It's taken more than a hundred years for the Viennese composer Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) to experience a reboot of his reputation as a first-rate creator of symphonies, tone poems, songs and operas. In his time, he was praised as a conductor of the standard repertoire but remained obscure as a composer and was so lax in promotion of his own music that much of his output was not even published or copyrighted till the late 20th century! Nowadays, there are many new Zemlinsky recordings and several biographies as new generations discover him. He would probably feel more astonished than vindicated by all this belated attention because, as a personality, he was so passive on his own behalf. But he was contradictory, too: seemingly ashamed of his own presence, yet proud of his skills and resentful of neglect. "What do you think!" he complained in 1916; "Here I am, valiantly slaving away making music, still convinced that talent, energy, seriousness and idealism are better qualities than a big mouth, money, and connections. Yet nobody thinks of me..."
In researching the case of Zemlinsky for a chapter in my recent book, Crisis Music: Life and Times of Six 20th Century Composers (Sussex Academic Press), it seemed that there were two main crises or career blockages in his story that he could never quite get past. As troubles, they both enriched and limited his music and, in the case of one opera which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, they made Zemlinsky reach deep inside, producing the strange and painful opera called Der Zwerg or The Dwarf, Op. 17 whose score and first performance date from 1922.
One crisis or block Zemlinsky felt all his life was the fact that he longed desperately to be seen as a modern, progressive 20th century composer like Mahler or Strauss but, instead, his typical music was firmly 19th century in kind and character. This may seem like a minor aesthetic issue so long as the music itself was excellent, but to him it was a sore point. But even more nagging was a second source of crisis, indeed of humiliation. At a Viennese society party, he was introduced to the wife of Gustav Mahler, the glamorous, amorous Alma Schindler Mahler and, quickly overwhelmed by her flirtations, he began a passionate affair with her, never realizing that she was playing with him all along. To his face, she declared her devotion while in her private diary she wrote, "How absurd that he wants to marry me. Imagine us at an altar; he so short and ugly; me so tall and elegant. Should I go on deceiving him?"
Alma was already a famous society flirt, eventually coupled with so many other gentlemen-on-the-rise like Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius circa 1910, the writer Franz Werfel, and others. (Even very late in her life, the conductor Leonard Bernstein reported that she tried to seduce him.) It was said that all these affairs and Alma's general peacock attitude toward the Vienna society of the day surely contributed to her husband Gustav's early death. But to Alexander Zemlinsky, her attentions were irresistible: he was a romantic at heart and easily seduced. The tale is obvious from there: she swamped him, under the ruse of taking a few vocal lessons from him, and then just basked in his admiration (while carrying on elsewhere). Only gradually did he realize he was being used, and that personal crisis, coupled with the professional crisis of "not being modern enough," hounded him henceforth. How deeply compromised he was by these internal pressures and how personally he took them is shown by how quickly and completely, how honestly and heartbreakingly he turned the whole private shame into public music; in this case, the opera Der Zwerg about a deformed dwarf in love with a spoiled-brat-of-a-princess.
The source for this opera's libretto (by Georg Klaren) was a short story by Oscar Wilde set in the Spanish/Moorish court of a young princess or "infanta," Donna Clara. It was called "Birthday of the Infanta". In Wilde's scandalous tale, the spoiled princess is just 12 years old and one of her birthday gifts from a foreign sultan is "a human dwarf who will dance for you and whose reputation as a singer precedes him from distant lands." He may have a beautiful voice, this dwarf, but bodily, "he is a freak of nature's cruelty, stunted and misshapen." Donna Clara, the infanta, receives this gift as though it were a toy, there for her amusement.
Of this plot -- naïve male versus the callous female -- Zemlinsky said, "The libretto suits me uncommonly well." Clearly, he identified with the hapless dwarf and he began work on the opera in an emotional fervor. One additional wrinkle in Wilde's story is that the dwarf had always fancied himself to be a handsome and noble knight, somehow never having seen himself in a mirror. The infanta, charmed by his singing, is intrigued by his uniqueness. Sadly, the dwarf interprets this playfulness as love and he falls for her, heedless of how others will see him.
