The Musical Director

Prague 1911–1927


"Prague can be proud of him"
Franz Schreker


In September 1911 Zemlinsky succeeded a line of great musical personalities such as Gustav Mahler (1885-86), Karl Muck (1886-92), Franz Schalk (1895-98) and Leo Blech (1898-1906) by taking up the post of music director at the Prague Landestheater. During his sixteen-year term here he gained an excellent reputation extending well beyond the borders of the city as one of the outstanding conductors of his generation. Many of his most important compositions were created in Prague and through his programme planning Zemlinsky contributed to keeping the music of composers such as Mahler, Schoenberg, Bartók, Dukas, Schreker, Berg, Webern, Korngold, Busoni, Janácek, Milhaud and Krenek alive in Europe.

Zemlinsky had an enormous work load. In the first two seasons alone he presented an incredible number of exemplary performances of repertoire pieces such as Fidelio, Tannhäuser, Der Freischütz, Die Zauberflöte, Lohengrin, Der Ring des Nibelungen, Die Meistersinger, and Salome; he also conducted major orchestral works by Mahler and Strauss.

Although his work was successful, Zemlinsky repeatedly spent periods away from Prague. He had several differences of opinion with Heinrich Teweles, director of the Landestheater, and in particular with his successor Leopold Kramer ("He is certainly taking years off my life", wrote Zemlinsky in 1921 to Schoenberg). The standard of singing by the ensemble was at times provincial, there was hardly any time to compose and he missed his hometown. In 1918 he fervently requested Alma Mahler to help him to return to Vienna. There were several plans to transfer to a different theatre but they came to nothing mostly because of the question of fees. The fact that Zemlinsky did stay until 1927, was due ultimately to the good possibilities he had, thanks to his position, of realising his artistic aims. The final years in Prague, however, brought disappointments and losses. In 1923 his sister died, the relationship with Schoenberg had arrived at a low point and ultimately evidence of artistic fatigue began to set in. After a farewell concert in which he conducted Mahler's Eighth Symphony Zemlinsky left Prague in the summer of 1927 to take up a new appointment in Berlin.

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The New German Theatre (Deutsches Landestheater) in Prague, postcard dating from around 1910. The theatre was opened in 1888 and could seat an audience of 1900; opera and plays were performed here.
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Programme bill, 9 November 1926, Great Lucerna Hall, Prague. In a concert organised by the Society for the Building and Preservation of a German Doctors' House in Prague Zemlinsky conducted a very mixed programme ranging from the second act of Die Fledermaus (staged), songs by Brahms, a quartet by Haydn, chansons and a dance in which the audience could participate performed by military bands. His conducting of Die Fledermaus was highly acclaimed: "Zemlinsky's Fledermaus remains unforgettable", wrote Max Brod in the Prager Tagblatt.
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Letter of farewell to the opera ensemble in Prague, 24 June 1924. In December 1926 (?) Zemlinsky had already announced that he was going to leave Prague. In his final season he conducted repertoire works as well as new productions of Krenek's Jonny spielt auf, Janácek's Jenufa and Hindemith's Cardillac.