Zemlinsky String Quartet no. 1 in A, op. 4

performed by the Lasalle Quartet or as below:

I’m not going to take the time now to discuss why Alexander von Zemlinsky is as important a name as it is and do an Influential People post or anything; I’m not even sure it merits that. What I will say is that (we have actually done a piece of his before and) he was Arnold Schoenberg’s only (or first, I forget) official composition instructor, and also the man to whom Alma Schindler was engaged and with whom she broke up to run off and marry one Gustav Mahler. Wikipedia says of his thing with Alma:

Alma felt a great deal of pressure from close friends and family to end the relationship. They were primarily concerned with Zemlinsky’s lack of an international reputation and by an unappealing physical appearance. She broke off the relationship with Zemlinsky and subsequently married composer Gustav Mahler in 1902.

Zemmy married one Ida Guttmann in 1907, and it is described as an unhappy marriage. She died in 1929, and a year later he married a former student of his, 29 years younger than he was, and they remained happily married until the composer’s death. So that’s good.

Anyway, I mention all of this to say that he was very much in the important musical/social scenes of his day. He was also Jewish, also moved to America (where he had far less success than Schoenberg did), and also later converted to Christianity (like Mahler did). He was respected as a conductor, and a handful of his compositions are still somewhat famous. But this is not the time to talk too much about that.

Let’s move on to the work at hand. The reason it is at hand is because I feel strongly that Zemlinsky is the (missing?) link between Brahms and Schoenberg. We’ve done a bit of Schoenberg recently, a piano work of his, his own first string quartet and the piano concerto, and it is widely known (isn’t it?) that Brahms took note of the young man’s talent, and even offered to pay his way through school, but that’s for another time. Back to AvZ. I feel he’s the link that connects the latest Brahms with the earliest Schoenberg.

He, too, was respected by Brahms. Wikipedia says:

In Johannes Brahms, Zemlinsky had a valuable supporter. In 1893, on the invitation of Zemlinsky’s teacher Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, Brahms attended a performance of Zemlinsky’s Symphony in D minor. Soon after that, Brahms attended a performance of one of Zemlinky’s quartets by the Hellmesberger Quartet. Brahms, impressed with Zemlinsky’s music, recommended the younger composer’s Clarinet Trio (1896) to the N. Simrock company for publication.[4]

Anyway, it didn’t take Schoenberg long in his published works to reach an idiom far beyond what Brahms likely would have been able to accept, but earlier on, in Zemlinsky’s early stages, we have what sounds to me like a perfect balance between the two, a bridge between the old and the new. That’s not to qualify AvZ as not his own composer, because he certainly has his own voice, as we saw years ago with his fourth quartet (to which I will not link), but it’s fascinating to hear a rich balance struck between these two worlds, as if it was one of the last things that the heavily-Romantic era would produce before it split in two.

The first string quartet “was the first work that the young Alexander von Zemlinsky showed the elderly Brahms”, says James Leonard at AllMusic. He continues:

Not only is Zemlinsky’s first quartet a remarkably self-assured piece of work for a 25-year-old composer, but it is written in a style that Brahms would have found highly congenial, the conservative Romanticism he himself espoused.

He elaborates on how the outer movements echo Beethoven and Schubert, while the inner ones speak more directly to Brahms as intermezzos. Let’s listen.

  1. Allegro con fuoco
  2. Allegretto – etwas schneller als früher (6/8 Prestissimo) – Tempo di allegretto
  3. Breit und kräftig
  4. Vivace e con fuoco

Leonard used the word ‘congenial’, since it was quite in line with Brahms’ idiom, but the music itself is quite welcoming and friendly regardless of who it might resemble. It has a cheerful bounce to it, but it isn’t just bubbly music. It’s in 6/8 time, which affords lots of rhythmic interest, shifting at time between suggesting duple or triple meter.

