lthough Edvard Erichsen's famous statue of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid currently adorns the harbor of Copenhagen, the muse of the musical tone poem by Alexander Zemlinsky is firmly rooted in the culture and ambiance of fin-de-siècle Vienna.
As has been true for most of its history, there were actually two Viennas in the decades preceding the first World War. One is the whipped-cream-and-operetta Vienna of popular imagination—prancing Lippezans, Strauss waltzes, fairy-tale rococo palaces and a flair for pastry unsurpassed anywhere in the world. That Vienna still exists, and countless tourists flock to it annually.
But Vienna has always had two faces, especially during the time that composer Alexander Zemlinsky lived and worked there before the first World War. The Imperial City was the capital of an empire that existed more in theory than practice; the growing nationalism of the previous century made the ethnic and cultural divisions between the Hapsburg Empire's constituent countries nearly insurmountable and would result, ultimately, in the collapse of the empire shortly after the start of World War I.
The chasm that separated the lower class from the upper class was also enormous, and vast portions of the Viennese population lived in squalor even as the emerging merchant middle class was settling into its impressive apartments along the newly constructed Ringstrasse that replaced the city's old medieval walls. These recently prosperous citizens increasingly turned their attention to artistic and intellectual pursuits, with the result that Vienna was unmatched as an incubator of exciting new developments in the realms of design, graphic arts, architecture, literature, theater and music.
The favorite gathering place for the intelligentsia behind all this creativity was the Viennese coffee house, an institution unique to that city. For the price of a cup of coffee, one could spend an entire day, reading newspapers, meeting with friends, sketching your newest essay or play—or plotting a revolution (Leon Trotsky was a habitué of the Café Central). There the Viennese could relax and indulge in their favorite pastime: gossip. One young woman who seemed to know something about everybody, and who would, throughout her life, provide plenty of fodder for the coffeehouse gossip mill, was Alma Schindler.
The daughter of a successful landscape painter, Alma was irresistibly drawn to men with creative genius. Alexander Zemlinsky, a promising conductor and composer of Viennese birth, came quite early in the annals of Alma's conquests. In 1900 she had become his piano and composition student. With striking pale-skinned beauty—she was said to have been the model for Gustav Klimt's portrait of Pallas Athena two years before she met Zemlinsky and would, in 1909, be immortalized as his Salome—and with the voluptuousness that was so fashionable at the time, she completely enchanted Zemlinsky. He was 29 and engaged to a local soprano, Melanie Guttmann, who ended the engagement after he became infatuated with his new student, and sailed to America.
Melanie's departure did not lead to a happy relationship between Zemlinsky and Alma. In contrast to her well-known beauty, he was considered decidedly unattractive, with a weak chin that only accentuated his oversized nose. Alma found herself simultaneously drawn, as she would always be, to genius, but also repulsed by his physical appearance. She would later write, "He's dreadfully ugly, almost chinless—yet I found him quite enthralling." She was also tactless enough to tell him as much, for which he suffered all of his life.
In 1901 Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde married another of her brother's students, Arnold Schoenberg, who would later break away from the entire Western tradition of tonality with the creation of his system of composition known as 12-tone music. During the same year, Alma broke off her relationship with Zemlinsky after she met the far more imposing Gustav Mahler and, within three months, married the famous symphonist and conductor of the revered Court Opera.
emlinsky was plagued by both relief that the merciless teasing the coquettish Alma had subjected him to was over, and grief at having lost so exquisite a creature. He poured his psychic torment into a three-movement tone poem based on Hans Christian Andersen's fairy tale The Little Mermaid. If you know that story only through the popular Disney film, then you don't really know the story. As it had with so many previous fairy tales, the Disney studios realized they would have to alter the original considerably to make it suitable for today's children.
Andersen's tale is one with which Zemlinsky could easily identify: the Little Mermaid, whose greatest gift was her beautiful voice—just as music was Zemlinsky's greatest gift—is consumed with love for a human prince she can never attain because of the body in which she was trapped. So obsessive is this love that she willingly sacrifices her most alluring feature by allowing an evil enchantress to cut out her tongue in payment for transforming her into a human. Her human body is beautiful and graceful, but every step she takes, whether walking or dancing, pierces her with a nearly unbearable pain. She has but a limited time in which to win the undying love of a human and thus gain for herself an immortal human soul, which the mer-people lack. And should she fail to do so, she will dissolve into the sea foam soulless, into an eternal blank void of non-existence. In the stark, non-Disneyfied world of Andersen, just as in Zemlinsky's, that life-saving love is not attained.
