Performed by the Lasalle Quartet
Oh, Mr. Zemlinsky (von Zemlinsky?), what a life you must have had, but how few people know of you now. This piece we will talk about today, the fourth and final of your string quartets, was dedicated to a student of your student, Alban Berg, whose piano sonata we recently talked about. It is the only piece of yours I own or have heard, but I am intrigued and interested in what else you have to offer, and for the third and final part of our music-I-enjoy-and-appreciate-but-don’t-really-understand-so-can’t-say-anything-terribly-constructive-or-educational-or-useful-about-so-take-this-with-a-grain-of-salt series, we end up here. I am interested in your music because of your life story, how it ended, and the connections you had.
I actually had quite some difficulty deciding which order these three pieces should be posted in. If we did it based upon who taught whom, it would be Zemlinsly, Schoenberg, Berg, but chronologically, Zemlinsky’s piece was written years after Berg’s and to me, that is the more useful order, especially since
it was dedicated to the latter, so that’s how it stuck. Also, the Berg sonata isn’t like the other two string pieces, but I wanted to feature Berg’s piano sonata, so none of his string works have entered my rotation yet, although I did listen through his violin concerto earlier in the week.
Perhaps some background on Alexander Zemlinsky to start.
I won’t get into a lot of detail, on second thought, because it’s all at his Wikipedia article, but this dude had serious connections.
His family converted to Judaism, and he was raised Jewish. His father added the ‘von’ to the family name, even thought they were not ever ennobled. He was admitted to the Vienna conservatory in 1884, and studied under Anton Door. One of his composition teachers was Anton Bruckner, which was when he began really writing music, and despite the Bruckner connection, Brahms still proved to be an important connection for him. He attended performance of at least one of Zemlinsky’s pieces, promoted some of his others. This, needless to say, helped his career.
He later met Arnold Schoenberg in Polyhymnia, an orchestra in which Zemlinsky played cello and helped to found. They became close friends and Schoenberg eventually married Zemlinsky’s sister. As stated earlier, Zemlinsky was Schoenberg’s only formal music teacher.
His second symphony was a success, and Mahler himself even conducted one of Zemlinsky’s operas.
He then fell in love with one of his composition students, Alma Schindler, but she was given pressure from her family to end the relationship, basically because he was not super popular and apparently unattractive. She left him and instead married none other than Gustav Mahler. Ouch.
He married twice, the first of which was less than happy, but he stuck with it until his first wife died, whereupon he married a woman 29 years younger than him to whom he’d given singing lessons and was much happier. The marriage lasted until his death.
He went on to work under Klemperer in Berlin, then escaped to Vienna during the rise of the Nazi party. He then moved to America to see his student Schoenberg’s success there in contrast to his own relative obscurity and neglect. He died in 1942 of pneumonia after a series of strokes. I feel sorry for this guy.
If you know anything about this piece on a professional or historical level, skip the next six paragraphs, and if you want a succinct, clear, straightforward and easy to read explanation of the piece, check this out. Thank you.
The first movement, the ‘prelude’, isn’t actually any less significant or noticeably shorter than any of the other five movements. It begins almost lethargically. It feels almost directionless and kind of confused, until it builds and builds and it’s like all the lines are finally kind of settling in and getting intertwined and there’s a moment (right at about 2:10 in my recording) where it’s like they all sigh at the same time and there are nice harmonies and it’s not until about twenty seconds later that an actual melody you can sink your teeth into shows up, but by this time, the movement is almost over. There’s something catchy but also kind of unstable, perhaps in the tonality, about this little section, but all in all, not a whole lot happens, and the movement rather dies out in the same mood in which it began, except with quite a nice little cadence at the end.
This is in stark contrast with perhaps my favorite movement, the burlesque. I think I probably like it because it’s crunchy and heavy and intensely rhythmic and passionate. It’s almost slightly grotesque. There’s lots of trickly, chatty, kind of vulgar pizzicato here at the beginning, and I quite like the orchestration. I haven’t seen the score, but there sounds to be lots of interaction and question and answer type activity, and it feels busy even with only four instruments. It really comes to life around 1:20, and I love the use of textures and what I think is col legno and/or pizzicato because it’s the coolest, crunchiest most alien sound I’ve ever heard come from string instruments. Perhaps it’s Bartok pizz…. who knows? Anyway, there is quite a lot of harrowing sort of unnerving energy in this movement, and toward the end it feels like a new movement, but it’s just an entirely new section, and it comes in on my recording at about 3:40. It’s contrastingly harmonic and almost peaceful, but just before the end of the movement, the same tinkering unsettling energy comes back and closes with two big pizzicato chords.
