Lyric Symphony, Op. 18 (1923)

By Christopher H. Gibbs, Bard College

Written for the concert Jews and Vienna, City of Music, performed on Feb 8, 2004 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

“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.” Arnold Schoenberg’s assessment of his lone composition teacher (and former brother-in-law) in his 1952 essay “My Evolution” acknowledges a personal debt and declares a critical judgment about a composer whose work was largely forgotten until recently. Zemlinsky had other illustrious students, among them Berg, Webern, and Korngold, as well as a vivacious teenager named Alma Schindler with whom he was romantically involved until she rejected him to marry Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky was also a prominent conductor, a forceful advocate of the music of Mahler and the Second Viennese School. But his greatest legacy is as a composer of songs, chamber and symphonic music, and operas.

The Lyric Symphony is Zemlinsky’s best-known composition. The work owes a clear debt to Mahler, as the composer himself acknowledged in a September 1922 letter to Emil Hertzka, the managing director of the prominent Viennese publishing firm Universal Edition: “I have written something this summer like Das Lied von der Erde. I do not have a title for it yet. It has seven related songs for baritone, soprano, and orchestra, performed without pause. I am now working on the orchestration.” Mahler had drawn from Chinese poetry for his six-movement song-symphony, and Zemlinsky likewise looked eastward, setting poems by the Bengali writer Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), winner of the Noble Prize for Literature in 1913 and a figure with a great following at the time. Zemlinsky used seven of the poems assembled in The Gardener, in Hans Effenberger’s German translation of Tagore’s own English translation from the original Bengali. (The appeal of this collection of poems is evident from settings by Janáček, Szymanowski, and others during the early 1920s.)

The baritone and soprano alternate with one another over the course of the seven movements in what is not so much a narrative as an exploration of various stages of love. The first two songs present views of yearning, the next two its achievement, and the final three love’s end. Zemlinsky gave advice about how to perform the work in Pult und Taktstock [Podium and Baton], a journal for conductors. He writes that the “internal organization” of the prelude and seven songs connected by interludes, “all have one and the same deeply sincere, passionate fundamental tone . . . In the prelude and the first song, the essential spirit of the entire symphony is given . . . the second song, which holds the position of a ‘scherzo’ in a symphony, should not be conceived as playfully fleeting and insecure; the third song—the adagio of the symphony—must under no circumstances become a weak, languishing love song.”

Zemlinsky hoped to premiere the Lyric Symphony at the 1923 Austrian Music Week in Berlin, but it was delayed a year, occurring in Prague on June 4 at the festival of the International Society for Contemporary Music. (At the same gathering Zemlinsky conducted the premiere of Schoenberg’s monodrama Erwartung.) Despite the many similarities with Das Lied (a work Zemlinsky also conducted in Prague), he sought not so much to merge symphony with song, as his great predecessor had done, but rather symphony with opera. The scoring is denser than Mahler’s and the vocal demands more operatic. Zemlinsky stated that he had in mind “voice types that are right for theater: a heroic baritone and a young, dramatic soprano.” The composer’s dramatic genius is evident throughout the motivically interrelated and continuous movements. While Mahler’s work explores a deep nostalgia that ends in visions of blissful eternity, the Lyric Symphony is a Tristanesque exploration of longing and desire. In this respect, perhaps the most trenchant commentary on the work is a musical one. Berg wrote to Zemlinsky after the Prague premiere (in a letter he may not have sent): “My deep, deep enthusiasm for your lyric symphony . . . must be acknowledged even though I now possess only a glimmer of the immeasurable beauties of the score. Yes, I would like to say, my decades-long love for your music has, in this work, received its fulfillment.” The next year Berg began his great Lyric Suite for string quartet, dedicated to Zemlinsky, which not only derives its name from the symphony, but also its fourth movement quotes the line from the third song: “You are my own, my own.”