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.
We all know what experimental music is, right? It’s horrible to the ear, dissonant, no structure, no sense, so why bother? But what if you blend experimental composing techniques with folk dances? What if this would be done by a composer well-known for his movie soundtracks (Drowning by Numbers, Gattaca, The Piano)? What if this would culminate in extraordinary creative, stimulating and powerful string quartets?
A few hours before I started to write this post, the death of Pierre Boulez made the headlines. A controversial person, if I trust my Twitter timeline. Was he the chief representative of contemporary classical music? Of French contemporary classical music? A polemic person and a conductor with too much political influence? As a matter of fact, I am not sure that these questions matter. Music matters.
Darkness. Tchaikovsky comes to my mind. Oppression. Shostakovitch is not far. Fear… may be Rachmaninov? But then there is light! Strauss! It must be Strauss. It isn’t. It’s Arnold Schönberg. Wait, the rebel from Vienna, he cannot have written such a piece? There is tonality. And chromaticism*. And melody and all you would not expect. Well, Schönberg wanted to go beyond the existing means of musical expression, but to get there, he first had to work his way through precisely those traditional means of musical expression.