Fin de Siècle

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As we confront the fin de siécle of the twentieth century with the hope and apprehension that often marks our self-consciousness about changing units of time, it is perfectly reasonable that we would want to reflect on the beginning of the current century, to learn what we can from our predecessors’ similar experience, to seek connection with them and so define our own place in history. Only after World War II did the beginning of the twentieth century become sufficiently removed to be made into an object of increasing historical and cultural fascination which, when selectively retold, can help to explain our own times. In Mahler’s music, for example, those elements have been emphasized which seem to suggest the seeds of modernity and a critical commentary on the claims of nineteenth-century romanticism. Mahler has come to embody the tortured loss of innocence about progress and reason with which we associate this century. Few in the early 1900s might have predicted that Mahler would emerge even as one of the most popular composers in the late twentieth century, let alone as a voice of modern angst. Mahler’s iconographic appeal has been triumphant among both general audiences and a very ambitious (if somewhat pretentious) school of intellectuals. At one time we thought that there was too much focus on Beethoven. We may now be approaching a similar phase with Mahler.

But in the years after the post-1960s Mahler craze, our fin-de-siécle penchant for historical reflection has initiated a reawakening of interest in his contemporaries–particularly Alexander Zemlinsky and Franz Schreker, both of whom are represented in this program. Chronologically, these composers are more colleagues of Arnold Schoenberg than of Mahler. Furthermore, unlike Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky managed to excel in the field of opera. Both composers were crucial to the evolution of opera in the years between Parsifal (1882) and Wozzeck (1925). Schreker died in 1934 and Zemlinsky less than a decade later (1942, in relative obscurity in Larchmont, New York). Their posthumous careers, however, were not helped by either of the two opposing phenomena of the early twentieth century which so influenced the course of modern musical art: Nazi aesthetics and anti-Semitism on the one hand, and the mid-century dominance of Schoenberg and Stravinsky as pillars of “authentic” modern music, on the other.

Indeed, the aesthetic world which shaped these three composers was not the radical novelty and chaos and turbulence of post-1918 Europe. In this sense, despite their closer temporal proximity to Schoenberg, Zemlinsky and Schreker aesthetically belong alongside Mahler. But it is also space as well at time which binds these three great figures together. All three were profoundly influenced by the city of Vienna, in which they all studied. Zemlinsky was among the most successful students of composition to come out of the Vienna Conservatory. Early in his career, he won extravagant praise and quickly became the elder statesman of the post-Brahms generation of Vienna. He taught Alma Mahler (with whom he had an affair), and Arnold Schoenberg (whose brother-in-law he would later become). After World War I, Zemlinsky was extremely active as a conductor in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin. But in the 1920s, his music seemed out of step and therefore fell out of fashion. Franz Schreker, who among other things, premiered Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder, became an important teacher in Berlin in the 1920s. His music too experienced some decline in popularity in the 1920s. In Schreker’s case, the early operas of Hindemith, the success of Kurt Weill, and of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck also lent Schreker’s music the aura of being reflective of a pre-World War I aesthetic. But whatever stylistic characterization one wishes to make, these two were great and prolific composers. Through the efforts of Christopher Hailey, Schreker’s modern biographer, and Antony Beaumont–and in the arena of performance, James Conlon–the music of these composers is finally getting a wider distribution.

Mahler, Zemlinsky, Schreker help us to understand the world of fin-de-siécle Vienna in a new and more complicated way. Vienna has long stood in the popular imagination as a center of elegant, insulated culture–the epitome of fanciful visions of European refinement lost after two world wars. Among scholars, fin-de-siécle Vienna has been generally characterized as a city whose people sensed impending doom, a culture “in decline” caught between conservative thinkers who fiercely resisted the coming firestorm of modernism and seminal innovators including Freud and Wittgenstein. But more recent revisions of Viennese history have suggested that, contrary to popular myth-making, modernism was embraced by many: Mahler was lionized in Vienna and extremely successful there. The important break with the tastes of the Viennese audience really occurred with Opp. 9 and 10 of Schoenberg (1907-8). But even in the case of Schoenberg, as the 1913 premiere of Gurrelieder points out, he too enjoyed success in that city. And if we long for the myth of the lost, bittersweet elegance of Viennese society, we might want also to acknowledge how deeply tainted it was by the ubiquitous anti-Semitism which all of these composers experienced.

