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.