Obscure Music Monday: Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony
Alexander von Zemlinsky (Oct. 14, 1871 - March 15, 1942) was born in Vienna, Austria, and played the piano from a young age. Admitted to the Vienna Conservatory in 1884, and won the school's piano prize in 1890. He began writing in1892, when he started studying theory with Robert Fuchs, and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner.
There are many prominent composers that had significant parts in his development and recognition as a composer. Zemlinsky had a fan in Johannes Brahms, and so much so that Brahms recommended the N. Simrock company to publish Zemlinsky's Clarinet Trio. Gustav Mahler helped push Zemlinsky's reputation as a composer when he conducted his opera Es war einmal. To add another major composer to the list, Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint. Despite all this and more, Zemlinsky, sadly, is not a mainstay in the classical repertoire. His name is certainly known, but he's not programmed all that often.
One of Zemlinsky's most famous works is his Lyric Symphony, written in 1923. As a conductor, Zemlinsky was a major proponent of Mahler's music, and he admitted that it was Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde that inspired him to write his Lyric Symphony. Both are works for orchestra and two voices; Mahler's is six movements long, and Zemlinsky's seven. He used seven of the poems from The Gardner by Rabindranath Tagore, with the baritone and soprano alternating each movement, singing about the various stages of love. The movements are:
Ich bin friedlos, ich bin durstig nach fernen Dingen ("I am restless. I am athirst for far-away things")
O Mutter, der junge Prinz ("O mother, the young Prince")
Du bist die Abendwolke ("You are the evening cloud")
Sprich zu mir Geliebter ("Speak to me, my love")
Befrei mich von den Banden deiner Süße, Lieb ("Release me from the bonds of your sweetness, Love")
Vollende denn das letzte Lied ("Then finish the last song")
Friede, mein Herz ("Peace, my heart")
The movements are continuous, and Zemlinksy's writing spans the gamut of emotions. He writes broad, sweepingly passionate lines with the same kind of intensity as Mahler, followed by the sweetest melodies that are as calm as previous sections were intense. This work follows the stages of love – longing for it, receiving it, and then its end, all of which can be heard in his writing. The orchestra for this is large: 4 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn , 3 clarinets in A, bass clarinet, 2 bassoons, contrabassoon, 4 horns in F, 3 trumpets in C, 3 trombones, bass tuba, timpani, percussion, harmonium, celesta, harp and strings. The composer Alban Berg loved this work, and told Zemlinsky, “My deep, deep enthusiasm for your lyric symphony . . . must be acknowledged even though I now possess only a glimmer of the immeasurable beauties of the score. Yes, I would like to say, my decades-long love for your music has, in this work, received its fulfillment.” Listening to this work, it's quite clear why Berg had the reaction he did.
Here are some recordings of this wonderful work for you to enjoy!