The historical Vienna was actually defined not by refined frivolity, but by a pervasive cosmopolitanism with all its attendant richness and conflict. It was the center of medicine, science, philosophy, painting, architecture, and theater. Its huge immigrant community and polyglot quarters and neighborhoods lent its artists a remarkably diverse resource of traditions and cultures. True, the image of “old Vienna” in the years between 1780 and 1848 (Joseph II to Franz Joseph) was heavily sentimentalized, but this nostalgia filled the gap between two important historical legacies. One of these was the fact Vienna was a relatively new city, everything before 1683 having been destroyed by the Ottomans; it was therefore an urban landscape of Baroque splendor. The second factor was that as a city Vienna was constantly updating itself, as is best symbolized by the construction of the Ringstrasse. One of the clearest indications of Vienna’s aggressive cosmopolitanism was its pervasive interest in and borrowing from cultures beyond Europe. For example, Mahler’s use of Chinese elements in Das Lied von der Erde is well know. And the collection that Zemlinsky turned to for his Symphonic Songs, Afrika singt, was an extremely popular anthology of poems of the Harlem Renaissance translated –very loosely–into German.

Vienna consisted therefore of much more than the preconceptions we might cull from Freud, Klimt, and Mahler. It was an irresistible magnet to young people of talent. This was particularly true in music and theater; it is no accident that Zemlinsky and Schreker were opera composers and Mahler a great opera conductor. As young artists they were drawn to the city in which musical theater had dominated since the eighteenth century. But having made Vienna their base, where did these three budding legends of modernism go within that city to perfect their craft? What institution on the very forefront of the changing cycle helped each of them break his distinct path into the twentieth century? It was the Vienna Conservatory–an unlikely candidate indeed.

After 1875, Viennese musical life experienced a distinct divide in aesthetic taste between those who associated themselves with Wagner and those who allied with Brahms (though the opposition was not so strongly felt among the composers themselves). The Vienna Conservatory was largely dominated by friends of Brahms. The distinct sense from the mid-1870s on that, despite Bruckner’s presence on the faculty, the Conservatory was anti-Wagnerian and rather conservative was increased by the 1880s, when Brahms, who sat on the Conservatory board of directors, became a powerful force in the musical politics of the city.

One member of the faculty whom Brahms particularly admired was Robert Fuchs. It was through Fuchs’s classes at the Conservatory that all the younger composers on tonight’s program passed. Fuchs taught at the Conservatory from 1875 to 1912. His curriculum was profoundly traditional, reflecting his respect for historical forms and practices. In addition to the composers on tonight’s program, Fuchs taught Hugo Wolf, Franz Schmidt (between 1889-91), Jean Sibelius and Erich Wolfgang Korngold. Franz Schreker studied with Fuchs beginning in 1892, and again later studied composition with him. Fuchs considered Schreker “particularly talented” and “remarkably productive.” Fuchs made no secret of his skepticism about Schreker’s great masterpiece Die ferne Klang (from which tonight’s work is drawn), but Schreker retained throughout his life an enormous amount of affection for Fuchs. Their friendship extended through the period in which Fuchs composed his Third Symphony. Fuchs ultimately was very tolerant and relatively neutral with respect to the ambitions of his pupils, though his own compositions never embraced modernism. And many of Fuchs’s students were grateful for his insistence that they command a great variety of forms, particularly classical forms such as the serenade, in which, as Fuchs’s own successful Serenade demonstrates, the teacher himself excelled.

As a composer, Fuchs’s output of nearly 120 works is dominated by chamber music. The first Serenade from 1874 in D major was his first very well known work. There are also one published opera and many songs as well as choral works. The Third Symphony was written nearly a decade after Brahms’s death, and reflects a powerful command of the formal procedures of symphonic writing. But it is not nearly as conservative as one might imagine. The year of composition, 1907, was personally significant to Fuchs because it marked his sixtieth birthday and his award of an honorary pension from the Emperor himself. Fuchs’s remarkable knowledge of form and harmonic procedures are evident in this work; one has a glimpse of the highest standard of compositional practice and of accepted wisdom which a new generation confronted. These are the conventions of composition to which one can consider Schoenberg’s Treatise on Harmony from 1911 as a response.

