Zemlinsky (left) with Schoenberg in Prague, 1917.
After university, during my few years as a regular extra with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, the standard romantic classics took a back seat to the avant-garde repertoire. The orchestra’s focus on contemporary music was a feature of William Glock’s tenure as BBC Controller of Music, particularly from 1971 with Pierre Boulez as principal conductor.
While I was well up for new repertoire, not all of it was inspiring. Concerts at the Royal Festival Hall and the Proms offset the orchestra’s studio recordings at Maida Vale, but many players felt that in taking a steady 9-to-5 job they had sacrificed their hard-earned skills at the altar of modernity. The canteen breakfast was often the high point of the day. As principal horn player Alan Civil recalled,
We did about 80% modern and 20% classical. The awful tragedy, for the orchestra, was that eventually we were not able to play the standard classics. We could sight-read the most fearsome contemporary piece, but a Brahms symphony—embarrassing!
So apart from the occasional Mahler, my most memorable experiences with the band were playing lesser-known early 20th-century works like the Scriabin piano concerto with Viktoria Postnikova and Gennady Rozhdestvensky, Bax’s Tintagel—and the Lyric symphony by Alexander Zemlinsky (1871–1942) (see here, and wiki).
A protégé of Brahms—their clarinet trios were paired at this year’s Proms—Zemlinsky went on to thrive in Vienna, working with Schoenberg, his brother-in-law. He was among Alma Schindler’s suitors before she married Mahler in 1902. In 1905 (the year after the premiere of Ravel‘s Shéhérazade, FWIW), Zemlinsky composed his symphonic poem-fantasy Die Seejungfrau:
Written partly to exorcise his failed relationship with Alma, Die Seejungfrau was premiered at the same concert as Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande. The latter is another fine piece that I relished in Boulez’s interpretation with the BBC—here he conducts it with the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra in 2003.
It’s always sobering and entertaining to consult Slonimsky’s Lexicon of musical invective—here’s a review of the first performance:
Schoenberg’s symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande is not just filled with wrong notes, in the sense of Strauss’s Don Quixote; it is a fifty-minute long protracted wrong note. This is to be taken literally. What else may hide behind these cacophonies is quite impossible to find out.
Programme for 1905 concert. Source.
After holding conducting posts in Vienna, Prague, and Berlin, Zemlinsky fled Nazism in 1938, making his home in New York, where his work attracted little attention.
The Lyric symphony (which inspired the Lyric suite of Alban Berg) dates from 1923, with Rabindranath Tagore’s poems sung by soprano and baritone: