Alexander Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871 – March 15, 1942) was one of the most powerful musical voices of his time. A remarkably influential musician, he had connections with both the more traditional and the Second Viennese School. Although his work was nearly forgotten after the war, he has recently been recognized as one of the 20th century’s significant compositional voices.
Zemlinsky’s close association with Schoenberg, a relationship strengthened when the latter married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, brought early collaboration in the opera Sarema, for which Schoenberg assisted with the libretto. Both men were indebted to Mahler for practical encouragement. It was Mahler who presented Zemlinsky’s second opera Es war einmal at the Court Opera in 1900, and accepted his next opera Der Traumgörge for performance. Later operas included two works based on Oscar Wilde, Eine Florentinische Tragödie, and Der Zwerg, a version of The Birthday of the Infanta.
Zemlinsky’s compositions are recognized for bridging the gap between late Romanticism and twentieth–century modernist styles. Following the path of teachers Robert and J.N. Fuchs, and also Brahms and Wagner, Zemlinsky notably developed shifting tonal centers within a formal technique of variation and word–painting in the style of Viennese expressionism. The influence of Brahms is apparent in Zemlinsky’s early works, while later works draw from Mahler and the extended harmonies of Wagner. Zemlinsky eventually explored symbolism, but unlike his colleague Schoenberg, avoided extreme dissonance, twelve–tone technique and atonal music in general. Although these compositions reflect an affinity with Berg, who sought rational solutions to structural problems, Zemlinsky embraced asymmetry and did not seek such solutions.
In 1931 he took on a teaching appointment at the Music Academy but after the seizure of power by the Nazis and in 1933 the passing of the law which prohibited Jews from being employed in state service he had to resign his position. He returned to the city of his birth with his second wife Louise (his first wife Ida had died in 1929) — Vienna now became his exile.
As cultural life in Vienna increasingly became influenced by political developments Zemlinsky was no longer able to become established. He did, however, have more time to compose. The works of this later period were varied in style and form, the main one being the opera Der König Kandaules. From 1938 the situation in Vienna made it impossible for him to continue working and, after Hitler’s invasion, Zemlinsky and his family planned to escape. In the autumn of 1938 they left Vienna and fled to New York.
Zemlinsky was a broken man when he arrived in the New World. He even had to abandon his opera and composed only a few minor works. After suffering several strokes Zemlinsky died on 15 March 1942 in his house in Larchmont near New York.
For several decades after his death the music of Zemlinsky was more or less disregarded. It was not until the 1970s that his central works were performed and recorded. The re-assessment of his biography also led to the renaissance of a composer whose music combines in incomparable manner the trends of half a century. The phase of rediscovery can be regarded as having reached fruition with the world premiere of Der König Kandaules at the Hamburg State Opera in 1996. Now the public again has the music of a composer about whom Schoenberg said in 1949, “I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think”.