That it is Robert Fuchs, emblem of Brahmsian conservatism, who should provide the common thread between three utterly disparate modernist composers, elucidates the lesson to be learned from the last fin de siécle. The connection of generations, teacher and pupil, and musical practices allow us to appreciate the evolutionary dimension of the shift from the late nineteenth century to expressionism and finally to modernism in the twentieth. The end of the cycle is therefore never a true rupture, no matter how great the differences in eras or stylistic surfaces seem to be. Rather, like Yeats’s “widening gyre” the new always carries at least some of history in itself.

Symphony No. 3, Op. 79 (1907)

By Benjamin M. Korstvedt, University of Iowa

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

For more than thirty-five years Robert Fuchs (1847-1927) taught harmony and music theory at the Vienna Conservatory, where his students included figures as diverse as Hugo Wolf and Jean Sibelius. Today’s program includes the work of the teacher as well as that of three of the finest composers who passed through his classes: Mahler, Zemlinsky, and Schreker. One of the most obvious results of this juxtaposition is to highlight the stylistic distance between the teacher and his students, all three of whom were imbued in various ways with the spirit of modernism, however differently they expressed it. In this company what is most striking about Fuchs’s symphony is its resolute traditionalism. Not only does the work hew closely to the established symphonic forms and the classic four-movement scheme, but it clearly does not share the impulse toward novel harmonic, timbral, formal, or expressive strategies that Mahler, Zemlinsky, and Schreker shared. In its harmony, orchestration, and expressive range Fuchs’s music seems more typical of the 1870s or 1880s than the 1900s.

While Fuchs was undoubtedly not a musical progressive, his apparent conservatism is not simply a reflection of a refusal to stay “up to date” or an eschewal of the trappings of musical modernism. Unlike Mahler and Zemlinsky, to say nothing of Schoenberg, Fuchs did not partake of the tradition–which stemmed from Schopenhauer and Wagner–that understood music as an expression of metaphysical meanings or deep symbolism and, not incidentally, was the source of many of the most important musical innovations in the later nineteenth century. Rather, Fuchs’s music seems to embody the aesthetic of his older colleague at the Vienna Conservatory, Eduard Hanslick, who rejected the idea that the aim of music was to plumb philosophical depths or encode psychological states and argued instead that musical beauty derived essentially from the creation of “regular and pleasing” sonic forms. It is no accident that Fuchs achieved his first and greatest success as a composer with his five Serenades (his First Serenade of 1874 was an instant hit), a genre far more concerned with direct melodic and rhythmic appeal than with the meaningful rhetoric and expressive symbolism of the late Romantic symphony. Fuchs wrote a total of five serenades and three symphonies (1884, 1887, and 1907). In addition he wrote a piano concerto (which won the composer a prize from the Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde in 1881), forty chamber works, a variety of pianos works, including three sonatas and many character pieces, some fifty songs, three masses, and two operas, neither of which was a theatrical success.

Fuchs’s Symphony No. 3, his last work in the genre, followed its two predecessors (which date from 1884 and 1887) by some 20 years. The work recalls the music of Fuchs’s friend Brahms in style and tone, and especially in its high craftsmanship. (Indeed several passages seem virtually to paraphrase the older, greater composer. ) It has something of the serenade about it too, with its relative smallness of dimensions and scope, its prominent use of the woodwinds, and its rhythmic crispness. The symphony is in the standard four-movement scheme, and its formal patterns are not hard to follow. The first movement (Allegro moderato) is built around two nicely delineated main themes, which are clearly laid out in the exposition. The opening theme, which is introduced by the oboe, is rather Brahmsian in its tightly wound rhythm, its metrical swing (the movement begins in 6/4), and its momentary minor-key colorations. The second theme is much more suave, with its graceful accompaniment and its staccato woodwinds. The movement works through the conventional pattern of development section followed by recapitulation, which clearly brings back the main themes of the movement.

The second movement (Andante con variazioni in A-flat major) is an expansive theme and variations in the best Viennese style, and again makes great use of the winds instruments. It begins rather formally, with its clear divisions and alternations, and it seems as if this is to be a movement with no great pretensions. Yet about two-thirds of the way through, a minor-key variations grows into an impressive, gravely impassioned episode that grants the movement an unexpected depth.

