The following is a guest post from Archives Processing Technician Dr. Rachel McNellis.
Today marks 150 years since Alexander Zemlinsky was born! Symphony orchestras around the world are programming this Austrian composer’s works in celebration. The Music Division is sharing in the occasion with the release of a new finding aid for the Alexander Zemlinsky Music Manuscripts and Other Materials, a collection that contains a large number of his holograph scores, including those for unfinished works, as well as personal papers documenting his life. Although Zemlinsky is lesser known than some of his contemporaries and particularly Arnold Schoenberg, his achievements as a composer and conductor are well worth celebrating.
Zemlinsky was an internationally acclaimed conductor and composer during the 1910s through 1930s. He was born in Vienna, Austria, to a Jewish family on October 14, 1871, and began playing piano as a young child. In 1884, he enrolled at the Vienna Conservatory, studying there until 1892 and becoming conductor of Polyhymnia, an orchestra for amateur musicians in Vienna. Arnold Schoenberg played cello in the orchestra, and the two soon became close friends. Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg counterpoint instruction until 1897, which was the latter composer’s only formal musical education. Four years later, Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde.
In addition to this familial connection, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky were also closely involved in each other’s careers. In 1896, Zemlinsky received the prestigious Luitpold Prize in Munich for his first opera, Sarema, which featured a vocal score that Schoenberg helped create. Zemlinsky’s second opera, Es war einmal…, was likewise met with great success when Gustav Mahler premiered it at the Vienna Hofoper in 1900. In 1904–1905, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky co-founded the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkünstler (Society for Creative Musicians) as a forum for promoting new music in Vienna. That same year Schoenberg directed a concert at the Musikverein in Vienna that featured the world premieres for both his own Pelleas und Melisande and Zemlinsky’s Seejungfrau.
Zemlinsky had an impressive career as a conductor and music director beyond his collaborations with Schoenberg. Between 1900 and 1931, he worked for numerous many major orchestras and opera companies, including the Carltheater, Theater an der Wien, and Volksoper in Vienna, as well as the Neues Deutches Theater in Prague, the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Kroll Oper in Berlin. At the same time, he composed prolifically in nearly every instrumental and vocal genre, including operas, orchestral and chamber music, and solo instrumental and vocal music. Alban Berg even quoted Zemlinsky’s Lyrische Symphonie in his later Lyrische Suite (1927). Berg as well as Anton Webern were two of Zemlinsky’s distinguished students in 1903.
It would be nearly impossible to characterize Zemlinsky’s musical style, as it continuously evolved over time, but he always embraced traditional forms and harmonies. Schoenberg, Berg, and Webern, however, began experimenting with new approaches towards harmony that pushed the limits of tonality, and Schoenberg went so far as to abandon it entirely. Zemlinsky never fully incorporated these new sounds into his works, however, which created tension with Schoenberg. Their relationship eventually broke down during the early 1930s, partially due to their differing compositional philosophies.
In early 1933, Zemlinsky fled to Vienna due to the rise of the Nazi party in Berlin, where he was living at the time. His opera Der Kreidekreis was premiered in Zürich in October of that year. He then began orchestrating his unfinished opera Der König Kandaule in 1936, but the Anschluss of Austria thwarted his efforts and he fled to New York in 1938. Despite his extensive career as a composer and conductor in Europe, Zemlinsky had little professional success in the United States. He died, largely unknown in the United States, in 1942.
Zemlinsky’s achievements as a composer and conductor warrant international recognition. Ensembles across the world are celebrating his birthday by performing his works in concerts and music festivals, as well as producing new recordings. The Music Division is honoring his life with a finding aid that features a substantial amount of written music for many of his most successful works, including those already mentioned. The collection also contains a small amount of printed music by other composers, personal papers, correspondence, and writings. Collectively, these materials shed light on the professional associations and cultural influences that shaped Zemlinsky’s creativity and accomplishments.