Antony Beaumont, Zemlinsky
Faber & Faber, £30. 524pp
Book Review by Norman Lebrecht / May 10, 2000
Probably the cruellest tribute ever offered by one composer to another was Arnold Schoenberg’s fiftieth-birthday greeting to his brother-in-law. ‘Zemlinsky,’ said Schoenberg, ‘can wait.’
What he meant, acolytes argued, was that a composer of Alexander von Zemlinsky’s quality could sleep soundly abed, confident that posterity would recognise his merit. However, even in the city of Sigmund Freud’s dreams where subtext overwhelmed context, the plain meaning of Schoenberg’s words was unmistakable. Zemlinsky, he reckoned, was not one of those artists who alter the destiny of mankind. He would have to wait his turn while Schoenberg’s atonal and twelve-tone revolutions ran their imperative course.
And wait he did. It took forty years after his death in American exile in 1942 before his avowedly decadent operas crept back onto the European stage and were shamefacedly acclaimed – shamefacedly, for collective guilt at his neglect, and because we are not meant to admit enjoying such murky chords in these enlightened times.
Zemlinsky was remembered, if at all, as ‘the ugliest man in Vienna’, an accolade bestowed on him by the woman Tom Lehrer would immortalize as ‘the loveliest girl in Vienna’ – none other than the notorious Alma Mahler, whose life story is being filmed in the Prater even as you read these lines. Alma’s revulsion at her music teacher’s furrowed, sun-dial features masked an erotic obsession with Zemlinsky that stopped at the very brink of penetration and on the eve of her surrender to Gustav Mahler. For the rest, Zemlinsky remains a mystery unfathomed by Austro-German monographs and a full-blown 1992 Vienna exhibition, a reserved man who never mastered the mechanics of careerism and, as he once told Alma, lacked the elbows to get ahead. Antony Beaumont’s biography (Faber & Faber, £30) is the first comprehensive study of the man and his music, a revelation in more ways than I would have imagined.
Zemlinsky was, one knew, a multi-cultural individual who inherited the traditions of all three monotheisms. Remarkable as this was for his time, the details of his lineage sound positively Isaian. His Jewish grandfather married a Moslem girl in Sarajevo. His father, an Austrian Catholic, converted to Judaism before marriage, undergoing adult circumcision and embracing the faith with such enthusiasm that he became secretary to the Sephardic community in Vienna, an ethnic minority within a despised minority. Zemlinsky himself joined the Protestant church for professional convenience, but did not feel much need for the consolations of religion. Perhaps he had a surfeit in his bloodstream. A trace of Hebraic cadence and Sephardic melody is discernible in his psalm settings.
His formative years were the 1890s when Zemlinsky, in his twenties, came under the wing of the dying Brahms and met the two men who would dominate his life, Mahler and Schoenberg. Mahler married his pupil and gave him commissions at the Opera. Schoenberg acknowledged Zemlinsky as his only teacher and married his sister, Mathilde.
There was fun in their friendship, but also sexual and musical poison. When Mathilde eloped with the painter Richard Gerstl, Zemlinsky sided (understandably enough) with his sister. Schoenberg, who went atonal in her three-week absence in his F-sharp minor string quartet, never forgave Zemlinsky for conniving in the betrayal or for failing to follow him into the musical unknown. The closest Zemlinsky came to Schoenberg was in his own 1914 second string quartet, a masterpiece with intimations of Verklärte Nacht. Zemlinsky married in due course – unrewardingly, according to Beaumont, and without satisfying his ravenous sexual appetites. He appears to have used his ugliness to advantage, lulling beauties into believing him innocuous while charming them into bed. Every note he wrote was enriched with eroticism. His second wife caught him, on his deathbed, flirting with the nurse.
Rejected by Vienna after Mahler left, Zemlinsky conducted 16 years at the German theatre in Prague and four at Kroll Oper, Berlin. He longed to devote himself to composition but, despite the advocacy of Klemperer and other leading conductors, never scored an operatic hit. The themes that intrigued him were too true to his own life; The Dwarf, his most gripping drama, was viewed as self-caricature, almost an act of public masochism.
Schoenberg remarried with unseemly haste after Mathilde’s death and Alban Berg, his next-best friend, died of a sudden septicaemia. By the time Hitler reached Vienna, Zemlinsky was living in the musical shadows, a stranger in his home town. His dark, evocative and unflinchingly honest songs speak louder to our times for some reason. Perhaps we are more open to his ethnic diversity.
Beaumont has made a mighty case for Zemlinsky’s restitution, while poking shafts of light into undusted corners of Viennese social pathology and across the contorted human map of musical modernism. Mahler emerges unscathed, but Schoenberg has grown extra warts and, as for Alma, Tom Lehrer will have to add another three stanzas to his epic eulogy. I have learned more new facts from this book than from any recent musical biography.
Antony Beaumont, Zemlinsky