The third movement, which is marked Allegro scherzando (C major), is almost neo-classical in its regularity of form (Scherzo-Trio-reprise of the Scherzo). The Scherzo opens with a bright, rhythmic interchange between strings and woodwinds and continues with vivacious good spirits. The central Trio (A major) is somewhat more richly colored and romantic. The second and third movements nicely demonstrate Fuchs’s adherence to the Brahmsian symphonic model. They are not powerfully contrasting, nor do they push to the extremes of expression or tempo. Fuchs, like Brahms, treats the two inner movements moderately and avoids both the mystical Adagio and the demonic Scherzo.

The finale was the “problem” movement of the nineteenth-century symphony. Think of the diverse extremes to which Beethoven went the last movement of his Ninth Symphony, Brahms in his Fourth, and Bruckner in his Fifth. Fuchs does not take up the gauntlet nearly so boldly, but the Finale of this symphony (which is also set in a clear sonata form) is a bit more dramatic and rhetorical than are the preceding movements. Its opening flourish (which vaguely recalls the “horror fanfare” that open’s the Finale of Beethoven’s Ninth, although without anything like Beethoven’s visionary audacity) seems to herald something grand, and he development section contains a fugato that generates some intensity, as does the preparation for the recapitulation, but for the most part the movement continues the serenade-like mood established in the first three movements.

In Vienna, Fuchs was nicknamed “Serenaden-Fuchs” (“serenade fox”), and this moniker seems to encapsulate a musical personality that is quite tame and slyly charming. We can sense these traits in this symphony. While it might seem to be a slightly academic–and even reactionary–exercise, careful attention will reveal that within its admittedly circumscribed orbit the work contains much that is musically engaging and worth hearing.

Rückert Lieder (1901)

By Edward R. Reilly, Professor Emeritus, Vassar College

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Unlike his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen or Kindertotenlieder, Mahler’s five Rückert Lieder do not form a cycle. What stands out most clearly in them is their individuality. The poetic theme of each is underlined by its distinctly different thematic material, orchestral scoring and structural layout. As always, musical form is strongly conditioned by poetic structure, but Mahler here finds constantly fresh and different ways to vary traditional strophic organization and match the intricacies of Rückert’s verse. The transparency of the orchestration, the use of orchestral interludes and the interplay between vocal and orchestral lines point in several of the songs to Mahler’s later fusion of symphony and song in Das Lied von der Erde.

The most traditional of the songs was the last composed, “Liebst du um Schönheit.” It is the most clearly strophic in form, with the four stanzas presented in pairs, with a very brief orchestral interlude in the middle. The first three stanzas are clear variants of one another. The fourth begins as if it were to continue in the same pattern, but underscores the central message of the song by stressing the words “liebe” (love) and “immer” (always) through rhythmic prolongation and emphasis on the upper register in the melody. Love must be for its own sake, not for beauty, youth or treasure.

“Blicke mir nicht in die Lieder” explores a more unusual theme. It warns the listener not to be too inquisitive about the process of creation, and suggests that the poet does not trust himself to inquire too much: only the finished work counts, not how it was achieved. The analogy made with the work of bees in the second stanza provides Mahler with the basis for his musical imagery. A brief introduction establishes a kind of perpetuum mobile with a subtle buzzing produced by an orchestra of muted strings, without double bass, single woodwinds and a horn, together with a harp. The two stanzas are variants of one another, but the first has an extra line, which repeats the text of the opening. In this repetition Mahler preserves the rhythm and some of the melodic features of his first vocal phrase, but shifts it to a different level and concludes with an upward rather than downward movement.

“Ich atmet’ einen linden Duft” is perhaps unique in musically evoking a fragrance, the delicate fragrance of the lime tree with which the poet associates his love. The color of the setting is still more transparent, and much brighter than “Blicke mir nicht.” The orchestration again consists of single winds, horn and harp, but only violins and violas are called for, and a celesta has been added. The continuing even motion in the strings suggests the quiet wafting of the scent through the air. The settings of the two stanzas share material, but are no longer overtly strophic. The opening vocal phrase of the second stanza makes use of the second phrase of the first stanza, and continues on a different path. It is introduced and continues in a lovely contrapuntal dialogue with an oboe solo that returns as the instrumental postlude of the song.

