Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942) first premiered his symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid, 1903) during the Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler’s second concert in 1905. Though the piece was based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 tale, it is often noted that Zemlinsky composed Seejungfrau in response to his heartbreak after one of his former loves, Alma Mahler, was urged to leave him and marry Gustav Mahler. Despite a positive reception at its premiere, Seejungfrau disappeared shortly thereafter. Following the Second World War, Zemlinsky and his entire oeuvre were also largely forgotten. Fortunately, his compositions began to resurface in the 1980’s, with Die Seejungfrau seeing its first performance (since its initial premiere) in 1984 at a performance by the Austrian Youth Orchestra led by Peter Gülke.
Having studied piano and organ at a young age, Zemlinsky went on to attend the Vienna Conservatory in 1884 where he studied under Anton Door, Franz Krenn, and the Fuchs brothers (Robert and Johann). Zemlinsky was a prolific composer—with 8 operas, a ballet, numerous song cycles, chamber music, and more under his belt—and gained early notoriety via Johannes Brahms’ recommendation and Gustav Mahler conducting a successful premiere of his Symphony No. 2 in 1897. However, he was also highly regarded as a conductor, securing the position of Kapellmeister at Vienna’s Carltheather in 1899. He went on to conduct at the Vienna Volksoper from 1906 to 1911 (with a break from 1907-1908, when he conducted at Court Opera); the Kroll Opera in Berlin from 1927 to 1930; and the Deutches Landestheater from 1911 to 1927. Unfortunately, these many accomplishments are often overshadowed by his reputation as Erich Korngold and Arnold Schoenberg’s teacher, the latter with whom he established the Vereinigung Schaffender Tonkünstler (Society of Creative Musicians) in 1904 through which they introduced and encouraged the appreciation of new music in Vienna. As a composer whose sound developed in the period that bridged late romanticism and modernism, Zemlinsky’s style blends masterfully Wagnerian chromaticism with the nascent sounds of modernism within a firmly established tonal framework, a language that he never abandoned.
Recorded live in 2005 during the concert Hans Christian Anderson.
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Conducted by Leon Botstein, music director
Composed by Alexander von Zemlinsky