The third movement, the adagietto, is the shortest of the six. It’s also the first I could sort of digest or comprehend emotionally. It sounds almost mourning or sorrowful, and it’s probably easiest to grasp at first because it has a more recognizably tonal harmony, relatively straightforward. It’s not richly, simply sorrowful like Barber’s adagio, the typical sad string orchestra piece, but at least relative to the nature of the apathetic first movement and busy, frenetic second, it’s quiet and melodic and also less than cheerful.
The fourth movement, however, the intermezzo, also not short despite its name, almost has a spring in its step. I feel like, although being so late in the piece, it’s like we are finally introduced to an important theme we should pay attention to, something significant, as if this is the core of the piece. I don’t know. There’s a continuity to this movement that makes it feel relevant. There’s a cool climax in the middle of the movement, and the opening theme is modified toward the end before it is fully quoted and the movement ends.
The fifth movement is Thema mit Variationen that opens with a pretty show-stoppingly emotional cello solo. This passage potentially has the greatest impact of any in the piece. It demands attention, and is full of sorrow and motion. The other strings come in, almost as if to comfort, and the same tone continues throughout the piece. It’s compassionate and sorrowful. A violin and viola both have distinct ‘speeches’ in this piece, at one point they both interact over a low bass line in the cello. There are distinct sections (the variations) in this movement, and they each have a slightly different feel. There is clearly a section that feels more at peace or restful than the others, and ends about a minute before the end of the piece. The end of this movement sounds to echo bits of earlier movements. I enjoy the cello in this movement. It carries the other three voices as they do their thing, and then this movement ends abruptly again with one pizzicato note and the sixth movement begins attaca.
The finale is a Doppelfugue. It sounds similar to other passages in the piece, but with a clearly-structured counterpoint (at least clear relative to the rest of the piece? I don’t know. Again, this is all conjecture. I have no idea what I’m talking about). Again, this last movement feels somewhat like the first, in that what’s going on is interesting, but I don’t quite understand exactly why so or what’s going on, but more so here than in some of the other movements. There are very interesting harmonies in the last minute or so of this movement, and it’s almost surprising to hear all four voices having come together and working almost in sync with each other in such a richly harmonic way, and this energetic buildup takes us all the way to the end of the piece, again almost abruptly.
From my extremely unprofessional and rather brief description, you may think that I don’t care much for this piece. That’s really not true. I think it is very interesting, but I just don’t know how to feel about it.
I suspect Zemlinsky here is using means beyond my grasp to express himself, and by that I mean tonality, harmonies, dissonances, that kind of thing rather than just composing cleanly tonal, non-chromatic, straightforwardly “classical” music that is readily defined as “sad” or “happy” or whatever.
I’ve listened to this quite a few times over the past six months or so, and keep coming back to it because I find it interesting sonically, that is, there are textures and effects and sounds and things that are unique in it (perhaps because I haven’t listened to enough 20th century string quartets), but still don’t know how to feel about it or how it should make me feel. Are those questions a listener should ask? I think so.
I listened to this a few times after Zemlinsky’s name came up in connection with Mahler, but it wasn’t until later that I realized the connection with Schoenberg and Berg, and that this piece is dedicated to the latter. After that, I began listening to it with Berg’s death in mind, and I’m not sure if that was intended by the composer either. The piece was dedicated to him, yes, but was it written with his death in mind, as if to mourn or commemorate him, or was it simply a piece to be published where a dedication to a fellow composer would prove to be a nice but unrelated gesture? I don’t know. There is precious little information about this piece, but I can’t help but listen to it from the standpoint of the former, as a memorial of sorts to Berg. The piece certainly has a melancholy and even at times frustrated or lost feel to me, which I suppose fits that description, but then again, it could be unrelated. I don’t know.
I want to understand this piece. I find it interesting, like a puzzle, sort of. But to be clear, it does not move me, as a whole. There are sections of it that, among the bustle and texture of the piece, stand out and strike me as sufficiently beautiful or noteworthy, but as a whole, I don’t feel a connection to this piece that tells a story or drags me along for a ride. But I want it to, and it has certainly piqued my interest in the composer’s other works, so if nothing else, there’s that.
But such is life, no? To have such connections, teachers like Bruckner, and Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, Robert Fuchs, supporters like Brahms, a friend of Mahler’s stature, and to end your life in the shadow (not because of him, but in it nonetheless) of your own student, what must that have been like? And did you take it in stride? I can only hope so.