Monday, 15 November 2010

Once upon a time in Vienna

Marc Moskovitz’s superbly readable biography, Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony, has already attracted some enthusiastic reviews. Zemlinsky’s Zelig-like progress through the fin-de-siècle Viennese musical world has obscured his own achievement. In this excerpt, we witness the composer working with another figure who had to wait for the fame he so richly deserved, Gustav Mahler:

At the start of the twentieth century Zemlinsky experienced one of the greatest triumphs he would ever receive at the hands of his fellow Viennese. When Gustav Mahler led the premiere of Zemlinsky’s newest opera, Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) on January 22, 1900, Zemlinsky was forced to acknowledge the ovation — including the war-whoops from the younger members of the audience — at the conclusion of each act. Both thrilled and embarrassed, Zemlinsky bowed awkwardly from the Hofoper stage. Such accolades had been commonly accorded to composers like Johann Strauss jr. or Franz Lehár, darlings of Vienna’s operetta world, or even occasionally to Johannes Brahms, particularly toward the end of his life, but ovations of this nature were something Zemlinsky had only experienced once before, at the premiere of Sarema. Coming off that opera’s success, it appeared Zemlinsky had found his calling.

Brahms’s death three years earlier had left Zemlinsky without vital support in the musical establishment, but Mahler quickly moved to fill the vacuum. Following the successful Munich debut of Sarema, Mahler, who was looking at a Hofoper diet comprising Mozart and Wagner, along with occasional productions of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Thomas’s Mignon and Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, approached Zemlinsky about bringing Sarema back to Vienna. While doubtless flattered at the prospects of having a work premiered under such auspicious circumstances, it appears that Zemlinsky sought to convince Mahler that he was capable of much better. Keenly aware of the success Engelbert Humperdink, Karl Goldmark and Hans Pfitzner had had with fairy tale operas, Zemlinsky too wished to try his hand at the genre and indeed had already sketched out some ideas. Mahler gave his consent, and in August of 1897 Zemlinsky set to work in earnest.

Zemlinsky turned to Holger Drachmann’s Der var engang, a grand five-act national drama that had been played in Vienna in 1894. Drachmann’s fairy tale pivots around a Princess for whom no courtier is good enough and a Prince who is determined to win her love. Tricked into marrying a gypsy (the Prince in disguise), the once haughty Princess is reduced to living in a forest hut and selling pots in the marketplace. Though initially contemptuousness of her new life, she gradually re-evaluates her world and her desires and develops a genuine affection for her husband and their simple life together. The fidelity of the former Princess is soon put to the test, but her love for the gypsy remains steadfast, even in the most tempting of circumstances. By the story’s close, the Princess confesses to having found a love greater than even a Prince could provide. Her transformation complete, the gypsy-prince finally unveils his true, aristocratic identity.

At the end of June of 1898, Zemlinsky submitted an early draft of Es war einmal’s piano score to Mahler, but Mahler’s initial impression was far from encouraging. There was no question that the younger man possessed a formidable talent and technique. Zemlinsky’s characters possessed distinct musical profiles, and his language was efficient and refined, with rhythmic and melodic vitality that never overpowered the voice. It was the work’s overly derivative nature that troubled Mahler. Some degree of outside influence could be expected, since building on the ideas of others was a natural part of the learning process and Zemlinsky had not yet turned thirty. Nevertheless, the manuscript Zemlinsky presented to Mahler was “so full of resemblances and plagiarisms” that its composer “must have a very bad memory to have failed to avoid them”.

Mahler had put his finger on a critical issue : Zemlinsky had learned all that can be taught and had a complete grasp of the elements associated with orchestral and vocal writing. What he had yet to find was the one thing nobody could give him : a distinctive sound, a sonic fingerprint, the unexpected turn of a phrase that says “Schubert”, or the unique orchestration that renders Mendelssohn or Shostakovich or Copland immediately recognizable. Zemlinsky would, of course, find his personal idiom, a voice distinctly his own, but that ownership was still years away. In the meantime he continued to rely heavily — far too heavily, Mahler thought — on the music of others to help lead the way. The critics would concur.

To his credit, Mahler was willing to have his misgivings allayed. Zemlinsky took Mahler up on his offer and played the opera through for him at the piano. Whether because of the conviction of Zemlinsky’s own interpretation, the realization that the work did indeed have potential, or the reaffirmation of Zemlinsky’s undeniable talent, the music director agreed to accept Es war einmal for performance. But the offer came with a caveat : the score would have to undergo significant modifications. For Zemlinsky, Mahler’s proposal held two benefits : first, Mahler’s experience with the demands of the theater would help transform Zemlinsky’s efforts into an opera worthy of being offered up to Hofoper audiences and critics who had come to expect productions of the highest caliber ; second, the project would again place Zemlinsky directly under the wing of one of Vienna’s most influential and powerful musicians. Zemlinsky didn’t have to think twice about the offer.

Mahler’s own knowledge of the theater stemmed more from his dedication to the operas of others than to his own stage works. his only personal operatic attempts had occurred much earlier, and he had long since given up on the idea of composing opera. Years in the theater had taught him what was needed to bring a story — even a fairy tale — to life, and this was precisely the information and experience for which Zemlinsky thirsted. Under Mahler’s direction, the entire opera — music and text — was overhauled, resulting in significant cuts, modifications and rewrites. Mahler’s understanding of stagecraft — the complexities of which Zemlinsky was only beginning to learn — also resulted in a number of practical suggestions and revisions, such as lengthening the Interlude to Act I, which allowed greater time for a costume and scene change. In December of 1899, the full score was complete and the following month the curtain rose on Es war einmal for the first time.

Alexander Zemlinsky: A Lyric Symphony by Marc Moskovitz is available from your favourite bookseller or, in case of difficulty, direct from Boydell and Brewer in the US or the UK.

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