Prague 1911-1927 II

Years of Mastery

Prague 1911–1927


"He comes from the innermost depths of music"
Franz Werfel


Six completed new works in sixteen years — in terms of quantity the compositional yield of Zemlinsky's time in Prague was very low. His position of responsibility at the theatre with its organisational headaches left him hardly any time for working creatively, especially as he also directed a master-class for composition at the German Music Academy in Prague from 1920. Furthermore it was also in these years that Zemlinsky spent much time and energy in trying to find appropriate opera subjects and making a first draft of their musical setting. Besides the two operas he completed, between 1912 and 1927 he worked on no less than six other opera projects and in addition he also made adaptations of earlier works: between 1913 and 1921 he wrote an orchestral version of the Maeterlinck Songs, in 1922 a new version of his musical comedy Kleider machen Leute. The works he completed in Prague, the second and third string quartets, the incidental music to Shakespeare's drama Cymbeline, the Lyric Symphony, Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) and Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) are, however, some of Zemlinsky's most important and successful compositions.

He wrote the Second String Quartet between 1913 and 1915. In a single movement of almost symphonic dimensions and divided into four parts Zemlinsky here unfolds an enormous richness of references in form and motifs. Even though he used bolder tone language in his later quartets, this highly expressive quartet can be regarded as his principal piece of chamber music.

Zemlinsky's richest orchestral work is the Lyric Symphony for soprano and baritone (1922-23), a setting of texts by Rabindranath Tagore. As in Mahler's Lied von der Erde (Song of the Earth) to which it is closely related in both form and spirit, the symphonic structure is related to the inwardness of the song, the domain where both Zemlinsky and Mahler felt most at home. However, as regards the richness of orchestral colour Zemlinsky goes even further than Mahler, the "ardent" tone peculiar to Zemlinsky's music, so highly praised by Adorno, here finds its most beautiful expression.

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Postcard written by Zemlinsky to Richard Specht, 11 November 1921.
Even in Prague Zemlinsky was well aware of what was going on in musical life in Vienna. In 1921, when Richard Specht published an essay about Viennese Music and made no mention of Zemlinsky, he replied with a letter whose melancholy and ironic tone is typical of Zemlinsky's diction: "[…] it contains every name. Even those heard for the first time in this essay. (Probably also those one hears for the last time). The only name that is missing is mine. Throughout my entire life I have never complained about such things. Today is the first time. I do not understand the reason for this insult. Am I not Viennese? Not one of the truest in every respect? Is not the fact of being forgotten in such a case as this already proof of how I unmistakeably belong to Vienna? […]"