A Mermaid Is Floating through the Score

 Claude Monet's garden in Giverny, close to Paris - the mermaid would have felt at home here. © Charles Thibo
Claude Monet’s garden in Giverny, close to Paris – the mermaid would have felt at home here. © Charles Thibo

The bassoons. Wide-spaced strokes of the timpani. The double-bass. Now, the strings. Waves. The flutes. Something is gliding through the water, breaking through the surface, ripples, moonlight, grace – a mermaid. In 1902/03, Alexander von Zemlinsky, a Viennese composer, wrote the wonderful symphonic poem “The Mermaid” that I want to present today. Zemlinsky was an early talent: At the age of 12, he attended already the conservatory of the Viennese Gesellschaft der Musikfreude*. He studied piano and composition and was being mentored by both Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler.

Championing Schönberg’s new ideas

Zemlinsky himself became the mentor of Arnold Schönberg, whom we have already met in an earlier post. Schönberg married in 1901 Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde, the two became lifelong friends. The elder composer championed Schönberg’s new approach to harmony and tonality even though his own composition style remained “old school”, pursuing extreme tonal chromaticism* as he had been taught by Mahler.

The symphonic poem, to be performed by a large-scale orchestra, had its premiere in January 1905 together with Schönberg’s “Pelleas and Mélisande”, but while Schönberg’s piece was widely acclaimed, Zemlinsky’s piece was barely noticed and forgotten… until 1984! Conducting different Vienna, Prague and Berlin based orchestras and teaching took up most of his time and in the 30s, with the rise of National-Socialism, Zemlinsky first emigrated to Vienna (1933), than to Prague (1938) and finally to the USA (1939) where he died in 1942.

Scattered over two continents

However the score of the first movement of “The Mermaid” had stayed in Vienna, while Zemlinsky had taken the score of the second and third movement with him to the USA. Part 1 turned up in a Viennese private collection, while parts 2 and 3 were part of the Zemlinsky collection of the Library of Congress. The Austrian Youth Symphony Orchestra, led by the German conductor and musicologist Peter Gülke, performed “The Mermaid” in 1984 for the first time after Zemlinsky’s death.

While the piece has been partly inspired by Hans Andersens fairy tale of the same name, it is widely believed that the piece reflects Zemlinsky’s love pain: Alma Schindler broke his heart when she married Gustav Mahler instead of him. The master robs the bride of his apprentice – now, this is stuff for a fairy tale, isn’t it? “The Mermaid” has been recorded by the Orchestre Philharmonique du Luxembourg, the album has been released two months ago.

© Charles Thibo

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de Chareli

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