Opera and Oscar Wilde

By Leon Botstein

Written for the concert Opera and Oscar Wilde, performed on June 9, 2002 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

It is unconventional, to say the least, to distinguish composers according to their moral outlook. But as a theoretical exercise, it is interesting to consider those whose work reflects their strict adherence to notions of absolute right and wrong, and those who seem more ambiguous and attracted by the frailty and compromises that constitute the essence of human nature. For the composers of this latter group, human weakness is inherently fascinating not merely as a pessimistic expression of worthlessness, but as an ironic source of individuality and uniqueness that has its own peculiar value. Among the sure-footed moralists, one might list Beethoven and Mahler; among the devotees to the ambiguous, Mozart perhaps, Richard Strauss certainly, and of course, Alexander Zemlinsky.

It should not be surprising, therefore, that both Strauss and Zemlinsky were attracted to the works of Oscar Wilde, the model of moral ambiguity who nevertheless offered trenchant observations on human nature and society. Wilde (1854-1900), the Irish poet, playwright, and author, was a dominant figure of what has been called the “decadent” or “aesthetic” movement at the end of the nineteenth century. His most famous works, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), The Importance of Being Earnest (1895), and Salome (1894; the basis for Strauss’s opera of 1905), are filled with characters who for better or worse enact the aesthetic’s ideal of turning life into a work of art, as Wilde himself tried to do. Underlying this ideal is the notion that life itself as a serious pursuit has lost meaning (if it ever had any) in the face of modernity and progress. The only recourse therefore is to obscure this deficiency by making every sensation and experience as beautiful (which does not exclude admiration for the grotesque) and artistic as possible—in other words, to make everything a matter of taste. But for all of Wilde’s personal and artistic championing of this aesthetic ideal, his fundamental ambivalence is also clearly demonstrated by the monsters this principle creates who repeatedly appear in his writings: Dorian, Salome, the Infanta. As Wilde explicitly promotes the aesthete’s way of life, he also continually exposes it as an inadequate chimera, desperately and unsuccessfully used to cover a heart of darkness.

The layers of deception, irony, and implicit commentary that characterize Wilde’s work make for great dramatic music. Wilde’s writings therefore bear the posthumous distinction of having been set to music more consistently than perhaps any contemporary, with the exception of Maurice Maeterlinck. Composers in addition to Strauss and Zemlinsky who made use of Wilde include Jacques Ibert, Franz Schreker, Bernhard Sekles, and several Russian composers such as Glazunov. It is clear why Wilde would have no allure for a composer like Gustav Mahler, who was perhaps more interested in fortifying the illusions and romantic ideals of life than in shattering them. But that of course only sharpens the irony and ambiguity of Zemlinsky’s operatic treatment of two of Wilde’s short works, for the figure and personality of Gustav Mahler hangs over both of these operas, as we shall see.

There is perhaps no better example of Wilde’s view of human nature’s profound contradictions than the event of his own life that made Wilde himself far more infamous than any of his writings for many years to come. In 1895, he lost a libel action against the Marquis of Queensbury (of boxing rules fame), with whose son, Alfred Douglas (the translator of Salome) Wilde had had a tempestuous and notorious relationship. Wilde could have avoided the scandal by discreetly remaining in Paris, but instead he chose to challenge directly the hypocrisy of the society he had so long criticized in his plays and poems—a rather principled action for a champion of aesthetic decadence. He was subsequently convicted and sentenced to hard labor in Reading Gaol. A ruined and broken man, he died in Paris at age 46, just three years after his release. If we honor Wilde’s desire to have his own life perceived as a work of art, then it is certainly not out of the question to observe in the two source works for this afternoon’s performance the poignancy and tragedy felt and experienced by their author. Beyond the witticisms and aphorisms, there exists in Wilde’s work razor-sharp insight into the self-delusive, cruel and complex psychological interaction among people. And this, surely, Zemlinsky saw as well.

Wilde isolates the qualities to be criticized by removing them to a transparent and simplified atmosphere. In the case of A Florentine Tragedy, Renaissance Italy is the backdrop for both a universal story of a love triangle, and themes that resonate of the modern world as well, such as bourgeois commercialism and class prejudice. In The Dwarf, Wilde offers an orientalist fairytale in order to highlight the horrific consequences of human superficiality and apathy. The question that Wilde, like all master satirists, asks of us is this: how much of ourselves do we recognize in these distilled portraits? Do we, like the dwarf, know whether we are looking in a mirror, and do we recognize what we see there?

