Childhood in the Leopoldstadt
Alexander Zemlinsky was born on 14 October 1871 in Vienna. His birthplace is in the Odeongasse in the second district of Vienna (the Leopoldstadt), the centre of Jewish life in the capital. Zemlinsky's childhood was characterised by a simple, deprived family life and a strict upbringing in which an education in languages and the arts was very important. The everyday life of Sephardic Jews, whose temple was near the family home, made a decisive impression on him. His father, a Catholic by birth, Adolf von Zemlinszky (at the beginning of his career as a composer Zemlinsky wrote his surname without a 'z') converted in 1870 to the Jewish faith and became secretary of the Turkish-Israeli religious community. He was well versed in literature and also an active writer. Alexander's mother Clara Semo, a "shy, reserved woman, who has more of an inner life" (Zemlinsky), came from Sarajevo which at the time of her birth was still controlled by the Turks. Her father was a Sephardic Jew, her mother a Moslem. Zemlinsky had two sisters: Bianca, born in 1874 but who died only a few weeks after her birth and Mathilde (born in 1877) who later became Arnold Schoenberg's wife.
Initially Zemlinsky attended a Sephardic school, then went to the state infants' school and then the grammar school. His great musical talent became evident when at the age of four he had the chance to play the piano in the home of a friend. His parents encouraged Zemlinsky's talent by ensuring that he sang in the temple choir and played the organ and in 1884 they applied for him to be accepted in the Conservatory of the Society of the Friends of Music. Even in his "free" time Alexander engaged in musical pursuits, for instance, after seeing a performance of Lohengrin at the Hofoper (Court Opera) he spent days in a "fever of excitement".