Alexander Zemlinsky is one of those composers who do not enjoy great renown and yet were very highly regarded in their time. His works did not change the history of music but are an authentic testimony of the turbulent developments in music between 1890 and 1940. Zemlinsky stands between times and styles but in this intermediary position he found a rich, unmistakeable, musical language. His personality and work epitomise one of the most fascinating epochs of art in Europe.
Zemlinsky was born in 1871 in Vienna and grew up in the Leopoldstadt district which was characterised by the many Jewish inhabitants who lived there. His musical talent became evident at an early age and so his parents registered him at the Conservatory of the Society of the Friends of Music when he was barely 13 years old. Zemlinsky studied at this institution until 1892, composing works of his own which were influenced by those of his model and patron Johannes Brahms.
After completing his studies, through personal contacts and a strong commitment in working for a number of institutions and societies, Zemlinsky soon succeeded in creating a certain position for himself in the pulsating musical life of Vienna. During these years his encounters with Arnold Schoenberg and Alma Schindler — who later became Gustav Mahler’s wife — were especially significant both on a human and artistic level. For a brief period Zemlinsky instructed Schoenberg in counterpoint and from 1906 became his brother-in-law, indeed Schoenberg was to become Zemlinsky’s most important friend and artistic partner. Zemlinsky had an intensive and unhappy love affair with his pupil Alma Schindler which only came to an end when she met Mahler.
After 1900 Zemlinsky was firmly established as a leading musical figure in Vienna, both as composer and conductor. However, he did not achieve a really major breakthrough. From 1900 to 1904 Zemlinsky was kapellmeister at the Carltheater and at the Theater an der Wien where he was only entrusted with conducting operettas. It was not until 1904, when he was appointed kapellmeister at the Volksoper and for one season (1907-8) at the Hofoper, that he was able to conduct major works in the repertoire. During this period he focused his compositional work on music theatre: until 1910 Zemlinsky wrote four operas which show in a very varied manner his infallible affinity for the genre. In 1911 Zemlinsky went to Prague where he held the post of opera conductor of the Deutsches Landestheater until 1927. This was where he celebrated his greatest successes as a conductor, especially for his readings of the music of Mozart and Wagner but also through performances of works by Mahler and Schoenberg, Zemlinsky’s name became synonymous with a natural and perceptive interpretation that served the music. His work as a conductor allowed Zemlinsky only a little time to compose and yet works such as the String Quartet No. 2, the Lyrische Symphonie and the two one-act operas based on works by Oscar Wilde are some of the highlights of his œuvre.
In 1927 Zemlinsky moved to Berlin, where he was kapellmeister at the Kroll Opera (until it was closed). Here he conducted a number of productions which aroused interest because of the aesthetics of their staging and yet Zemlinsky was overshadowed by the rise of younger conductors such as Otto Klemperer, Georg Szell and Erich Kleiber. In 1931 he took on a teaching appointment at the Music Academy but after the seizure of power by the Nazis and in 1933 the passing of the law which prohibited Jews from being employed in state service he had to resign his position. He returned to the city of his birth with his second wife Louise (his first wife Ida had died in 1929) — Vienna now became his exile. As cultural life in Vienna increasingly became influenced by political developments Zemlinsky was no longer able to become established. He did, however, have more time to compose. The works of this later period were varied in style and form, the main one being the opera Der König Kandaules. From 1938 the situation in Vienna made it impossible for him to continue working and, after Hitler’s invasion, Zemlinsky and his family planned to escape. In the autumn of 1938 they left Vienna and fled to New York.
Zemlinsky was a broken man when he arrived in the New World. He even had to abandon his opera and composed only a few minor works. After suffering several strokes Zemlinsky died on 15 March 1942 in his house in Larchmont near New York. For several decades after his death the music of Zemlinsky was more or less disregarded. It was not until the 1970s that his central works were performed and recorded. The re-assessment of his biography also led to the renaissance of a composer whose music combines in incomparable manner the trends of half a century. The phase of rediscovery can be regarded as having reached fruition with the world premiere of Der König Kandaules at the Hamburg State Opera in 1996. Now the public again has the music of a composer about whom Schoenberg said in 1949, „I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think”.