Die Seejungfrau [The Mermaid] (1903)

By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert Hans Christian Andersen, performed on March 11, 2005 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“At first Schoenberg’s teacher, he later became his pupil.” Alma Mahler’s verdict on Alexander von Zemlinsky, her own former teacher and lover, is neither literally nor figuratively accurate, but it does register the fact that for much of the twentieth century Zemlinsky’s name was principally known as Schoenberg’s lone teacher. The latter, with uncharacteristic deference, acknowledged the debt: “The one to whom I owe most of my knowledge of the technique and the problems of composing was Alexander von Zemlinsky. I have always thought and still believe that he was a great composer.”

The two composers represented a new generation poised between the seniors they revered, Richard Strauss and Gustav Mahler, and the juniors they taught, most notably Anton von Webern and Alban Berg. In April 1904, as part of ongoing efforts to present new music in Vienna, they founded the Society of Creative Musicians, a sort of musical counterpart to the “Secession” in the visual arts. Mahler agreed to be honorary president and conducted the Viennese premiere of Strauss’s Symphonie domestica in its first orchestral concert in November. The second concert, on January 25, 1905, presented the premieres of Zemlinsky’s Die Seejungfrau and Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The large forces and extra rehearsals necessary for these imposing orchestral works put the society in financial straits and forced cancellation of a third orchestral concert in March.

The two works share similar literary origins, as well as larger aesthetic aims. Both attempt a synthesis of Wagnerian techniques and programmatic associations with the thematic procedures associated with Brahms’s absolute music. Mahler insisted that they be presented only with their titles and without descriptive programs. Reviews of the concert make clear, however, that Andersen’s fairy tale and Maeterlinck’s play were not familiar to everyone. (“Scarcely fifty people” in the audience really knew the play, remarked the critic Max Vansca in the Neue Musikalische Presse.) Andersen’s story may have been more familiar. A mermaid falls in love with a prince whom she rescues when a storm destroys his ship at sea. She visits the Mer-witch, who changes her tail to human legs, but she loses her lovely voice and each step she takes causes excruciating pain. She meets the prince, who eventually marries another woman with the young mermaid in attendance. She must choose between stabbing the prince and then returning to the sea, or dying. She throws the knife into the ocean and begins to dissolve, ultimately joining floating figures in the sky who “do good deeds.”

We know something of Zemlinksy’s programmatic intentions for depicting this narrative from letters he wrote to Schoenberg, from a chart of themes he made early on, and from a few indications in the score. When he began composition in February 1902 he planned a two-part work in four sections, which he described as: “Part I a) on the sea-bed (entire exposition); b) the mermaid and the mortal world, the storm, the prince’s rescue. Part II a) the Mermaid’s longing; in the domain of the Mer-witch; b) the Prince’s wedding, the Mermaid’s end.” This eventually expanded to three parts, which he completed in March 1903. As he informed Schoenberg, “Today I finished the last few bars of my Mermaid. The third part is the most inward, I think.” Indeed, Zemlinsky called the work a Fantasy, and its form becomes increasingly free as the piece progresses. Certain specific moments in the story are apparent, such as a solo violin theme representing the mermaid, turbulent passages depicting the storm, a section for the prince’s wedding, and so forth.

Although reviews of the premiere indicate that Zemlinsky’s Fantasy received a more positive reception than Schoenberg’s Pelleas, only a few performances followed, notably in Berlin and Prague, before it disappeared for decades. Zemlinsky gave the score of the first movement to Marie Pappenheim (librettist for Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung) and took the other two movements with him when he fled to America in December 1938. The Mermaid was only reassembled in the 1980s by musicologists Peter Gülke, Ernst Hilmar, and Alfred Clayton, and first performed again in 1984 with Gülke leading the Austrian Youth Orchestra.