Alexander von Zemlinsky


Alexander Zemlinsky or Alexander von Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871March 15, 1942) was an Austrian composer, conductor, and teacher.


Early life

Zemlinsky was born in Vienna to a highly multicultural family. Zemlinsky's grandfather, Anton Semlinski, immigrated from Zsolna, Hungary to Austria and married an Austrian woman. Both were from staunchly Roman Catholic families, and Alexander's father, Adolf, was reared as a Catholic. Alexander's mother was born in Sarajevo to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Bosnian Muslim mother. Alexander's entire family converted to the religion of his grandfather, Judaism, and Zemlinsky was born and raised Jewish. His father added an aristocratic "von" to his name, though neither he nor his forebears were ennobled. He also began spelling his surname with a "Z.

Alexander studied the piano from a young age. He played the organ in his synagogue on holidays, and was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory in 1884. He studied piano with Anton Door, winning the school's piano prize in 1890. He continued his studies until 1892, studying theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. At this time he began writing music.

Zemlinsky had a valuable supporter in Johannes Brahms. In 1893, On the invitation of Zemlinsky's teacher Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, Brahms attended a performance of Zemlinsky's Symphony in D minor. Soon after that, Brahms attended a performance of one of Zemlinky's quartets by the Hellmesberger Quartet. Brahms, impressed with Zemlinsky's music, recommended the younger composer's Clarinet Trio (1896) to the Simrock company for publication.

Zemlinsky also met Arnold Schoenberg when the latter joined Polyhymnia, an orchestra in which he played cello and helped found in 1895. The two became close friends--and later mutual admirers and brothers in law when Schoenberg married his sister Mathilde. Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint, thus becoming the only formal music teacher Schoenberg would have.

In 1897 Zemlinsky's Symphony No. 2 (chronologically the third he had written, and sometimes numbered as such) was a success when premiered in Vienna. His reputation as a composer was further helped when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal... (Once Upon a Time) at the Hofoper in 1900. In 1899 Zemlinsky secured the post of Kapellmeister at Vienna's Carltheater.

Middle years

In 1900, Zemlinsky met and fell in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students. She reciprocated his feelings initially; however, Alma felt a great deal of pressure from close friends and family to end the relationship. They were primarily concerned with Zemlinsky's lack of an international reputation and by an unappealing physical appearance. She broke off the relationship with Zemlinsky and subsequently married composer Gustav Mahler in 1902. Zemlinsky married Ida Guttmann in 1907, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Following Ida's death in 1929, Zemlinsky married Luise Sachsel in 1930, a woman twenty-nine years his junior, and to whom he had given singing lessons since 1914. This was a much happier relationship, lasting until Zemlinsky's death.

Last years

In 1906 Zemlinsky was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper. From 1911 to 1927, he was conductor at Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, premiering Schoenberg's Erwartung in 1924. Zemlinsky then moved to Berlin, where he taught and worked under Otto Klemperer as a conductor at the Kroll Opera. With the rise of the Nazi Party, he fled to Vienna in 1933, where he held no official post, instead concentrating on composing and making the occasional appearance as guest conductor. In 1938 he moved to the United States and settled in New York City. While fellow émigré Schoenberg was celebrated and feted in the Los Angeles of the 1930s and 40s -- teaching at UCLA and USC and gaining a new generation of acolytes -- Zemlinsky was neglected and virtually unknown in his adopted country. He fell ill, suffering a series of strokes, and ceased composing. Zemlinsky died in Larchmont, New York of pneumonia.


Zemlinsky's best-known work is the Lyric Symphony (1923), a seven-movement piece for soprano, baritone and orchestra, set to poems by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (in German translation), which Zemlinsky compared in a letter to his publisher to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (though the first part of Schoenberg's Gurrelieder is also a clear influence). The work in turn influenced Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, which quotes from it and is dedicated to Zemlinsky.

Other orchestral works include the large-scale symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid). This work, premiered in 1905 in the same concert as Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande, was considered 'lost' until 1984, since when it has become one of Zemlinsky's most frequently performed scores. A three-movement Sinfonietta written in 1934, admired by Schoenberg and Berg, is written in a style comparable to contemporary works by Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill.

Other works include eight operas (including Eine Florentinische Tragödie (1915-16) and the semi-autobiographical Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1919-21), both after Oscar Wilde); chamber music (including four string quartets) and the ballet Der Triumph der Zeit (1901). He also composed three psalm settings for chorus and orchestra and numerous song cycles, both with piano and with orchestra, of which the Sechs Gesänge op. 13 to texts by Maurice Maeterlinck is the best-known.

The influence of Brahms is evoked in Zemlinsky's early works (prompting encouragement from Brahms himself), while later works adopt the kind of extended harmonies that Wagner had introduced whilst also drawing influence from Mahler. In contrast to his friend Schoenberg, he never wrote atonal music, and never used the twelve-tone technique. However, late works such as the Symphonische Gesänge, Sinfonietta and third and fourth string quartets move away from post-Romanticism towards a leaner, harder-edged idiom that incorporates elements of Neue Sachlichkeit, Neo-Classicism and even jazz.

As a conductor, Zemlinsky was admired by, among others, Kurt Weill and Stravinsky, not only for his notable interpretations of Mozart, but also for his advocacy of Mahler, Schoenberg and much other contemporary music. As a teacher, his pupils included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hans Krasa and Karl Weigl.

