In His Own Right

By Palmer, Peter | Musical Times, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

In His Own Right


Palmer, Peter, Musical Times


In his own right Alexander Zemlinsky: a lyric symphony Marc D. Moskovitz The Boydell Press (Woodbridge, 2010); xx, 385PP; £25, $47. ISBN 978 1 84383 578 3,

Even if his surname had started with 'S' rather than 'Z', as his father's originally did, it's doubtful whether Alexander Zemlinsky would have achieved wider renown in the 20th century. Various factors, either personal or artistic, seem to have militated against him. How far he could fall beneath the radar of musical commentators is reflected in his total omission from the 1922 edition o£ Walter Niemann's Die Musik der Gegenwart, a survey which acknowledges coundess minor composers of that era. Zemlinsky 's outward demeanour as a conductor can't have helped. Devoid of romantic flamboyance, he must have struck authences as resembling the insurance official that his father was at the time of Alexander's birth. Not that concert reviewers failed to perceive his merits. 'What a blessing,' wrote one of a Munich performance of La Belle Hélène, 'to hear this valuable composition performed under a real conductor!'

In a life-and-works study whose title takes Zemlinsky's best-known piece as representative of the oeuvre, Marc D. Moskovitz seeks to give him a bolder public profile. Zemlinsky, he states at the outset, embodied several subjects of absorbing interest: musical post-romanticism, turn-of-thecentury Vienna, and the role of lews in both. Whereas Mahler and others were converted from ludaism to Christianity, the musician's father abandoned Catholicism for the lewish faith in order to marry Alexander's half-Muslim, half- Jewish mother. The son's mixed genetic make-up surely had some bearing on the achievement of his Symphonic songs op.20, settings of Harlem poets that were denied more than a single complete performance in his lifetime.

Any English reader wishing to become better acquainted with the music will forever remain in Antony Beaumont's debt for his ground-breaking Zemlinsky of 2000. Beaumont's method was, in his own words, 'essentially that of a performing artist in search of interpretative insights, rather than that of an academic, who may consider analysis to be an end in itself Running to over 500 pages, his book is particularly illuminating on the subject of numbersymbolism, comparing and contrasting Zemlinsky's use of it with that of Bach, Schumann, Brahms and Schoenberg.

Moskovitz, too, weaves analysis of the major pieces into a broader musical and biographical narrative. He adopts a less sectional approach than Beaumont's: there are three main 'parts' of four chapters each, covering Vienna, Prague and finally Berlin and the aftermath - Zemlinsky's return to Vienna and Prague, exile and death in New York.

While dispensing with music examples, Moskovitz's relatively brief accounts of individual works should satisfy both scholars and amateurs. As an indication of the level, here is an extract from his commentary on the tonally elusive Second String Quartet, for which Beaumont draws on three different analysts:

Years earlier Zemlinsky struggled to avoid indulging his expositions with too much developmental material. Now he 'front loads' the quartet with its basic ideas, each of which flows direcdy into the next - an Impressionistic, quasi-modal openingfigure based on a three-note group; a highly-charged secondary theme characterized by its clipped upbeat that quickly builds to a climax; and, following a brief caesura, a driving variant of the opening material, whose dreamy quality is replaced by contrapuntal vigor. Everything that follows the F-sharp minor opening is traceable back to one of these ideas, each unfolding like a stream of consciousness until the warm and relaxed character of the work's opening suddenly returns in me transposed key of D major. …

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