.
If you want to have images as well: below you will find the recording from Salzburg 2005.
Translated with http://www.DeepL.com/Translator