Magazine article The Spectator

Queuing for Fame

Magazine article The Spectator

Queuing for Fame

Article excerpt


by Antony Beaumont

Faber, 30, pp. 524

Probably the cruellest tribute ever offered by one composer to another was Arnold Schoenberg's 50th-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 12tone revolutions ran their imperative course.

And wait he did. It took 40 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, out of 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 immortalise 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 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 multicultural 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. …

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