The agony of all that longing and unfulfilled love brims over in Zemlinsky's luciously romantic score of Die Seejungfrau ("The Mermaid"). Like Mahler and Richard Strauss, Zemlinsky would never make a decisive break from tonality; also like them, he would extend and stretch its limits, but always staying within them. Later in his life, Zemlinsky would declare, "A great artist, who possesses everything needed to express the essentials, must respect the boundaries of beauty even if he extends them far further than ever before." So do not be surprised if within Zemlinsky's rich, Wagnerian orchestrations you hear the sumptuous longing characteristic of the German Romantic tradition we know mainly from the scores of Strauss and Mahler, or even a soaring lyricism worthy of Tchaikovsky—one of the themes of the second movement recalls the Andante cantabile from his Fifth Symphony. Unlike his brother-in-law Schoenberg, Zemlinsky obviously felt no crisis in music's ongoing harmonic evolution, and he freely and gloriously revels in the newly ambiguous but always sensually alluring range of tonal music.
James Conlon's recording of Zemlinsky's The Mermaid, which is heard in the Music Examples on this page. Click here to listen to the entire piece.
In 1904 Zemlinsky and Schoenberg founded the Vereinigung schaffender Tonkunstler (Alliance of Creative Musicians) to further the cause of new music, and the following year the ensemble gave a concert at which it performed the world premieres of Zemlinsky's The Mermaid and Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande. At around the same time, Zemlinsky became engaged again, this time—just as Mozart had—to the sister of his former love, Melanie. He married Ida Guttmann in 1907, but their marriage was not a happy one, and in true fin-de-siècle Vienna style, Zemlinsky engaged in numerous liaisons throughout his marriage.
or was his the only unhappy marriage being discussed by the Viennese gossips; in 1908, his sister Mathilde left Schoenberg for an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl. Schoenberg's colleagues Alban Berg and Anton Webern, along with her own brother, eventually convinced Mathilde of the necessity of returning to her husband. Afterwards Gerstl, whose work included portraits of the Schoenbergs and of Zemlinsky, killed himself at the age of 25.
"Happily ever after" apparently was as absent from turn-of-the-century Vienna as it was in the fairy tales of Hans Andersen, and Alma's marriage to Mahler was not an easy one. He required her to give up her own aspirations to compose, and he was battling mental demons of his own, leading him in 1910 to seek the advice of none other than Sigmund Freud.
After her husband's death in 1911, Alma began a tempestuous three-year affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka that she described as "one sole, vehement love struggle . . . Never before had I experienced such strain, such hell, such paradise." Once again leaving an enduring work of art in her amorous wake, Alma was immortalized as one of the two beleaguered lovers in Kokoschka's 1914 painting The Bride of the Wind. [He would later, after the war, scandalize the citizens of Dresden by showing up at theaters or restaurants with a life-size doll he had made and painted to resemble Alma. This strange interlude in Kokoschka's life was the subject of Ravinia's 2003 workshop production of the musical Doll. He further scandalized Viennese society decades later when he wrote that Alma had aborted his child.]
Alma next married the architect Walter Gropius, who would become famous as a founder of the Bauhaus school of architecture and design, but this love ran no more smoothly than any of the others, and while still married to him, Alma once again fueled coffee-house gossip when she had an affair—and most likely an illegitimate son (Alma wasn't certain who the father was) with the writer Franz Werfel, who was 11 years younger than she. Gropius was left with no alternative but to grant her a divorce, and she married Wefel, settling with him in a Viennese suburb where they entertained such guests as Thomas Mann, H.G. Wells and Sinclair Lewis. After Alma and Franz escaped the Nazis to California, where a couple of Werfel's works were converted to Hollywood films (the most famous being The Song of Bernadette), and where she continued to preside over gatherings that included the likes of Max Reinhardt, Igor Stravinsky, Benjamin Britten, Bruno Walter and, again, Thomas Mann. Following Werfel's death in 1951, Alma moved to New York, where she lived the rest of her life in a two-room apartment, dying in 1964.
Zemlinsky, who in 1911 had left Vienna for a conducting position at the New German Theater in Prague, took on a 14-year-old voice student named Luis Sachsel in 1914, the same year that the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand in Sarajevo would trigger the events leading up to World War I. By the time the war ended and Luise was 20, she had fallen in love with her teacher. Alexander considered divorcing his wife in 1920 to marry Luise, but unselfishly decided not to after his wife's health suddenly deteriorated.
His relationship with Luise would fill the void of a meaningless marriage until Ida's death in 1929. Within a year, he married Luise, who would stay with him through his 1938 immigration to New York until his death in relative obscurity in 1942. He had suffered through a traumatic love affair with Alma, a loveless marriage, two world wars and cultural exile, but Zemlinsky, in Luise, had apparently finally found the selfless and undying love that could have saved the heroine of his masterwork, Die Seejungfrau.
Essay by John Schauer Associate Director of Communications at Ravinia Festival Editor of Ravinia Program Magazine