Friendship of Two Unequals

Zemlinsky and Schönberg / I


"Above all in the ,talented brother-in-law' you have a great friend and admirer"

Zemlinsky, 1902

It is not known when exactly Zemlinsky and Schoenberg met for the first time. They probably became acquainted with one another around 1895 in the orchestra association Polyhymnia, which Zemlinsky directed and in which Schoenberg played the cello. A close friendship developed between the two musicians which lasted for 30 years despite one or two crises and even at an advanced age, after the two men had not been in touch for over ten years, was still cordial. What is probably the most beautiful verbal testimony to this friendship is Schoenberg's statement that Zemlinsky "always remained the same over the many years and whose composure I try to imagine, when I need advice." (1921)

On an artistic level the relationship between the two composers with such different dispositions developed from teacher-pupil to a discursive partnership on an equal footing in which both benefited from the strengths of the other. Zemlinsky first taught Schoenberg compositional technique, looked through his compositions with him, performed some of them and gave him some entries into the musical life of Vienna. Part of the "teaching" also meant that in 1897 Schoenberg completed the piano score of Zemlinsky's first opera Sarema. In Schoenberg's Berlin years — he had meanwhile married Zemlinsky's sister — the "teacher" repeatedly provided the "pupil" with work so as to improve his financial situation.  

Around the year 1902 Schoenberg began to free himself as a composer from Zemlinsky's influence and started to go his own way. Later on, his radical approach was to lead to fundamental aesthetic differences. The two symphonic tone poems Pelleas und Mélisande (Schoenberg) and Die Seejungfrau (Zemlinsky) document the changing personal style of the two composers. Nevertheless they were jointly committed to promoting contemporary music and it was for this purpose that in 1904 they founded the Association of Creative Musicians. Their commitment was highly regarded — however, in the legendary "scandalous concert" of 31 March 1913 in the Musikverein they also experienced the limits of what could be achieved in public.

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Schoenberg and Zemlinsky
Photograph by Otto Schlosser, Prague 1912
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Programme bill 31 March 1913, Golden Hall of the Musikverein, Vienna. The concert went down in history as a scandal: after hefty disturbances between advocates and opponents of the music the concert had to be abandoned before the last item on the programme. This was the first concert in which Schoenberg arranged for a work by Zemlinsky to be performed.
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Letter from Zemlinsky to Schoenberg, Prague, December 1916. The letter is a reply to an address which Schoenberg had written for him as a present on the score of his Pierrot lunaire.
" Dearest Friend, Your score has given me great pleasure. And the inscription is fine and indeed very true! I also began to think that we "better ones" share the fate of the one addicted to the moon: if we have distanced, raised ourselves from the earth, from the others towards the moon, the unearthly, then we will ultimately be called back by the earth and crash to the depths. I mean the conflict: striving on the one hand for what is high and unearthly and on the other searching for heights on earth, being anchored with everything earthly. […]"