By Mary Nemet | From the September-October 2021 issue of Strings magazine
Born in Vienna in 1871, Alexander Zemlinsky studied piano and composition with Fuchs and Bruckner at the Vienna Conservatory. Brahms, after hearing the 25-year-old’s clarinet trio, declared, “He is bursting with talent,” and immediately sent the work to his own publisher, Simrock. He ultimately became the young prodigy’s mentor.
Zemlinsky: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15
G. Henle Verlag, $59.95
Zemlinsky finished writing his String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15, in 1915. With its brooding intensity and surges of vitality in the first movement, the melodramatic lyricism of the Andante, and the dazzling final Allegro, this end-of-century Romantic music on a grand scale remains one of his most frequently performed works. However, all of Zemlinsky’s four quartets seem underrated and are rarely heard, even though aficionados rate them to be as compelling, in their Viennese way, as Bartók’s famous six. They generally acknowledge that Quartets Nos. 2 and 4 are masterpieces.
First performed by the Rosé Quartet in 1916, the Second Quartet’s experimental language, with its barely discernible tonal centers, was included along with the Debussy Quartet in a “Contemporary Evening” concert. Zemlinsky’s student Schoenberg reported: “The performance lacked style.” A second recital by the Feist Quartet in 1919 was much more successful. As Webern reported, “The musicians were enthralled by the work and played with great zeal.” The parts were published shortly thereafter.
Fifty years elapsed before the celebrated La Salle Quartet reclaimed the quartets in the 1970s, making a significant case for Zemlinsky’s work with their dazzling performances and recordings.
One amongst many in the Jewish diaspora to escape Nazism, fleeing to New York in 1938, the composer seemed poised for great success but failed to regain his initial triumphs and fame in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. This is perhaps because his contemporaries, Wagner, Mahler, Schoenberg, Berg, and Korngold, were in the ascendancy. Zemlinsky’s distinctive voice stands between times and styles, neither revolutionary modernist nor die-hard traditionalist, and resists the journey of his pupil Arnold Schoenberg into atonality.
Zemlinsky’s four quartets are rarely mentioned alongside those of Schoenberg and Berg, Janáček and Bartók. Yet his superb six-movement Second Quartet is richly expressive in its advanced harmony and tonal ambiguities, with a variety of color and thematic material; indeed, it is astounding in its vitality and diversity. Zemlinsky’s inventiveness and sudden changing moods grip the listener’s attention throughout its highly charged emotional material. Creatively and restlessly pushing the boundaries of late Romanticism to its limits, Alexander Zemlinsky produced a significant contribution to 20th-century quartet literature.
In this new critical edition, Henle has corrected errors and inaccuracies in the first 1920 edition, after careful comparison with autograph sources in Vienna and Washington. Also, for the first time, metronome markings that survive only in one of Zemlinsky’s letters have been added. Henle presents this unjustly overlooked and fascinating work together with a preface and critical comments in its customarily fastidious fashion.