Zemlinsky’s Mirror

By Christopher Hailey, Visiting Professor, Arnold Schoenberg Institute, University of Music and Performing Arts, Vienna, Director, Franz Schreker Foundation

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

In 1912 Alexander Zemlinsky asked Franz Schreker to write an opera libretto about ‘the tragedy of an ugly man.’ It was a tragedy Zemlinsky knew first hand. In her autobiography, Alma Mahler describes Zemlinsky as a “hideous gnome” but goes on to imply that her fascination with the man was intensified, even awakened by his repulsiveness. The erotic friction between surface appearance and inner nature was a central theme of fin-de-siécle aesthetic culture and was nowhere more keenly appreciated than in Vienna. Zemlinsky’s obsession with the play of appearances, which recurs in so many of his works, links him with contemporary Viennese writers, artists, and composers ranging from Freud, Hofmannsthal, Schnitzler, and Klimt to Schreker and Berg. And this, in turn, helps account for the nearly universal veneration with which Viennese artists and intellectuals held the works of Oscar Wilde, a writer for whom masks and guises were pivotal categories of aesthetic truth.

It is quite likely that Zemlinsky already had Oscar Wilde in mind when he approached Schreker in 1912. He had conducted Richard Strauss’s setting of Wilde’s Salome during the 1910/11 season and admired Schreker’s 1908 score for a pantomime based on Wilde’s “The Birthday of the Infanta.” Indeed, “The Birthday of the Infanta,” the story of a misshappen dwarf who falls in love with a princess only to be shattered when he first sees his own image in a mirror, served as a principle source for Die Gezeichneten (The Marked Ones), the libretto Schreker wrote for Zemlinsky but then decided to set himself. Zemlinsky continued his search for an opera subject, and in the end settled on his own version of ‘The Birthday of the Infanta’ as Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) — but only after having first set another Wilde work, “A Florentine Tragedy.”

Wilde’s blank verse drama of jealousy, revenge, and reconciliation, “A Florentine Tragedy,” is itself a play of appearances in which a husband and wife are reunited in passionate embrace over a lover’s corpse. This surprise “happy end,” with Bianca in awe of her husband’s strength, Simone mesmerized by his wife’s beauty, is a symbol of that tragic and eternal misunderstanding between the sexes. Wilde’s play, published posthumously, is a fragment, lacking both a crucial first scene and virtually all stage directions. In 1906 and again in 1912, Giacomo Puccini considered setting the text but was dissuaded by its dramatic weaknesses. In his own setting, written between 1914 and 1916, Zemlinsky composed an extended prelude to compensate for the missing first scene and trimmed many of Simone’s speeches, though they remain the heart of the work, a dramatic game of cat and mouse in which movement toward the inevitable climax is alternately accelerated and retarded. Eine florentinische Tragödie, like Salome, contains the ingredients of its explosive conclusion in a tension-laden beginning. The final bars of Zemlinsky’s setting, with their combination of the love and death motives make explicit a musical relationship between eros and thanatos that has been latent from the outset.

Eine florentinische Tragödie was given its premiere in Stuttgart under Max von Schillings on January 30, 1917, followed soon thereafter by productions in Prague and Vienna. It was the fifth and most successful of Zemlinsky’s seven completed operas and was a particular favorite of those closest to Zemlinsky, including his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg, his one-time student Alma Mahler, the composers Franz Schreker, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg, and the writer Franz Werfel. But Der Zwerg, Zemlinsky’s next opera, written between 1919 and 1921, was closer to his own heart.

Zemlinsky’s librettist was Georg Klaren, whose interest in the sexual characterology of Otto Weininger is reflected in his changes in Wilde’s story. The Infanta, a pre-pubescent 12 years old in the original, is now 18; a sympathetic lady-in-waiting is added as a kind of mother figure; and the dwarf is transformed from an illiterate son of a charcoal-burner from a nearby forest into a cavalier and singer of renown, presented as a gift from an Oriental sultan. The dwarf’s encounter with the mirror remains the central symbol of his self discovery but Klaren made clear that the underlying tragedy is precipitated by the unfulfilled erotic encounter with the cold, capricious princess. Otto Klemperer led the triumphant Cologne premiere (paired with Stravinsky’s Petrouschka) on 28 May 1922, although subsequent productions in Vienna and Berlin failed to confirm the opera’s initial success.

In assessing Zemlinsky’s two Oscar Wilde operas one is inevitably drawn to comparisons with Strauss and Schreker. Eine florentische Tragödie has the dramatic sweep of Salome but Zemlinsky’s orchestra is more restrained, his motivic material more finely detailed, and although there are themes for love and death, the composer makes little effort to develop a network of associative leitmotives. These play a more important role in Der Zwerg but the musical structure is more suite-like than symphonic, with several closed vocal and dance numbers. In sections associated with the Infanta and her entourage the texture is light, crystalline, almost Neo-Classical, and recalls the world of Schreker’s pantomime, whereas the hyper-Romanticism of the dwarf’s dramatic outursts give us an idea of what Zemlinsky would have done with Die Gezeichneten. Ironically, Zemlinsky’s own final reckoning with the mirror was written during a time he had found happiness in a relationship with Luise Sachsel, the singer and painter who would become his second wife.