“Um Mitternacht” moves from the most brilliant day to deepest night, and the change is once more immediately apparent in its coloration. Mahler calls for an orchestra without strings. In addition to pairs of woodwinds (with a single oboe d’amore replacing the usual oboes), three horns, two trumpets, three trombones, a single tuba, and timpani, both harp and piano are prescribed. The length, weight and scale of the song match its theme. Five six-line stanzas (each of which begins and ends with “Um Mitternacht”) are set in a rich and complex contrapuntal idiom, more symphonic than lyric in character. Three central motives are introduced in the opening bars and form the foundation for much of the song: a fluctuating dotted figure in the clarinets; a rising and falling figure, also dotted, in the flute and then the oboe (also used in the Eighth Symphony); and an even descending scale in the horns (later also used in its inverted rising form). Each of the first four stanzas, in which the poet sends his thoughts upward into the dark sky and finds no answer to life’s struggles and sorrows, presents a different quiet permutation of these motives, combined with new melodic outgrowths. They lead finally to the transcendent moment in the concluding stanza in which he finds his answer through surrender to a supreme power, the “Lord of death and life,” in a hymn-like conclusion with triumphant brass fanfares, the only big dynamic climax in the entire group of songs. This song offers an interesting contrast with another midnight song by Mahler: his setting of a Nietzsche text, which he originally titled “Was mir die Nacht erzählt” (What night tells me), in the fifth movement of the Third Symphony. There, although the two songs share at least one motive, the overt affirmative climax is deliberately avoided.

The poetic theme of “Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen,” one of Mahler’s most beautiful and moving songs, is again unusual. It evokes the peace achieved through the poet’s withdrawal from the everyday turmoil of the world and his absorption in the most meaningful and central aspects of his life: his heaven, his life, and his song. (By implication the last is the product of the preceding two). The comparatively long introduction, presented once more by an orchestra of woodwinds and strings, but this time with an English horn, and without the brighter sound of a flute, presents a wonderful expanding melody that moves upward from a simple two notes, to three, and then a more rapid extension to the line’s melodic peak, followed by a descent that completes the arc. A variant of this descent is used again to conclude and frame the three stanzas of the main body of the song. The setting of the beginning of each stanza draws on the introduction in different forms, and in each continues differently, with the second moving further afield in order to return more clearly to the opening in the third. In its melodic development, the transparent interweaving of the instrumental and vocal lines and in the subtle fluctuation between inner tension and repose, the song represents one of Mahler’s supreme achievements. At the same time it points to a later masterpiece, the “Abschied” movement in Das Lied von der Erde.

Suite from Der Geburtstag der Infantin (The Birthday of the Infanta (1923))

By Edward R. Reilly, Professor Emeritus, Vassar College

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is difficult to imagine the enormous impact that Franz Schreker’s operas had upon his times. They were among the most widely and frequently staged works in the contemporary repertoire, and their blend of bold fantasy and sensual allure made them seem both dangerous and compelling. The first public exposure to Schreker’s operatic world came with the premiere of his Nachtstück, an orchestral interlude from the opera Der ferne Klang (the distant sound). Schreker was by then a known quantity in Vienna’s musical world, having found a distinctive compositional voice with his 1908 pantomime Der Geburtstag der Infantin (based on Oscar Wilde’s novella “The Birthday of the Infanta”), but nothing Viennese audiences knew by Schreker could have prepared them for what they heard on that night of November 25, 1909. The premiere of the Nachtstück was the composer’s first scandal. There were whistles and catcalls from the audience, and in the days to follow the abuse continued in the press. This one performance catapulted Schreker to the front ranks of Vienna’s “difficult” composers (it was, incidentally, around this time that he began his lifelong friendship with Arnold Schoenberg) and paved the way for the premiere of the opera that would make him famous.

