An ugly duckling spreads his wings

Alexander von Zemlinsky's work is beginning to achieve the recognition it deserves, says Andrew Clarke
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The Independent Culture

In her diary entry for 26 February 1900, the beautiful 20-year-old socialite Alma Schindler - later notorious as Gustav Mahler'swayward wife - records a conversation she had at a Viennese dinner party with an up-and-coming 28-year-old composer. Alexandervon Zemlinsky, she wrote, was "dreadfully ugly, almost chinless - yet I found him quite enthralling". She then records her conversationwith the composer/conductor: "I began: 'Just imagine - I'm one of those old-fashioned fuddy-duddies who haven't yet heard youropera.' He replied: 'Well - get a move on, otherwise you won't get to hear it. You never can tell how long it'll stay in the repertoire.'"

In her diary entry for 26 February 1900, the beautiful 20-year-old socialite Alma Schindler - later notorious as Gustav Mahler'swayward wife - records a conversation she had at a Viennese dinner party with an up-and-coming 28-year-old composer. Alexandervon Zemlinsky, she wrote, was "dreadfully ugly, almost chinless - yet I found him quite enthralling". She then records her conversationwith the composer/conductor: "I began: 'Just imagine - I'm one of those old-fashioned fuddy-duddies who haven't yet heard youropera.' He replied: 'Well - get a move on, otherwise you won't get to hear it. You never can tell how long it'll stay in the repertoire.'"

The work they were referring to was Zemlinsky's second opera, Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time), a piece which occupies afascinating place at the heart of the cultural hothouse that was turn-of-the-century Vienna. It's also the work which will kick off a longoverdue examination in Britain of Zemlinsky's output. Sir Andrew Davis will conduct it with the BBC Symphony Orchestra in aconcert performance next Wednesday, and it will be followed by three concerts next spring featuring two of his best-known orchestralworks, the Lyric Symphony and The Mermaid, as well as two of his powerfully scored Psalms.

It has long been held that Mahler - who as musical director of the Imperial opera house, the Hofoper, conducted the premiere of Es wareinmal - took an active part in rewriting sections of Zemlinsky's opera, making his contributions important as the only examples ofmusic that he wrote for the stage. But new study has shown that this was not the case and that there isn't a bar of Mahler in the score.

Despite a very successful run - it enjoyed 12 performances when the norm was three - the fairy-tale opera was indeed to fall out offashion, a fate which also befell its Jewish composer, who died in exile in New York in 1942, driven from Austria by the Nazis.

Alma Schindler did manage to catch the opera the following month, recording in her diary: "This evening, with... Khnopff [the BelgianSymbolist painter Fernand Khnopff - Alma always did like to be surrounded by great artists: her first love had been Gustav Klimt]...for a performance of Zemlinsky's Es war einmal. On the whole I liked the opera quite well. Some passages are too strongly influencedby Wagner. But he's still young and will find his own, personal touch. He does have one."

She soon begged to become Zemlinsky's pupil. Within a year, she was confiding to her diary, in entries of ever-more impassionedprose, her all-consuming love for him. Typically, she vacillated between bemoaning his short stature and lack of wealth, "his incredibleugliness, his smell" and eulogising his genius: "He is beautiful and so immeasurably great that my eyes cannot apprehend his fullstature." The torrid, if unconsummated, affair dominated her days until, in November 1901, she met Mahler - at another dinner party,where she vehemently defended one of Zemlinsky's works against the criticisms of the Hofoper's director. Despite this unpromisingstart, "my Alex" was immediately discarded and Alma soon became the wife of the great composer. This personal tragedy was tocolour Zemlinsky's creative life for the next 40 years: it's not for nothing that his best-known opera Der Zwerg, in which a callousInfanta cruelly plays with the passions of the court dwarf, features some of his most impassioned music.

For years, Zemlinsky was little more than a footnote in the history of the Second Viennese School: the sole teacher of his friendSchoenberg, who was to become his brother-in-law; a member of Mahler's inner circle (despite the latter stealing his girlfriend); thechampion of new music who could never quite bring himself to embrace atonality; the composer of the exotic Lyric Symphony, one ofwhose movements is quoted in homage in Alban Berg's Lyric Suite.

But the last 20 years have seen an upsurge of interest in Zemlinsky, bringing him out from under the shadows so that now, alongsideMahler, Schoenberg, Klimt and Freud, his name is inexorably linked with our images of the seething cultural milieu of Vienna in the1900s.

Today it is possible to acquaint oneself with his music through CDs, but there have only been sporadic performances of his works inBritain. And, for such a pivotal figure, the absence of any English biographies is perplexing - although the publication next spring ofAntony Beaumont's detailed study should at last put that right. This neglect appears doubly odd, considering that the early SixtiesMahler revival began in this country. But then there is a religious quality to Mahler's music which is perhaps more palatable to staidBritish tastes than the intense erotic charge which courses through so much of Zemlinsky's output. And then, equally off-putting foraudiences keen to pigeonhole a composer, there is the incredible eclecticism of music which reflects the times in which it was written,from the Brahmsian early works, through the middle period with its echoes of early Schoenberg, to the later works which mirror the"New Objectivity" as exemplified by Kurt Weill.

A fascinatingly complex character, Zemlinsky was always an outsider. His journalist father was a Catholic from Slovakia who fell inlove with a girl from Sarajevo who was half Jewish and half Muslim. In order to marry her, Zemlinsky's father converted to Judaism.Later, when Alexander - probably the only composer in Vienna with Muslim blood in his veins - was composing Es war einmal, hehimself converted to the Protestant faith and become a Freemason, making the struggling artist a minority within a minority. His senseof being on the outside fuelled a deep-seated need to "belong" which goes some way to explain the readiness with which heaccommodated new musical developments into his personal style.

A fairy-tale opera with a fairly thin plot - a princess proudly rejects the advances of a prince, who then sets out to win her heart throughan extremely nasty deceit (involving the use of a magic kettle, of all things) - Es war einmal nonetheless contains some striking musicwhich fully demonstrates Zemlinsky's strict backbone of technique and his considerable achievement in marrying the motivicdevelopment of Brahms with the emotional strength of Wagner.

"It's a charming work," says Davis. "It's a passionate and very beautiful score, very typically Late Romantic and quite heavilyWagnerian, both harmonically and structurally. But there's also a lightness and radiance which is very characteristic of Zemlinsky. Hewas fascinated by the underdog, and that aspect of his character comes across in the emotional resonances.

"In some ways it reminds me of Humperdinck's Hansel und Gretel, only it's not about cruelty to children but rather about cruelty towomen. It's a wonderfully politically incorrect story, very much of its time - and certainly not something to endear the opera to strictfeminists."

In 1949, Schoenberg wrote an essay entitled Looking Back in which he assessed the importance of his friend, then seven years dead.The public, he predicted, would eventually come to appreciate the true worth of Zemlinsky's seven operas: "But that can take time.Zemlinsky can wait." Perhaps that waiting is at last over.

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