In the opera version, Donna Clara is 18 years old, a much more suitable age than Wilde's child, to be portrayed by an operatic soprano. The dwarf is cast as a lyric tenor. For music to set the scene of this Spanish court, Zemlinsky begins with a Moorish styled orchestral preface, not quite a fanfare but a flourish in keeping with the elegant garden, fountain, and tapestries of the infanta's court. Servants are preparing her birthday ball and festivities; we meet the princess's maid, the court chamberlain, and various royal playmates; then, after five minutes, the infanta herself enters and her vocal lines are a recitative counterpoint to the ongoing orchestral score. This is the relationship between vocal and orchestral writing that Zemlinsky meant when he described The Dwarf's score as "continuously flowing" – i.e. a score that does not often stop for character-arias or isolated melodies like a Puccini opera, but presses forward along a narrative line with vocal and instrumental parts equally prosaic, lyrical but seldom songlike. It is a score of motifs rather than themes: the characteristics of the infanta (callousness, narcissism), aspects of the dwarf's reaction, details of the Spanish court, even of the birthday ball itself, each receive their own separate motifs which the music, not slavishly nor always, then associates with them. But, again, these are not outright themes; just motifs. Only a couple of times does the opera stop for a short, separate song such as the dwarf's formal ballad of courting, or for one of the birthday ball dances. Otherwise, the score follows the narrative, with vocal and orchestral lines intertwined. And Der Zwerg needs this constant forward motion because there is so little demonstrable action to watch on stage: it is a psychological, even psychoanalytical libretto a hundred years before its time. Thus, we get the poignant but also bizarre spectacle of the dwarf, musically sophisticated but physically deformed dwarf, standing before the perfect prim princess, singing lavish love lines to her while her courtiers snicker.
Of the music hereabouts, it is unusual to find Zemlinsky admitting for the first time in my experience that his writing in Der Zwerg is "by no means modern". Usually, as I have been saying, he wrote under the impression that he was a fully contemporary composer writing up-to-date music, though others saw him differently (shades of the dwarf without a mirror). And in so saying, Zemlinsky would seem to be doubly honest: admitting he's not the modern composer he would wish to be while also, regarding this opera's plot, sublimating himself into the disturbing character of the misshapen dwarf. What a harsh confessional for such a composer. As Beaumont writes, "In private, Zemlinsky had often been the object of Alma's pity and disgust – to compose an opera on so sensitive a theme as his own physical appearance seemed a particularly disturbing form of self-abasement – his family tried to dissuade him." But the process of writing Der Zwerg was also an exercise in self-purification for Zemlinsky. Searing cleanses a wound.
Just a word here about Zemlinsky's actual physical appearance: in photos as a lad he certainly resembled what we would call today a shy awkward nerd and, as a young man, he grew only to 5'2". With maturity, his features became more pointed and birdlike and, as pressures mounted and disappointments pursued him over the years, a dour expression was typical. Even so, he certainly never appeared "misshapen" or grotesque as the dwarf is said to be. To me, Zemlinsky appears like anyone's memory of a tenured maths professor or any trim bank clerk, perhaps a preoccupied great-uncle – certainly not the ogre that Alma (and not the operatic infanta) mocked. He was being overly punitive comparing himself to this dwarf; but, of course, it is the situation he is really referencing: the dilemma one-way romance.
But back to the musicality of Der Zwerg. Even if it is not a broadly tuneful opera, it does contain much of the most passionate music Zemlinsky ever wrote. Orchestral music is of a decorative nature, the more to contrast the dwarf's growing infatuation with the princess which is scored in increasingly lyrical lines. And even without stand-alone songs and arias, the opera's narrative storytelling score is composed-through – that is, it follows lines and logic of its own without needing to resort to song. Ariosos like the dwarf's "I don't know what love is..." or the chief maid's lament about how the princess "torments the poor dwarf" are lyrical descants that could be extracted if desired but they also fit naturally into the ongoing narrative scoring. Major and minor keys juxtapose in one in these scenes, hinting at the growing alarm the infanta feels as she starts to panic, realizing she has become the object of someone's obsession. She sings desperately at him while he rhapsodizes back at her. The music here becomes what biographer Antony Beaumont calls "the perfect illusion of a love duet". Toward the end, Donna Clara conspires with her chief maid to trick the dwarf into encountering his own reflection (for the first time, remember) in a mirror...to realize how he appears to the world and, therefore, the obvious absurdity (in the infanta's mind) of ever sharing love with someone as perfect as she. Zemlinsky blends the music's surging emotion with a harmonic element of doom which is slowly dawning on us.