Schreker probably began Der ferne Klang around 1903 or 1904. After having searched in vain for a suitable subject he had decided to write the libretto himself, and one cannot overemphasize the autobiographical aspects of this opera, whose very genesis traces the emergence of its composer’s artistic personality. Many to whom he showed his work-in-progress were shocked; his own teacher, Robert Fuchs, called it “crazy nonsense”, and by 1905 Schreker, discouraged and disillusioned, broke off composition midway in the second act. By his own account it was acquaintance with Strauss’s Salome that convinced him he was on the right track. When he returned to Der ferne Klang at the end of 1906 it was not to the second act but to the interlude that separates the two scenes of Act III. A few weeks later he could boast to a friend: “I have never written anything like it. You’d be amazed–it is quite different from anything else I’ve ever done–big–a climax the likes of which I’ve seldom heard before…The piece has turned out to be extremely difficult, but really fabulous. Magical, I tell you.”

It is little wonder that Schreker’s score encountered so much resistance among Vienna’s critics and audiences, for it was a work of nearly unprecedented difficulty. In his letters Schreker himself spoke of “harmonic curiosities that are without parallel” and of a network of thematic relationships that was “enigmatically intricate”. The key to unraveling the Nachtstück’s complexities lies in an understanding of its dramatic function within the opera. Der ferne Klang is the story of a young composer, Fritz, who leaves his fiance, Grete, to search for the distant sound he hears. A decade later, and no closer to his elusive goal, he encounters Grete (Act II), who is now a courtesan in an elegant Venetian bordello. Although their love is rekindled he rejects her in disgust when he realizes what she has become. Act III takes place five years later; Grete is now a common streetwalker and Fritz a famous composer, whose opera, Die Harfe (the harp), is receiving its world premiere. The two scenes of Act III portray Grete’s reaction to the failure of Fritz’s opera and her reunion with the dying composer, who realizes too late that it is only in Grete’s presence that he hears his distant sound. The Nachtstück connects these two scenes. In it Schreker creates a dreamscape, whose motivic, harmonic, and rhythmic layerings, and brilliant and luxuriant orchestration, are an evocation of the fevered thoughts that follow upon the failure of Fritz’s opera. Gösta Neuwirth has described the Nachtstück as a kind of nerve center of the opera, a psychogram of its “sonic symbols.” Dream-like recall of earlier motives lies at the heart of its structural logic, and Neuwirth sees a direct parallel between Sigmund Freud’s description of the retrograde dream process in The Interpretation of Dreams and Schreker’s use of closely related musical forms and techniques. In another study of the opera, Ulrike Kienzle calls the piece a “musical drama of the soul” in which Schreker develops motivic and thematic techniques that are analogous to contemporary literary explorations of the stream-of-consciousness.

Like so much else in this autobiographical opera, the Nachtstück is a mirror of that state of nervous, sleepless agitation in which Schreker wrote the work, a state in which he felt he was being bombarded by ever changing motivic combinations that were forcing their way, as it were, out of his subconscious. It was an experience not unlike that which would characterize Schoenberg’s composition of Erwartung three years later. But unlike Erwartung’s uninterrupted flow of thematic generation, Schreker’s Nachtstück, like Der ferne Klang as a whole, is a web of tightly woven motivic and harmonic interrelationships unlike anything else Schreker had written to that date. Harmonically the score approaches the brink of polytonality and explores the use of timbral fields that would have a significant influence on, among others, Alban Berg, who helped prepare the piano vocal score of Der ferne Klang. The present performing edition of the Nachtstück returns to the original conception of the work: 79 bars cut for the premiere of the opera have been restored and the concert ending Schreker wrote for the 1909 performance of the work has been added.

Orchestral interludes play an important role in all of Schreker’s mature operas, although only the interlude from Act III of Der Schatzgräber was ever published independently. These interludes form a remarkable body of orchestral works that focus and distill the essence of Schreker’s gifts as a musical dramatist. It was the Nachtstück from Der ferne Klang that first established beyond question the originality and scope of that gift.
Christopher Hailey, President, The Franz Schreker Foundation

Symphonic Songs, Op. 20 (1929)

By Christopher Hailey, University of California, Los Angeles

Written for the concert Fin de Siècle, performed on May 12, 1999 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

