Thursday, 5 August 2010

Finding Zemlinsky

To call Alexander Zemlinsky a forgotten composer would be an exaggeration: a quick search on the site of a leading online retailer shows nearly a hundred available recordings of his music. Yet how many of us can name more than a handful of his works beyond the Lyric Symphony? Marc Moskovitz’s new biography will help train a spotlight on this composer/conductor/pianist, lover of Alma Schindler and brother-in-law of Schoenberg. Here is an edited extract from the book’s preface:

My interest in Alexander Zemlinsky began in 1995, when I taught an honors seminar focusing on fin-de-siècle Vienna. In the course of my preparations, Zemlinsky’s name occasionally turned up, but always in the context of more famous contemporary figures. Perusals of music histories and biographies rarely included more than the most basic facts about his life : Viennese born and trained ; a conductor in Vienna, Prague and Berlin ; lover of Alma Schindler; brother-in-law to Schoenberg. More often, Zemlinsky’s name was simply absent from the general English-language musical literature. Also around this time I performed a concert of works by Viennese composers, among them Zemlinsky. My reaction was similar to many who encounter his music for the first time — how has a composer this gifted remained so obscure ?

Although Zemlinsky was associated with some of the most influential and talented musicians and artists of his generation, he kept no diary, left no memoirs and remained nonchalant about correcting biographical errors that appeared in print while he was alive. Alban Berg, a composer strongly drawn to Zemlinsky and his music and who recognized the value of Zemlinsky’s contributions, once considered undertaking a biography about him, but sadly he died and the work never materialized. Had Berg’s plan come to fruition, it might well have bolstered Zemlinsky’s reputation, particularly toward the end of his life and in the immediate years that followed. At the very least, Berg’s efforts would have provided valuable information for future scholars. As it is, there are gaps in Zemlinsky’s life that are unlikely ever to be filled.

Fortunately, much of Zemlinsky’s early, unpublished musical manuscripts have survived, along with his later published compositions, and the music often provides answers and insights into his life when words or hard facts are absent. Certainly the most significant details about Zemlinsky’s life are found in his letters, two collections in particular which must be mentioned. The first is Horst Weber’s superb edition of Zemlinsky’s letters to and from Schoenberg, Webern, Berg and Schreker, published in 1995, which remains the definitive source of information concerning Zemlinsky’s whereabouts and activities at various times between the years 1901 and 1923.

Second are the letters Zemlinsky sent to Alma Schindler during their courtship in the first years of the twentieth century. These letters reveal an intimate portrait of Zemlinsky and provide insight into nearly every aspect of his life at the time, including familial relations, his manner of dress, and his personal attitudes toward art and love, all the while capturing his frailties, sensitivity and humor. To read them is to appreciate the core of Zemlinsky’s nature, for they unveil the passion in everything he did and reflect the rollercoaster of emotions he endured at Alma’s hands. Only the most dispassionate reader could not fail to be moved by the frustrations, disappointments, and endless longing to which Zemlinsky here gives voice. Although Zemlinsky confided that he had great difficulty expressing all he felt, at times it seems that to read more would be unbearable, a breach of privacy.

Writing this book was also my way of trying to understand how one of the great musicians of the early twentieth century faded so quickly from European musical life and was passed over by music historians. Zemlinsky’s talent alone should have ensured him a place in posterity. As one of the last in a long line of Viennese “complete musicians”, Zemlinsky excelled as a pianist, was a conductor of the first rank, and wrote significant compositions in all genres: lieder, chamber and choral music, symphonies and opera. Few of his peers could make such claims. But then neither did Zemlinsky, and his modesty, though arguably a personal virtue, proved detrimental to his career and legacy. He never developed the skills necessary for self-promotion, and he rarely programmed his own music. Zemlinsky was fully conscious of his abilities, which he believed should have secured his reputation, and his seeming inability to promote his own cause :

I most certainly lack that special something that one must have — and today more than ever — in order to come out on top. Amidst such a crowd it does little good to have elbows — one must also know how to use them.

Years later, the theorist Theodor Adorno took up Zemlinsky’s cause :

a man may be cheated of his desserts by nothing more than a lack of ruthlessness. It is possible to be too refined for one’s own genius and in the last analysis the greatest talents require a fund of barbarism, however deeply buried. This was denied to Zemlinsky.

But barbarism wasn’t part of Zemlinsky’s persona. Although he had a pronounced influence on a number of other Viennese composers, including the young Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky possessed neither a dominant nor controlling personality. As a conductor he lacked the powerful ego and ruthlessness required to obtain and maintain a world-class position, such as that held by Gustav Mahler or Otto Klemperer. And while he demanded the highest level of artistic competency in every theater he worked, he did so through inspiration, conviction and intelligence, not through intimidation. Zemlinsky was “a conductor for the ears and not the eyes”, and an artist who gave himself tirelessly to his craft. his actions, almost without exception, were diplomatic.

Of course, the issues surrounding Zemlinsky’s struggles and subsequent descent into obscurity extend well beyond his personality, although had he been eccentric, flamboyant or megalomaniacal — all fashionable characteristics of the artist that so often captivate the public and lead to posthumous celebrity — his reputation may actually have fared better. For one, there was the issue of poor timing, bad luck, or both, which dogged Zemlinsky throughout his life. There was also Zemlinsky’s complicated relationship to Vienna, the city of his birth, a city that held seemingly unlimited possibilities but which often failed to support the talent in its midst. And finally, in the opening years of the twentieth century, a time that often welcomed — almost demanded — innovation and modernism, Zemlinsky was unable to forge a new musical path, unable to embark fully on his own Weg ins Freie or “road into the open”, to borrow a phrase from Arthur Schnitzler. All of these themes worked in concert. They shaped the fabric of Zemlinsky’s life, affected his reputation both during and following his lifetime, and are essential to understanding his musical and historical persona.

I have attempted to describe Zemlinsky as he lived and worked, whether in the opera house or the coffee house, revealing him as a victim of musical politics and world wars, as a musician who championed modern music but remained unwilling to forsake his classical pedigree, and as an artist living among, yet always in the shadow of, musical giants. In spite of my unapologetic affection for Zemlinsky, I have tried to be fair and unbiased in my portrayal of his professional and musical successes and failures. My desire was to create a readable and broad picture of his life and art, which blossomed as Habsburg rule disintegrated, and faded with the unforeseen rise of an art-student-turned-Führer named Adolf Hitler. Among the most gifted musicians of his age, Zemlinsky was both a product and a victim of his time, and his story is a compelling tale and a window into that world.

Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony by Marc D Moskovitz is published by the Boydell Press and available now from all good booksellers.

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