Alexander von Zemlinsky is a fairly under-represented composer, who, in my opinion, is a fantastic composer that contributed some beautiful orchestral music in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Born in Vienna in 1871, Zemlinsky was surrounded by some huge names in late romanticism, such as Mahler and Brahms, which of course would inspire anybody to start writing orchestral music! Brahms was a notable fan of Zemlinsky’s and after he attended the premieré of his first symphony in D minor in 1893 he supported the young budding composer until his passing in 1897.
The First Symphony in D minor was composed mostly in 1892 and was polished off and premieréd in 1893. I find this work a wonderful musical journey that is incredibly impressive since Zemlinsky composed this at the tender age of 21. The first movement, marked Allegro Ma Non Troppo is a wonderful opening to this work as it establishes a memorable melody soon into the piece. Zemlinsky takes this and manipulates the melody to create variations of it, a technique he no doubt acquired from Brahms. The movement is full of rich colour and a luscious late-romantic sound due to the wonderful mixing of sounds throughout the woodwinds, brass and of course, strings. I really love this first movement, I find it a complete joy to listen to and I always feel that this movement is Zemlinsky’s first real attempt (after studying at the Vienna Conservatory) of writing a mass orchestral piece.
The second movement is another lively snapshot into Zemlinsky’s creative mind as it highlights his skill in writing interesting, yet also highly intelligent music. It has been commented that this movement reveals a subtle humour in the musical writing, which can perhaps be heard in the call and respone motifs between the strings in the first half of the movement. A hymn-like section takes over in the middle section of this movement, which is ridden with some fantastic chord progressions which makes this movement much more congeniable than perhaps the first or last movement of this symphony. The characters heard in the first two movements really compliment one another as they essentially keep the energy high and the listener interested in the music.
The third movement is perhaps the most effective of all the movements, with scholars commenting that Zemlinsky uses Schubertian lyricism to create a contemplative movement. Personally, I am always intrigued and drawn to the slower movements within symphonies as I feel you can work out the roots of the composers thought processes slightly more. This movement is no exception, with a not so mournful, but pensive and reflective feel to the music, it takes you quite on the emotional journey. This kind of music, for me, makes me really sit and think about the wonders of music and how it can make you feel, whether that be good or bad. The heavenly strings compliment the delicate winds in this movement and the timbre of the whole movement is just so rich that you can’t help but enjoy it (even if its just a little bit!).
The fourth and final movement of this tremendous symphony reminds me of one of my favourite composers, Anton Bruckner. With his use of rich harmonic language and orchestral writing in this movment, Zemlinksy really shadows Bruckner’s highly successful technique in mass orchestral writing. This movement really emphasises Zemlinsky’s technique to make his music colourful. Now what I mean by colourful is that he utilises the timbre, texture and instrumentation to create light and shade within the music, which essentially creates a colourful array of motifs, which reflect those from movement 1. This movement is perhaps the first where Zemlinsky really starts breaking out of his shell more, and really starts developing his ideas further and he consequently creates a grand finale to this symphony.
I really enjoy the works of Zemlinsky and he is a really interesting composer to me, as in his lifetime he was told he had so much potential and that he was going to be the next ‘big thing.’ Yet his life didn’t fold out like that sadly, and for the most part, 90% of his music has either been lost, forgotten or simply put aside as his contemporaries surpassed him and his work. Composers such as Schoenberg and Mahler have been much more successful and well remembered than Zemlinsky has, and although those composers are wonderful, I feel that Zemlinksy really ought to have more coverage for his wonderful music. Do have a listen to his other symphonies, trios and chamber music works as they are wonderful and really encapsualte the sound of late nineteenth-century. A forgotten gem of a composer, and that is a great shame.
Recommended Recordings –
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra – Anthony Beaumont (Conductor)
This is perhaps my favourite recording of this symphony, the recording is fantastic, and the orchestra have grasped the Zemlinsky style very well indeed – enjoy!