Zemlinsky, like Franz Schreker, fits uncomfortably into our schema of early twentieth-century music. We have grown accustomed to thinking in categories, of equating music history with an orderly march of personalities and locales, each distinct, each worthy of attention by virtue of that singularity. In the CD bins of our historical imagination we’ve found a niche for Mahler, and for Schoenberg, Webern, and Berg–a second school where no first existed. And with that we have exhausted the category “Vienna” and move on to Paris or Berlin. In truth, four notes give scant notion of a chromatic scale, and the chromatic diversity of turn-of-the-century Viennese music is a scale of hues rather than a chart of primary colors. If, on first hearing, Zemlinsky seems to shade here toward Mahler or there toward Berg, if Schreker suggests a mixture of Wagner with Debussy, or Korngold a fusion of Puccini and Strauss, it is our ears that are rejoicing in relationships we have cease to hear in other music grown all too familiar. At the end of the twentieth century, in this exhilarating age of re-discovery, we are learning that music, the most fluid of the arts, is all about connections, influence, appropriation, reference, and allusion. In short, it is the wealth of associations that marks not only the richness of a culture or a personality, but also our ability to take their measure. Pity those who come to this music in fifty years when our discoveries have themselves become established norms.

Even now there is danger in identifying Zemlinsky solely with the Mahler-esque gestures of his Maeterlinck Songs or the Lyric Symphony, or of limiting Schreker to the lush opulence of the Chamber Symphony or Die Gezeichneten. Both men lived well beyond the age of Mahler, and their later music continued to evolve in other contexts–contexts like Prague, Berlin, the culture of radio, jazz, and cabaret, the influence of their students or of younger colleagues such as Paul Hindemith, Ernst Krenek, and Kurt Weill (whose Mahagonny opera Zemlinsky conducted). Zemlinsky’s fertile mind remained receptive to his shifting environment, and these symphonic songs of 1929 are still richer for that ability to graft the impulses of the present on to his memories of the past. This is still the Zemlinsky of old, but with features made distinct by age. The skeletal profile of the man finds its outline in the music–sparse textures, angular counterpoint, hard-edged harmonies, and jagged rhythms. With these songs Zemlinsky entered a world far removed from that of the aestheticist texts of earlier works, texts such as the Maeterlinck poems he had set in 1913.

In postwar Europe, American subjects were in vogue; Schreker’s Whitman settings or Hindemith and Weill’s Lindberghflug come to mind. The anthology Afrika singt (Africa Sings), published in Vienna 1929 by Anna Nussbaum, was a selection of texts largely by authors associated with the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes, Countée Cullen, and Claude McKay. This anthology exerted a particular attraction upon Viennese composers and inspired notable settings by Wilhelm Grosz, Edmund Nick, Kurt Pahlen, and Erich Ziesl, among others.

In his settings Zemlinsky avoids any obvious allusions to popular American styles such as jazz, the blues, or the spiritual. The texts he selects are generally grim and confront the harshest side of black experience, including racial injustice and lynching. It is a world of pain seen with wise eyes that have likewise known suffering. It is also a view of a new world through the prism of the old. In “Lied aus Dixieland” one can hear the weary echo of the composer’s Lyric Symphony, and one should not be surprised to hear a certain proximity to Berg, whose Wozzeck was by now a much performed repertory work. Greater familiarity with Zemlinsky’s music, however, suggests that it was in fact Berg who absorbed the vocabulary of his older contemporary. The symphonic weight of “Lied der Baumwollpflücker” brings us close to Zemlinsky’s opera style, whereas “Totes braunes Mädel” shows his mastery of the expressively declamatory vocal line. The menacing humor of “Übler Bursche” recalls the irony of Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde, but this, too, is an element present in earliest Zemlinsky and probably points to a common source. “Erkenntnis” is the cycle’s point of lyric repose, followed immediately by the brutal contrast of “Afrikanischer Tanz,” a song Zemlinsky re-worked in his Op. 27 songs with piano accompaniment. The soloistic linearity of “Arabeske,” so like late Schreker with its deliciously sour woodwind sonorities, suggests the kind of scoring inspired by the limitations of early radio microphone, and yet these sounds, too, are anticipated in such works as the Maeterlinck Songs, a decade and a half earlier. Zemlinsky’s Symphonic Songs are in sum a miracle of creative response and synthesis. It is our challenge to try to listen to this music with ears as sensitive and responsive as those who created it.