On Route to the Capital City of Music

Vienna 1895–1911


"His praises cannot be sung highly enough"
Paul Stefan

For a talented and conscientiously trained musician like Zemlinsky, Vienna, with its rich musical life around the turn of the century, offered an abundance of opportunities but also demanded a great will to succeed. During the years between completing his studies and before leaving for Prague Zemlinsky managed to gain a lot of practical experience as a conductor and teacher and to find his own language as a composer. Nevertheless he never had a real breakthrough, partly because of his passive temperament and partly because of some unfortunate exterior circumstances. For Zemlinsky's development as a composer and conductor it was important for him to be a member of some musical associations. From 1893 to 1903 he belonged to the Tonkünstlerverein which Brahms supported; from 1903 to 1904 Zemlinsky was a member of the literary orientated Ansorge-Verein. In 1904, together with Schoenberg, he founded the "Association of Creative Musicians" which was especially concerned with fostering new music. Mahler was the honorary president but it only existed for a year.

The institution which probably had the greatest impact personally on Zemlinsky was the orchestra association Polyhymnia, which brought together various amateur orchestras in the second district of Vienna and whose artistic director he was from its foundation in 1895. Here Zemlinsky was able to perform many of his own works and also became acquainted with Arnold Schoenberg, who was to become the most important friend in his life.

Besides his commitments in the artists' associations Zemlinsky also made contacts with many of the important musicians, literati, painters and critics from the pulsating Vienna art scene, including Gustav Mahler, Frank Schreker, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Richard Heuberger, Richard Gerstl, Arthur Bodanzky, Julius Korngold, Rudolf Stefan Hoffmann and Richard Specht. Besides his separation from Alma Schindler and the encounter with Schoenberg, three events made a decisive impact on Zemlinsky's private life: in 1899 he converted to Protestantism; in 1907 he married Ida Guttmann (born in 1880), the sister of the flame of his youth Melanie, and in 1908 his daughter Johanna was born.

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Johannes Brahms, photograph by Maria Fellinger, 1896. The encounter with Brahms was one of the young Zemlinsky's most important experiences as he regarded him as a great idol alongside Wagner. "I knew most of Brahms's works thoroughly and it was as if I were obsessed by this music", wrote Zemlinsky later. Brahms was also one of his most important patrons. He instigated the Tonkünstlerverein to organise a competition, in which Zemlinsky won third prize on 22 December 1896 with his Clarinet Trio, op. 3. Not long afterwards Brahms recommended this work to his own publisher Simrock.
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Programme bill dated 25 January 1905, Golden Hall of the Musikverein, Association of Creative Musicians in Vienna. The concert in which Zemlinsky and Schoenberg conducted the world premieres of what were their most important orchestral works until then and which they had composed more or less at the same time, was one of the highlights of their joint activities in Vienna and a document of their friendship on both an artistic and human level.
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Postcard to Zemlinsky in Rottach/Tegernsee, 14 August 1906. The anonymous writer noted a "motif for a symphonic tone poem Der Bergsteiger that is to be performed 'energetically at all costs'" — a parody of the beginning of Schoenberg's First Chamber Symphony, op. 9.
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Hugo von Hofmannsthal, block print from a photograph by Hugo Erfurth, 1911.
Hofmannsthal was one of the most important poets for Zemlinsky. Between 1901 and 1904 he worked on composing ballet music for Hofmannsthal's drama tryptichon Der Triumph der Zeit (The Triumph of Time). Hofmannsthal had first offered the text to Richard Strauss in 1900 but he turned it down. A performance at the Hofoper did not come to fruition because Gustav Mahler expressed doubts about the dramatic quality of the work. From the music he had composed Zemlinsky later compiled an orchestral suite and the one-act ballet Ein Tanzpoem (A Dance Poem).