Alexander Zemlinsky, Psalm 23, Op. 14

Alexander Zemlinsky, Psalm 23, Op. 14

By Christopher Hailey, Director, Franz Schreker Foundation

Written for the concert The Art of the Psalm, performed on Oct 22, 2006 at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center.

As a teenager Zemlinsky had served as an organist in his synagogue in Vienna and thus, like Schreker, had early experience working with choirs and liturgical music. Though he, too, composed relatively little sacred music, his settings of Psalms 13, 23, and 83 rank among his finest works. Psalm 23, commissioned by Schreker for the concerts of his Philharmonic Chorus, was composed during the summer of 1910 and given its premiere in Vienna in December of that year.

Whereas Schreker’s setting, with its relative austerity and drive toward the final fugue, is clearly within a tradition of Austro-German sacred music that includes the two works by Bruckner and Reger heard on this concert, Zemlinsky’s setting stakes out very different terrain. Zemlinsky had converted to Protestantism around 1899, but this setting owes little debt to either Jewish or Protestant stylistic precedents. Rudolf Stephan has described the work as a “vocal symphonic poem” and indeed the composition seems closer to the kind of supra-denominational Weltanschauungsmusik [world view music] that characterizes such early twentieth-century works as Delius’s Mass of Life and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. There are even direct echoes of Gurre-Lieder here, as well as a close relationship to Schreker’s opera, Das Spielwerk und die Prinzessin [The Carillon and the Princess, 1909-1912], but Psalm 23 is vintage Zemlinsky, very much a companion piece to his roughly contemporaneous opera Traumgörge [Görge, the Dreamer] and Maeterlinck songs.

The large, unusually bright orchestra, which includes triangle, glockenspiel, celesta, and two harps, plays a central integrative role, beginning with an extended introduction that establishes two of the work’s principal themes. This G-major opening, featuring solo oboe, paired woodwinds, and gently rocking accompaniment, underscores the Psalm’s pastoral conceit. There is even a discrete use of tone painting to suggest the waters of the second verse. The first two verses (“The Lord is my shepherd”/“He maketh me to lie down in green pastures”) are stated simply, while the third (“He restoreth my soul”), after a brief interlude, brings an elaborate re-statement of the opening with rich choral polyphony, chromatic inflections, and sensuous enharmonic shifts.

A broad orchestral interlude introduces new material and a more agitated, chromatically tortured, and harmonically unstable language for verses 4 and 5 (“Und Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death”/“Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies”). Churning waves of sound, surging harmonic sequences, and a series of climactic gestures lead at last to a triumphant E-flat statement of verse 6 (“Gutes und Barmherzigkeit werden mir folgen”), before returning to G major for a recapitulation of the opening verse and a gentle orchestral postlude.

It would be inappropriate to compare the work of a student with that of a mature master, but between Schreker’s promising compositional debut and Zemlinsky’s assured, if idiosyncratic setting of Psalm 23 lies a momentous decade in Viennese music history in which a generation of composers moved out of the shadows of the nineteenth century and into the bright sunlight of stylistic independence—reason enough for singing praise and giving thanks.