Selected Works

Orchestral works

  • Symphony in E minor (1891, two surviving movements only)
  • Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1892-93)
  • Symphony No. 2 in B flat major (1897)
  • Drei Ballettstücke. Suite from Der Triumph der Zeit (1902)
  • Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen (1902-03, premiered in Vienna in 1905)
  • Sinfonietta op. 23 (1934, first performance, Prague 1935)


Other stage works

  • Ein Lichtstrahl (A Ray of Light). Mime drama for piano (scenario by Oskar Geller, 1901, rev.1902)
  • Ein Tanzpoem. A Dance Poem in one act for orchestra (Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1901–04, final version of the ballet Der Triumph der Zeit)
  • Incidental music for Shakespeare's Cymbeline for tenor, reciters and orchestra (1913–15)

Choral works

  • Frühlingsglaube for mixed chorus and string orchestra (T: Ludwig Uhland) (1896)
  • Geheimnis for mixed chorus and string orchestra (1896)
  • Minnelied (T: Heinrich Heine) for men's choir and chamber ensemble (c.1895)
  • Hochzeitgesang (T: Jewish liturgy) for tenor solo, chorus, and organ (1896)
  • Aurikelchen (T: Richard Dehmel) for women's choir (c.1920)
  • Frühlingsbegräbnis (Text: Paul Heyse) cantata for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra (1896/97, rev. c.1903)

#Horch! vom Hügel, welch' sanfter Klang
#Schöner Jüngling
#Wie lieblich er ruht
#Stumm in Wehmut schaut der Mong herab'
#Und ein Specht klopft an den Föhrenstamm
#Als so weihevoll der Alte sprach
#Horch! vom Hügel welch' ein wilder Klang?

  • Psalm 83 for soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1900)
  • Psalm 23 for chorus and orchestra op. 14 (1910, first performance, Vienna 1910)
  • Psalm 13 for chorus and orchestra op. 24 (1935)

Voice(s) and orchestra

  • Waldgespräch (T: Joseph von Eichendorff) for soprano, two horns, harp and strings (1896)
  • Maiblumen blühten überall (T: Richard Dehmel) for soprano and string sextet (c.1898)
  • Sechs Gesänge after poems by Maurice Maeterlinck op. 13 (1913, orchestrated 1913/21))
  • Lyric Symphony for soprano, baritone and orchestra op. 18 (after poems by Rabindranath Tagore) (1922-23)
  • Symphonische Gesänge for baritone or alto and orchestra op. 20. (T: from Afrika singt. Eine Auslese neuer afro-amerikanischer Lyrik, 1929)

Songs for voice and piano

  • Lieder op. 2 (1895-96)
  • Gesänge op. 5 (1896-97)
  • Walzer-Gesänge nach toskanischen Liedern von Ferdinand Gregorovius op. 6 (1898)
  • Irmelin Rose und andere Gesänge op. 7 (1898/99)
  • Turmwächterlied und andere Gesänge op. 8 (1898/99)
  • Ehetanzlied und andere Gesänge op. 10 (1899–1901)
  • Sechs Gesänge after poems by Maurice Maeterlinck op. 13 (1913)
  • Sechs Lieder op. 22 (1934; first performance, Prague 1934)
  • Zwölf Lieder op. 27 (1937)
  • Three Songs (T: Irma Stein-Firner) (1939)

Chamber music

  • Three Pieces for cello and piano (1891)
  • String Quartet in E minor (c.1893)
  • Sonata in A minor for cello and piano (1894) - world premiere recording made by Johannes Moser and Paul Rivinius in 2006 for Hanssler Classic.
  • Serenade (Suite) for violin and piano (1895)
  • Trio for clarinet (or violin), cello and piano in D minor op. 3 (1896)
  • Two Movements for string quintet (1894/1896) - surviving movements of the String Quintet in D minor
  • String Quartet No. 1 in A major op. 4 (1896)
  • String Quartet No. 2 op. 15 (1913–15, first performance, Vienna 1918)
  • String Quartet No. 3 op. 19 (1924)
  • Two Movements for string quartet (1927) - completed movements of abandoned quartet, originally intended as No.4
  • String Quartet No. 4 (Suite) op. 25 (1936)
  • Quartet for clarinet, violin, viola and cello (1938/39) - fragments only
  • Humoreske (Rondo), for wind quintet (1939)
  • Jagdstück (Hunting Piece) for two horns and piano (1939)

Works for piano

  • Ländliche Tanze op. 1 (1892)
  • Vier Balladen (1892-93)
  • Albumblatt (Erinnerung aus Wien) (1895)
  • Skizze (1896)
  • Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel op. 9 (1898)
  • Menuett (from Das gläserne Herz) (1901)

Principal publishers: Universal Edition, Ricordi Munich, Simrock/Boosey & Hawkes



  • Antony Beaumont: Zemlinsky. Faber and Faber, London 2000, ISBN 0-571-16983-X
  • Alexander Zemlinsky: Briefwechsel mit Arnold Schönberg, Anton Webern, Alban Berg und Franz Schreker, hrsg. von Horst Weber (= Briefwechsel der Wiener Schule, Bd. 1). Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1995, ISBN 3-534-12508-8 This volume includes letters by Schoenberg and Zemlinsky concerning their work on Die Seejungfrau and Pelleas and Melisande.
  • Zemlinsky, Alexander (von) by Alfred Clayton, in 'The New Grove Dictionary of Opera', ed. Stanley Sadie (London, 1992) ISBN 0-333-73432-7
  • Brown, A. Peter (2002). The Second Golden Age of the Viennese Symphony: Brahms, Bruckner, Dvorák, Mahler, and Selected Contemporaries. Indiana University Press.
  • Greene, David Mason Greene's Biographical Encyclopedia of Composers. The Reproducing Piano Roll Foundation.

See also

External links

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