It has a rich Viennese expressiveness to it, and an easily identifiable structure. While the first theme has an identifiable buoyancy to it, the second is suddenly different, cooler, shaded but not dark, marked pp. It sounds almost rustic, and at first completely new, but shows itself to be not quite as new as you’d think. What follows is somehow at once in contrast but also in keeping with the first theme and we come across some more lyrical, less syncopated passages, which feel in someways like expanded, half-speed versions of the opening content.

These two (three?) delightful, enchanting melodies thankfully return for the repeat of the exposition. There was no introduction or anything, so the repeat goes right back to the top, and that opening gesture is easily identifiable, but it’s played just before the repeat and when it is, we realize we’ve snuck (not surprisingly) into E major, the original iteration showing up right after back in A.

This feels to me like such an approachable first movement. It’s comprehensible but not oversimplified, intriguing but not arcane. There’s plenty of texture and harmony to enjoy but it’s very followable. (Leonard makes mention of there being three themes to the first movement, but I’m not so sure that one of those isn’t just transitional material, because I never heard it as having three themes. Then again, I’m no professional). The development ends again with the opening figure in E major, but then shows up at the top of the development in A minor. One can easily see that all of this rich content, interesting both harmonically and rhythmically, will provide for a wonderful development, and AvZ uses it all expertly, identifiable recapitulation and all.

The second movement, marked allegretto,  is unassuming and simple, but by no means plain. There’s a straightforward quaintness to it. It begins with a repeated 16-bar phrase that leads to a secondary passage, sort of an A and B part before a dark, crunchy, but light and almost ominous stormy middle section. The opening was in 2/4; this is in 6/8. It gives the impression of an inside-out scherzo movement, with the pleasant trio on the outside and the fiery scherzo in the middle, dying out with one lone cello echoing the ominous figure before the opening cheery melody comes back, but this time in eery D minor, played by muted viola. Listen for that. It closes the way it began, as if nothing had ever happened, It’s the shortest movement of the work, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it isn’t breathtaking.

The third movement, marked Breit und Kräftig (broad and powerful), begins rather that way for what appears to be the slow movement. It is indeed broad, rich, moving at a more deliberate but elegant pace, like an enormous ship cutting through the ocean, not violently, but steadily and with purpose. There’s a lively middle passage that builds to an epic grandeur, with 6-plets before cooling back down.

The first movement is by far the longest, so after that, the other three move pretty quickly, but for their shorter stature, as we’ve seen, they still have plenty to say. Even with its livelier moments, the third movement was a slower, broader passage, but now we are to the finale, marked vivace con fuoco. The first movement had a con fuoco as well, and they’re both more of a lively, convivial nature than a furious, frenetic one. What stands out to me here in this 3/4 finale is the similarity to Brahms. I remember in his sextet, op. 18 how he played with the 3/4 meter, tying notes across bar lines, and giving other beats certain stress to make it a freer-sounding, more interesting rhythmic texture, and that stands out at me here, too. The other thing that jumps out is a certain friendliness, a broad smile coupled with musical rigor and a kind of effortless genius. It, too is in a sonata form, but Lasalle doesn’t observe the repeat, and in the development there’s this call-and-answer throughout the ensemble that sounds like a Wagnerian, heroic Flight of the Valkyries… perhaps if Brahms wrote it. It’s not really Wagnerian, but it does sound epic in its own petite, brief way. I don’t know how this couldn’t bring a smile to every player’s face as they round out a tightly-constructed, warm, but also expressive and rich quartet, wrapping up with a breathtaking, triumphant coda.

The work is full of a youthful color and vibrance, brimming with personality and inventiveness, potential to do lots of great things, and I sit here now finding myself wondering why I haven’t paid more attention to the man who wrote such a wonderful work at only 25 years old. If Brahms gave him the stamp of approval, he must have been doing something right, right? Well, he’s got two more quartets left for us to enjoy, among much else, so we’ll have to get around to that eventually, but for now, that’s all from Zemlinsky. I think this work shows us that classical music doesn’t always have to be about structural, formal ingenuity and heavy-handed music theory stuff, but can also be just richly, blissfully enjoyable to listen to. So if you’ve made it this far and haven’t listened yet, then go do that. And stay tuned for another little treat tomorrow.

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