Magazine article Musical Times

More Than a Footnote

Magazine article Musical Times

More Than a Footnote

Article excerpt

DAVID ALLENBY hails a ground-breaking study of a key figure in twentieth-century Austro-German music

Zemlinsky Antony Beaumont Faber & Faber (London, 1999); xvii, 524pp; L30. ISBN 0 571 16983 X.

EVERY ONCE in a while a book appears which redefines critical perspectives on a composer to such a degree that our understanding takes a quantum leap forward. One needs only to think of David Cairns's writings on Berlioz, Michael Hall's 1984 study of Birtwistle, or Stephen Banfield's Finzi monograph, merely to cite three widely diverse offerings from our own shores. Indisputably, another example is this first full-length biography of Zemlinsky, by Antony Beaumont. After years of painstaking detective work around the world, Beaumont has now succeeded in filling many of the mysterious gaps in the composer's personal history, certainly enough to give this volume an authoritative narrative sweep. Alongside his completion of Zemlinsky's opera Der Konig Kandaules, permitting its posthumous premiere in Hamburg in 1986, this book is Beaumont's supreme contribution to the composer's revival.

Yet this book is about far more than Zemlinsky alone. The cast of subsidiary characters is a veritable Who's Who of Austro-German musical life in the first half of the twentieth century. Inevitably, Mahler and Schoenberg loom largest, linked to Zemlinsky through complex symbiotic relationships, emotional as well as musical. Zemlinsky's devotion to Mahler transcended everything, not only during his life, when he could reasonably have turned against the man who had 'stolen' his beloved Alma, but also after his death, when Zemlinsky assumed a leading role in the promotion of Mahler's music on the concert platform. His friendship with the much more demanding Schoenberg, however, fluxed hot and cold throughout his life. At first his protege and pupil, Schoenberg subsequently became his brother-in-law; but then came a progressive loosening of this kinship bond, following Mathilde's tragic affair with Richard Gerstl and, fifteen years later, her death. Zemlinsky continued programming and conducting Schoenberg's music, including the world premiere of Erwartung (at which he secreted a harmonium under the stage to give appropriate pitch prompts to the soprano), but, compositionally, he considered the serial method to be a bridge too far, and his lack of comprehension contributed to a severing of cordial relations. Finally, in the USA, Schoenberg attempted to rekindle friendship, but with Zemlinsky's health collapsing he was too late.

Beaumont is brilliant at capturing the swirling social milieu, particularly in Vienna, and if he can sometimes be accused of digressing from the central subject, the tangents are always intriguing and provide vital context. Yet one would be mistaken if one were to identify Zemlinsky as the spider at the centre of this ever-increasing web of connections; for, again and again, it emerges that he himself does not have a firm grip on the thread, as the other more rapacious diners carry off the prize morsels. His composition pupils, notably Schoenberg and Korngold, soon outstripped him in notoriety and success, and his conducting assistants, such as Kleiber, soon overtook him in the race for key positions. But the most devastating blow of all, one that resonated throughout his life, was the collapse of his affair, in 1901, with Alma Schindler, when she set her sights on a much more profitable trophy, the director of the Hofoper, Gustav Mahler. One of the most powerful images in the book is the reproduction of a letter from Zemlinsky to Schoenberg in which he breaks the news. Beaumont writes of it thus:

Upon his chagrin d'amour he squandered all of eight words - as if the affair had never been of any consequence: `The latest news: Mahler engaged to Alma Schindler.' Then silence: two and a half lines of dashes, twenty-five in all - a stifled cry of despair.

Zemlinsky continued to fascinate Alma, even when he was removed to the periphery of her artistic court, and Beaumont's work on editing her early diaries for publication, during the course of his Zemlinsky investigation, provides an invaluable core to the present volume. …

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