For Zemlinsky, the image that looked back must have been very clear indeed. The Habsburg Vienna in which he came of age was infused with the class divisions between a bored, privileged aristocracy and a wealthy middle-class, hungry for the rich art-objects that for them epitomized the nobility. Both strata of society of course despised each other, as Guido’s and Simone’s charged tête-à-tête suggests. And then there were outside observers to both of these strata, such as the Sephardic Jewish community to which part of Zemlinsky’s family belonged, the synagogue of which, in the Zirkusgasse, had its own musical and liturgical tradition distinct from other Viennese Jewish congregations (an influence on the composer only recently studied). Such observers on the margins realized that the pretensions of the aristocracy were matched only by the philistine consumption of the middle-class. Wilde had no sympathy for either division of the class line, neither the superficial upper class nor the parvenu middle class.

But that is not all that informs the human exchange in A Florentine Tragedy. Wilde’s text was left unfinished. It had been stolen from him and reappeared only posthumously. It appeared to many, including Puccini, to lack a proper opening scene. Zemlinsky’s affinity to this work has been a source of much speculation. Some have thought to find in the triangle a parallel to the affair between Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde Schoenberg, wife of the composer, and the painter Richard Gerstl. But the outcome of that real life circumstance contrasts sharply with the chilling end of A Florentine Tragedy. Mathilde was apparently talked into returning to Schoenberg. Gerstl shortly thereafter committed suicide and many have thought that Mathilde lived out the rest of her life in a state of isolation and unhappiness. No doubt these events were fresh in Zemlinsky’s memory, but they co-existed with the memory of another triangle in Zemlinsky’s experience: Alma Mahler’s affair around 1910 with the handsome, non-Jewish architect Walter Gropius. This affair had serious consequences for Mahler and seems strangely to have deepened his sense of attachment to his wife. While this biographical parallel is not a comprehensive explanation of Zemlinsky’s interest in this text, it nevertheless fills in Wilde’s displaced historical framework with intensified and fascinating significance. In Wilde’s version, we find a conflict between nobleman and commoner that might have struck Zemlinsky as also being comparable to the striking differences in background and personality of Gropius and Mahler.

Wilde’s reputation took years to turn around, so that we now assess his unique achievement as a writer rather than as merely a notorious, tragic figure. Alexander Zemlinsky did not live a life of such unconventionality, but he too has now begun to receive his due as an important composer. As recently as fifteen years ago, he was a figure one found primarily in history books as a subsidiary figure. His footnote depended mostly on the fact that, in addition to being Schoenberg’s older friend, mentor, and brother-in-law, he was the unfortunate whom Alma Mahler left for Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky was actually considered a formidable talent during his lifetime, whose gift as a composer won the admiration of Brahms. He was also, famously, an ugly, diminutive figure (who happened to be, if one can believe Alma, a better lover than Mahler). Autobiographical parallels in The Dwarf do not require a stretch of imagination in this case. Ever since Rumpelstiltsken and Wagner’s Alberich, the use of the dwarf as a coded reference for a Jew had been commonplace. Infanta Alma, the beautiful, young coquette, daughter of a prominent non-Jewish painter, femme fatale, an artist of talent and facility, did break the heart of her little toy.

But unlike his operatic counterpart, Zemlinsky did not die of this grief. His career as a composer and performer proceeded. It was troubled in part because of his enormous facility and personal generosity. He seems never quite to have understood how to take advantage of others as his competitors did. He was an extremely generous colleague and teacher of such composers as Erich Wolfgang Korngold. During the first period of his career in Vienna, Zemlinsky was tireless in creating opportunities for the performance of new music by his contemporaries and in helping other composers. His own works also received performances, including some by Mahler at the Vienna Opera. Although Zemlinsky began as a composer in the spirit of Brahms, he developed in a trajectory of new innovations in the use of musical materials, and even was an early experimenter in symbolism in a kind of post-Wagnerian expressionist compositional strategy, though he never went in the direction of the more radical modernist innovations after World War I. He became increasingly well known as a conductor particularly in the opera, and an indispensable and significant force in the musical life of Prague. But he was rarely the beneficiary of reciprocated loyalty for the many protestations of friendship and admiration he received; indeed, even his relation with Schoenberg had become distant. Zemlinsky ended up emigrating to America, old, forgotten, and ill. He died essentially in total obscurity in Larchmont, New York in 1942.

It is one of the unpredictable outcomes of the shifting dynamics of musical taste during the last decades of the twentieth century that turn-of-the-century, central European composers, like their counterparts in painting and architecture, have been rediscovered and become objects of renewed interest. In Zemlinsky’s case there is a large body of work for orchestra and for the stage that has long been unfairly neglected. As we have become more eclectic and tolerant in our view of the leading currents of twentieth century music, he has no longer remained a footnote or a silent academic figure in the history of music. As you have your own aesthetic experience of this afternoon’s music, you will find how powerful, passionate, and distinctly original Zemlinsky’s voice is, and how it embodies Wilde’s suggestion that perhaps the final word belongs to the artist.