On the Edge of the Viennese School

Zemlinsky and the music of his time


"Everything that Zemlinsky composes is close to its time, modern but it is not fashionable music"

Hans Heinsheimer

Zemlinsky was a composer who by virtue of his artistic nature reacted "seismographically" to his musical surroundings. Unlike Arnold Schoenberg he would not have dreamed of abandoning aesthetic criteria and striving for purity of style. Consistency for its own sake was alien to Zemlinsky and instead he was always prepared to react to anything new and to convey foreign elements from others in his music. Even though the influences of other composers are evident in many of his works, these references are very far from simply being imitations. On the contrary, in the sense of a "productive eclecticism" Zemlinsky absorbed the trends of his time and merged them with his own idiom. Besides a clearly defined musical personality the prerequisite for this was the ability to internalise alien forms of expression, something which Zemlinsky possessed to a high degree not least because of his great experience as a conductor.

After the early years, which were still characterised by conveying stylistic elements of Brahms and Wagner, it was Gustav Mahler in particular who had an important influence on Zemlinsky as a composer, conductor and as an intellectual model. Mahler also had a high estimation for Zemlinsky. In 1910 Rudolf Stefan Hoffman wrote, "It cannot be determined whether Zemlinsky is a member of the Mahler clique or whether Mahler should be ascribed to the Zemlinsky clique." The other great virtuoso in dealing with the orchestra, Richard Strauss, was certainly more foreign to Zemlinsky as a person, and yet especially in the operas of his middle years there are some elements that are reminiscent of the expressive Strauss of Salome and Elektra. From the late 1920s Zemlinsky opened himself up increasingly to music that was not rooted in Vienna and the mood of change from the turn of the century. For instance, stylistic elements of Weill, Hindemith, Krenek and Bartók become evident. However, the composer who at this time was closest to Zemlinsky both musically and on a human level was ultimately a Viennese: Alban Berg. After Zemlinsky lost touch with Schoenberg from 1927, it appears that Berg replaced him as a close friend from the Viennese School.

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Letter from Gustav Mahler to Zemlinsky undated, before 1904: "I enjoyed expressing my affiliation to your endeavours and my complete sympathy for your aims. As you now regard it as useful or appropriate that I publicly avow my faith in the future by accepting a title, do give me whatever name you wish. […]" On 23 April 1904 Mahler was elected honorary president of the Association of Creative Musicians founded by Zemlinsky and Schoenberg.