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Alexander Zemlinsky

Alexander von Zemlinsky (October 14, 1871 - March 15, 1942) was an Austrian composer of classical music, a conductor and a teacher.

Zemlinsky was born in Vienna and 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. There he studied the piano with Anton Door[?], winning the school's piano prize in 1890. He also took composition lessons, and began to write pieces.

Zemlinsky met Johannes Brahms on several occasions, who, among other acts of encouragement, recommended Zemlinsky's Clarinet Trio (1896) to the Simrock[?] company for publication. He also met Arnold Schoenberg when Schoenberg joined the Polyhymnia, an orchestra Zemlinsky had formed in 1895, as a cellist. The two became close friends, and later mutual admirers. Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg counterpoint lessons, thus becoming the only formal music teacher Schoenberg ever had. Zemlinsky was also to teach Erich Wolfgang Korngold[?].

In 1897, Zemlinksy's Symphony No. 2 (actually the third he had written, and sometimes numbered appropriately) was premiered in Vienna and was a success. His reputation as a composer was further helped when Gustav Mahler condcuted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal in 1900. In 1899, Zemlinsky secured the post of Kapellmeister at the Cartheater in Vienna.

In 1900, Zemlinsky met Alma Schindler (later Alma Mahler) and fell in love with her. He helped her to work on some of the songs she was writing. His love was reciprocated, though Alma told Zemlinsky that she found him ugly. It is thought that these comments affected Zemlinsky for the rest of his life. The relationship between the two suddenly stopped when Schindler met and married Gustav Mahler in 1901. Zemlinsky later married Ida Guttmann in 1907, though the marriage was an unhappy one, and Zemlinsky had many affairs. Following Ida's death in 1929, Zemlinsky married Luise Sachsel on January 4, 1930, a woman twenty-nine years his junior who he had given singing lessons to since 1914. This was a much happier relationship, lasting until Zemlinsky's death.

In 1906, Zemlinksy was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper[?] before leaving to work at the Deutches Landestheater in Prague from 1911 to 1927, where he premiered Schoenberg's Erwärtung[?] 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. He never learnt English, became ill, suffering a series of strokes, and stopped composing. He died in Larchmont, New York of pneumonia.

Zemlinsky's best known work is probably the Lyric Symphony (1923), a six movement work for orchestra and baritone soloist on 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[?]. The work was an influence on Alban Berg's Lyric Suite[?], which includes a quotation of it and is dedicated to Zemlinsky.

Among Zemlinsky's other works are several other operas, including Eine Florentinische Tragödie (1915-16) after Oscar Wilde, and the ballet Der Triumph der Zeit (1901).

The influence of Brahms can been seen in Zemlinksy's early works (the ones that prompted encouragement from Brahms himself), while later works adopted the kinds of extended harmonies that Richard Wagner had employed, drawing influence also from Mahler. In contrast to his friend Schoenberg, he never wrote atonal music, and never used the twelve-tone technique.

Further reading

  • Antony Beaumont, Zemlinsky (Faber and Faber, 2000)

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