The Opera Composer / III

Der Kreidekreis – uncompleted projects

"I'm reading like mad now, so as to be able to compose something new soon."

Psychological character opera predominated in Zemlinsky's previous works but in his seventh opera Der Kreidekreis (1930-32) he distanced himself to a certain extent from this type. Klabund's play Der Kreidekreis based on the old Chinese fairy-tale and for which Zemlinsky himself wrote the libretto is not an emotional drama but a socio-critical parable. At the time everything Chinese was very popular and the work was a great success.



Der Kreidekreis, Hamburg State Opera 1983, stage photo by Joachim Thode with Beatrice Niehoff and the ensemble.

Musically Zemlinsky also reacted to current trends: he combined his own lyrical and expressive sound with Far-Eastern colour, stylistic means from jazz and "contemporary opera" and brought everything together in a form approaching epic theatre and singspiel with spoken dialogues between the scenes. The economy of means is admirable: Zemlinsky succeeds in precisely depicting the milieu and the wood-carving-like figures and at the same time in relating in a very personal way the story of Haitang, probably the strongest woman character in all his operas. 

Der Kreidekreis brought about a tragic parallel between the events on stage and real life: the opera, which is about the inhumanity of a despotic regime, itself became a victim of political despotism. After the successful world premiere in Zurich on 14 October 1933 and the first performance in Germany in Stettin (1934) it was censored and abridged by the Nazis and then banned from stages altogether.

The opera was only performed again in 1955, in Dortmund. It had promised to be Zemlinsky's greatest success as in 1933 several stages had competed for the first performance rights. All in all, if we consider the eight complete, nine incomplete and countless other opera projects which he rejected while reading possible subject matter, Zemlinsky was preoccupied throughout his life with composing opera. Many of the projects failed because of a weak libretto, not for musical reasons. Although Zemlinsky was very open in stylistic questions, he was all the more unscrupulous in searching for subjects with a dramatic idea corresponding to his nature.




Letter from Zemlinsky to Ernst Hutschenreiter, August 1902. Between 1902 and 1903 and again in 1912 Zemlinsky was preoccupied with the musical setting of a libretto by Hutschreiter based on Gorki's narrative Malwa. The letter offers an insight into how the composer worked: "[…] I would like to ask you to differentiate the rhythm of the verses. Entire passages can be verses with a metre of three. The following rhythm is also very musical: Do please go to the father and tell him that mother is slowly fading away. […] After Mahler expressed doubts about the dramatic power of the subject, Zemlinsky temporarily shelved the project in 1903, then abandoned it completely in 1912.
Image Libretto to Der Kreidekreis, start of Act IV, English translation with handwritten corrections by Louise Zemlinsky, which she made for a performance at the University of Cincinnati College Conservatory in 1988. Der Kreidekreis was written around the time when Louise and Alexander Zemlinsky married on 4 January 1930. Alexander dedicated the score to his wife as a wedding present.