Alexander von Zemlinsky – La Petit Sirène (The Little Mermaid) – Irène Jacob, narrator – Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France – Andrey Boreyko, Conductor – live in concert – February 23, 2011 – Radio France Musique –
The music of Alexander von Zemlinsky this week. The Little Mermaid, a work long thought lost after its 1905 premier, only to be rediscovered in the 1980s. Like Zemlinsky himself; a composer of considerable talent and influence who languished in obscurity until recent decades where his music has been re-discovered and a whole new light has been cast on his remarkable voice and talents. Collectors know his work as a conductor from the relatively small, but important series of 78s he made with the Berlin Philharmonic in the late 1920s.
The Little Mermaid is performed by Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, conducted by Andrey Boreyko and narrated by the celebrated French actress Irène Jacob. It was performed live in concert on February 23, 2011.
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 Gurre-Lieder 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), based on the tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. It premiered in 1905 at the same concert as Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky withdrew the work, which was thought lost until a copy was discovered in the 1980s. It was performed again in 1984 in Vienna. 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.
Among his other works are eight operas, including Eine florentinische Tragödie (1915–16) and the semi-autobiographical Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1919–21), both based on works by 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.
While the influence of Brahms is evoked in Zemlinsky’s early works (prompting encouragement from Brahms himself), an original voice is present from the first works on, handling dissonances in a much freer manner than Brahms. Later works adopt the kind of extended harmonies that Wagner had introduced and also reflect the influence of Mahler. In contrast to his friend Schoenberg, he never wrote atonal music, and never used the twelve-tone technique. However, some of his late works such as the Symphonische Gesänge, Sinfonietta and the third and fourth string quartets move away from post-Romanticism towards a leaner, harder-edged idiom that incorporates elements of Neue Sachlichkeit, Neoclassicism, 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 Krása and Karl Weigl.
If you haven’t discovered him yet, you really need to do yourself a favor and seek out this treasure trove of heady and luxuriant music.
You can start by hitting the Play button and becoming acquainted. Works all the time.