Music and operas of Alexander Zemlinsky well worth exploring further

Alexander Zemlinsky, left, with Arnold Schoenberg.

“I always firmly believed that he was a great composer and I still believe this. It is possible that his time will come sooner than we think”

That was Arnold Schoenberg, speaking of his friend and brother-in-law, composer Alexander Zemlinsky, in 1949. It’s worth noting those words as the Canadian Opera Company prepares to open one of Zemlinsky’s operas, A Florentine Tragedy, at the Four Seasons Centre, on Thursday.

As was the case with a set of five songs by Zemlinsky with which Renée Fleming opened her recital last night, there is a lot to love about this Slovak composer with a Viennese connection.

Zemlinsky died outside of New York City 70 years ago, forced into exile by Nazi persecution. In its collective effort to start afresh at the end of World War II, the West swept much great music from between the wars — including Zemlinsky’s — under a Modernist rug.

It’s only been in the last couple of decades that musicians and scholars — people like Torontonians Simon Wynberg and the ARC Ensemble at the Royal Conservatory — have begun to appreciate the riches that were silenced and forgotten by the ravages of war, concentration camps and the passing of generations.

Zemilinsky, born in 1871, taught Schoenberg counterpoint and formed a deep friendship, cemented when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister. The two were central figures in a push toward new musical aesthetics in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century.

Zemlinsky’s primary jobs were as an opera conductor, composing on the side. He wrote four operas while music director at Vienna’s Volksoper, before the start of World War I.

His two one-act operas, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf — available on DVD featuring an excellent Los Angeles Opera production led by James Conlon) and Eine florentinische Tragödie, were both inspired by Oscar Wilde stories, and both were written while he was music director at the Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, from 1911 to 1927.

Steeped in a rigorous adherence to traditional compositional structure by his early mentor, Johannes Brahms, Zemlinsky stuck to tonal music, while also experimenting with some of the 12-tone techniques pioneered by his friend, Schoenberg.

The result is music with a slippery tonal centre, but is usually capped by a strong melodic line. Zemlinsky was a strong, large-scale tone painter — a strength in the opera house as well as a symphony hall.


In its ongoing Opera Exchange programme, the Canadian Opera Company has organized an interesting seminar tomorrow morning at University of Toronto’s Edward Johnson Building that should provide a lot of insight into Zemlinsky as well as A Florentine Tragedy.

For all the details, click here.


Here is Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 1, from 1896, performed by Vienna’s Artis Quartett:

John Terauds


3 thoughts on “Music and operas of Alexander Zemlinsky well worth exploring further

  1. The string quartets are gorgeous. He wrote four of them, if memory serves. The first is very firmly planted in the late-late-Romantic era, as you can hear; the subsequent quartets get less “tonal” and much more abstract.

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