Doomed chords symbolizing unattainable love abound in Der Zwerg's final scenes but Zemlinsky is no gushing sentimentalist; there is no Wagnerian Liebestod in the climactic music here. The vocal lines blend functionally, as before, with the narrative orchestra. The dwarf is appalled by what he sees of himself in the mirror but still begs the princess to say he is handsome and that she will love him; she, on the other hand, decides that all this emotion is too much bother. As she backs away from the dwarf who is slowly dying of a broken heart, she pouts, "He is ridiculous now. My birthday gift is broken; what a pity. Such a nice toy once. But enough! I want to go back to the ball. I want to dance and play."
Zemlinsky not only wanted to be cherished by Alma as the dwarf coveted the princess; he also, remember, longed to be seen as a modernist composer and yet he admitted that this opera, at least, was limited to conventional harmonic roots. Even at its most intense, Der Zwerg relies on traditional tropes – harmonic shifts that the ear already recognizes: the reassuring Ab major becoming the troubled A minor and moving into chords that are the very voice of any unrequited love story. Thus, he would measure the success or failure of the opera by what critics said of its modernity; at least its relevance. In its premiere performance, for all the best aesthetic reasons, the opera was initially successful according to the Kolnische volkszeitung, May 1922, but then, as an operatic entertainment, its public quickly dropped off. Probably the experience of having to watch this long, foredoomed drama play-out between an unsympathetic brat and an inconsolable romantic proved too much of an audience burden – and there weren't even any stand-alone songs or interludes to climax the passionate narrative score.
One quasi-modern, even pre-cinematic, aspect to this music, though, is its occasional orchestral mimicry of the action on stage: instrumental illustration, such as the dark and sinister glissandos (slides) from the trombones underlining the almost-spooky way the dwarf initially appears to the maids of the court; or the flat, snarling sound of the solo English horn which seems to comment on the "cruel whim of nature" that some feel the dwarf represents while, on the other hand, the sweet and noble solo violin can be heard as the voice of the dwarf as he wishes he could be: a refined young cavalier!
In spite of that lukewarm reaction 100 years ago, Zemlinsky's fellow composers did appreciate the skill and passion that went into The Dwarf and when, in the 1980s, an unexpected Zemlinsky renaissance began, his dwarf was roused as well. A complete performance and recording were produced by James Conlon in 1991 for EMI Classics with David Kuebler in the title role. Heard today (and it should be), the narrative conviction of the full score with its lyrical outbursts, yet reticent attitude, seem all the more moving for its restraint. Like the unfulfilled anti-hero of this folk tale we, too, would love these crescendos to blossom out into full-fledged songs or anthems, but instead, they repeatedly reach and fall back. And therein, whether the composer realized it or not, lies the "modern" 20th century quality he longed for: understatement.
Eventually, Zemlinsky moved on from Alma once it was plain to him that she was an infanta herself. He made a fairly unsuccessful marriage, found good success as an opera and court conductor and fair success as a composer of orchestral works (like A Florentine Tragedy or Die Seejungfrau, The Mermaid – another unrequited love story), a Lyric Symphony, Op. 18 and other symphonies and chamber works – all music that is new to us now and that, whether or not it sounds "modern," sounds young.
Zemlinsky, because of his radically mixed cultural ancestry – part Jewish, part Catholic, part Muslim – fled Europe as WWII began and settled in New York state. There, he pursued what composing he could, while rather neglecting the works he had already written (including an attempt at a quasi-modern Sinfonietta full of polyphony that, at least, achieved a radio broadcast in his lifetime). But American orchestras were not quick to notice him. With typical American crassness, some New York agent was suggesting that paid work could be found for Zemlinsky writing pop songs in Manhattan under the name of Al Roberts! Clearly, the new world would not be accommodating to an elderly and peaky-featured Viennese immigrant composer – at least not for forty years yet. But then, inspired by the 1960s renaissance of Mahler's music across the world, people began looking into Alexander Zemlinsky – not yet welcoming the unsparing story of his dwarf, but intrigued by its poignant music, now 100 years young.
John Caps has written on music for High Fidelity/Musical America and the New York City Opera; and on film music for Film Comment, Film International, National Public Radio, The Cue Sheet, and the University of Illinois Press's "Music in American Life" series.
The author's latest book "Crisis Music: Life and Times of Six 20th Century Composers" has a chapter dedicated to Alexander Zemlinsky. The book can be found in good book stores including these links at Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.com.