Composer and Conductor in his Homeland

Vienna 1895–1911


„Everything in the world would be wonderful if there were no operettas“
Zemlinsky, 1902

Zemlinsky took up his first regular appointment as a conductor in June 1900 at the Carltheater, which was, in additon to the Theater an der Wien the leading stage for performing operettas. Afterwards Zemlinsky worked for one season at the Theater an der Wien. It was not until his next engagement that he was able to devote more time to demanding repertoire after he had been appointed first kapellmeister at the Volksoper in 1904. The theatre concentrated mainly on the German repertoire but while Zemlinsky was there remarkable performances of French operas by Gounod, Auber, Halévy, Thomas, Meyerbeer and Dukas took place.

Zemlinsky’s engagement at the Volksoper was interrupted in 1907: Mahler, who in 1900 had conducted the world premiere of Zemlinsky’s second opera Es war einmal at the Hofoper, appointed him kapellmeister there. However, when irreconcilable tensions arose between Mahler’s successor Felix Weingartner and Zemlinsky, the latter returned — then as a guest conductor — to the Volksoper, where in 1910 he was able to present the world premiere of his opera created specially for this house Kleider machen Leute (1907-09).

Despite the enormous pressure of work as a conductor Zemlinsky was very productive during these years in Vienna as a composer in all genres. Besides four operas he composed important chamber works such as the Clarinet Trio (1896) and the First String Quartet (1896), orchestral music such as the Symphony in B flat major and the symphonic tone poem Die Seejungfrau, (1902-03), an incomplete ballet Der Triumph der Zeit based on a work by Hofmannsthal (1901-04) and also vocal works such as several song cycles, the Four Songs on texts by Maurice Maeterlinck (1910) and Psalm 23 for Choir and Orchestra. (1910)

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Programme note, 10 December 1910, Golden Hall of the Musikverein: concert office of the Imperial and Royal Society of the Friends of Music in Vienna. The world premiere of Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23 for Choir and Orchestra (1910) was conducted by Franz Schreker, whom Zemlinsky knew from his student years and with whom he remained friends until his Berlin years.
From 1907 to 1908 Schreker was also engaged as chorus master at the Volksoper.
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The Volksoper in Vienna (Emperor’s Jubilee City Theatre), postcard, around 1900. Vienna’s second opera house after the Hofoper was opened as part of the jubilee celebrations for the 50th year of Emperor Franz Joseph’s reign. Here Zemlinsky conducted over 30 premieres, including in 1908 the first performance in Austria of Ariane et Barbe-bleu by Paul Dukas as well as Salome by Richard Strauss in 1910, which at the time was still censored at the Hofoper.
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Theater an der Wien, woodcut by M. Vera Frieberger-Brunner, 1920. Other than Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann Zemlinsky had to conduct only really insignificant works here. However, the ensemble was larger than at the Carltheater and Alexander Girardi was one of its famous members.
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The Taborstrasse with the Carltheater, photograph dating from around 1900. Being appointed at this house brought Zemlinsky enormous experience in working in the theatre but it was artistically dissatisfying for him. The most important world premiere in this time was Richard Heuberger’s operetta Der Opernball (1901), parts of which Zemlinsky himself orchestrated. Egon Wellesz felt that the operetta years had more than a musical impact on Zemlinsky: “He was highly stimulating in conversation, even though cynical; like many talented composers he had to conduct operettas.”
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The Imperial and Royal Court Opera in Vienna (Hofoper), light print by Max Jaffé, around 1900. Zemlinsky made his debut here in May 1907 with Verdi’s Otello. Later he conducted Carmen and Die Zauberflöte. After differences of opinion with Mahler’s successor Weingartner his contract was terminated prematurely in February 1908.