Zemlinsky, String Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 4

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942)

String Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 4, (1896)

Alexander ZemlinskyAlthough for many music lovers he is apt to be obscure, Alexander Zemlinsky was an important musical figure in the rich tumult of fin de siècle Vienna during the rise of the so-called “Second Viennese School.” He was born in Vienna in 1871, three years before Arnold Schoenberg with whom his life would intertwine in a variety of ways. Zemlinsky revealed his musical talents early, began formal training at the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 13 and eventually blossomed into a first-rate composer, conductor and teacher. As a conductor, he was a respected interpreter of the emerging works of Mahler and Schoenberg drawing admiration from Kurt Weill and Stravinsky. As a young composer, Zemlinsky garnered praise from the elderly Brahms who recommended Zemlinsky’s music to his publisher Simrock starting with the worthy Clarinet Trio, Op. 3, of 1896. The same year, Zemlinsky composed the first of four string quartets that collectively pursue a bold a trajectory from late Romanticism into 20th century atonal modernism in many way analogous to the contemporaneous four quartets of Schoenberg.

This is more than coincidence. Zemlinsky met Schoenberg when they played together in the Polyhymnia orchestra. Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilda and the two brothers-in-law cultivated a mutual appreciation of all things musical. Zemlinsky became the only formal teacher Schoenberg ever credited with the former overseeing the composition of Schoenberg’s own first (unnumbered) string quartet in 1897. Both men would achieve great things in Vienna before WWII with Schoenberg eventually far outshining if not completely overshadowing Zemlinsky. As both came from Jewish heritages, both would flee Europe with the rise of the Nazis, setting in the United States as rather awkward old-world immigrants in a strange new world. Schoenberg fared well as a celebrated academic in Los Angeles. Zemlinsky landed in Larchmont, New York where he ceased composing and sank into oblivion, dying in 1942 at the age of 70. Schoenberg died in 1951 at the age of 76.

Zemlinsky’s String Quartet No. 1 in A Major, Op. 4 is simply a masterwork of the genre, surely underplayed due to a variety of factors: Zemlinsky’s less than household name, an intimidating association with Schoenberg along with his own more challenging later quartets, and the fact that stylistically, this quartet is “lost” between the major milestones of Brahms and Schoenberg. But this quartet is precisely a musical bridge between the two, an important steppingstone as well as a genuinely great string quartet entirely on its own merit. A classical and ample four-movement plan features a bright and vibrant opening sonata, a quirky scherzo with a visceral, quicksilver “Gypsy” dance trio, an aching late Romantic slow movement and a triumphant rondo finale. Throughout, Zemlinsky’s music evokes Brahms, Dvořák and familiar foreshadows of early Schoenberg and Webern though, in the end, his voice is his own. Ray Silvertrust offers a suitable summary of Zemlinsky’s legacy: “His works are an authentic testimony of the turbulent developments in music between 1890 and 1940. He stands between times and styles but in this intermediary position he found a rich, unmistakable, musical language. His personality and work epitomize one of the most fascinating epochs of art in Europe.”

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