The Final Years

New York 1938–1942


"I would not even want to be buried here"
Zemlinsky, 1939

Zemlinsky was 67 years old when he arrived in New York with his wife and daughter. It is understandable that his poor health and the experiences of the previous months made it difficult for him to adapt to a new way of life. The family spent the first few weeks in a hotel in Manhattan; in February 1939 they rented an apartment in 46 West 83rd Street.

Nevertheless for a short time Zemlinsky found some strength to attend a language course. However, in mid-1939 he suffered a severe stroke. In 1940, to get away from the noise of the city, he moved with Louise into an apartment in a quieter area in New Rochelle, north-west of the city; their daughter stayed in New York. In the meantime Louise's brother Otto had joined them, with whose help their financial problems were largely solved. Otto died in the December of the same year.

In New York Zemlinsky had regular contact with some friends from Europe. Primarily with his former pupil Arthur Bodanzky, who died at the end of 1939, but also with Hans Heinsheimer from the Universal Edition publishing house; with the conductor Fritz Stiedry and with Walter Firner, a friend from his time in Berlin. Zemlinsky also exchanged a few letters with Schoenberg, who lived in Los Angeles. He wanted to persuade Zemlinsky to move to the west too, but his poor health did not allow this. They met each other personally one more time, when Schoenberg conducted his Pierrot lunaire in New York in November 1940.

Zemlinsky's artistic work was no longer very fruitful. Besides the opera project Circe that he started working on immediately after the failure of Der König Kandaules, he composed two pedagogical school pieces as well as some easy songs in order to ease his financial problems. Arthur Bodanzky arranged for them to be published but Zemlinsky only allowed this under the pseudonym "Al Roberts".

Zemlinsky never recovered from another stroke he suffered on December 1940. On 15 March 1942, four days after he had moved into a house in nearby Larchmont, Zemlinsky died.

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The house where Zemlinsky died in Larchmont, N.Y., photograph, 1985. Alexander, Louise and her brother Otto moved into the house only four days before Zemlinsky's death. Until then they had lived in a ground-floor apartment with a garden in nearby New Rochelle. Otto wrote a letter dated 4 August 1940 to his mother in Prague, who was later murdered in a concentration camp, and described the first few days outside Manhattan: "[…] we are completely surrounded by greenery and the birdsong in the morning is wonderful. We have had only a few visitors recently as many of our friends have gone away for the summer but actually we rather like it this way. Alex complains a little — you know what he's like — but most of the time he is very cheerful. Louise looks very well and I, apparently better than ever! […]. We are especially glad not to be in New York any more where the heat is probably unbearable. It is also delightfully quiet here. It is really like being in the country and yet we have every convenience because everything is delivered to the house. […]"



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Zemlinsky' death certificate, 16 March 1942. Zemlinsky was already a broken man when he arrived in America. Serious illness was only a question of time. In his last handwritten letter to Schoenberg dating from the end of 1939 he wrote; "Dear Schoenberg, Soon after our arrival in New York I fell ill with a serious nervous disease and it also soon became clear to us that we will not stay in this city and now it is decided that we will go west. As soon as the first day of spring arrives we will leave here. I had terrible pains for months. What we went through and saw in Vienna could only lead to this: a complete nervous breakdown. I'll write more to you as soon as I can. […]"