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Zemlinsky Maeterlinck-Lieder

The music of Berg and Zemlinsky

The concert in the main hall of the Musikverein on the evening of March 31st had an interesting programme. It consisted of Webern's Six Orchestral Pieces Op. 6, Zemlinsky's Four Maeterlinck Songs Op. 13, numbers 2 and 3 of Berg's Five Orchestral Songs to Picture Postcard texts by Peter Altenberg Op. 4, and Mahler's Kindertotenlieder. Arnold Schoenberg would also conduct his own Chamber Symphony op. 9. The works by Webern, Zemlinsky and Berg were all world premières, though the original version of Zemlinsky's op. 13 with piano accompaniment was premièred in Vienna on 11 December 1910. Due to the uproar caused by the Berg songs, the concert had to be abandoned.

Foto Olga Schoten, 2013
photo Olga Schoten, 2013
Alban Berg

With his lanky figure, asthmatic shoulders, aquiline profile and expressive eyes, Alban Berg (1885–1935) looked like a character from Oscar Wilde. Gossip and amorous affairs were his delight. The need to be in love, desperately in love if possible, was overwhelming, but his extra-marital affairs were rarely consummated: that was less important to him. As a young man, he took a course in accounting, attended lectures in law and musicology at the University of Vienna, and studied privately with Schoenberg. In 1910, thanks to an annuity, he was able to give up his office job and devote his time to composition.

For Berg, time was of the essence. Rarely have composers attended more scrupulously to the minutiae of their scores; not for nothing did his friend Theodor W. Adorno describe him as a 'master of the smallest transition'. He spent six years working on Wozzeck, his undisputed masterpiece, and seven years on his second opera, Lulu, which remained unfinished at his tragically early death. During Berg's lifetime, Wozzeck was performed so often that from the proceeds he was able to purchase a black model A Ford, still preserved at the family home in Carinthia. Schoenberg did little to disguise his contempt for the success of his former student, but later acknowledged that Berg was 'the only one capable of winning wider acceptance for our cause'.

Hier ist Friede

At Schoenberg's 'scandal concert' on 31 March 1913, the audience did not hear Berg's Op. 4 or Zemlinsky's Op. 13 as we know them today. For one thing, neither of the cycles was presented in its entirety; for another, the Altenberg Songs were sung by a tenor. 

Berg would have preferred a soprano, and stressed that his favourite song, 'Hier ist Friede', was suitable only for a female voice, but in the event Schoenberg chose the second and third songs, which needed less rehearsal time. Accordingly, Berg secured the services of Alfred Julius Boruttau (1877-1940), a singer with perfect pitch, noted for his commitment to contemporary music. Boruttau was on the roster of the new German Theatre in Prague until 1909, and subsequently active as voice teacher and concert singer in Vienna. At the world première of Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder on 23 February 1913, he sang the part of Klaus-Narr.

Initially, the 'scandal concert' was scheduled for 30 March. It was postponed to March 31 because Boruttau was not available the previous day. With remarkable foresight, Berg remarked to Schoenberg that, should there be disturbances during the performance, Boruttau was unlikely to lose his nerve.

Altenberg Lieder

Where Webern remained a faithful follower of Schoenberg, Berg sometimes took a more independent stance. Several aspects of the Altenberg Songs manifest his approach. Schoenberg was determined to eliminate diatonicism from his music; Berg organized his pitch content around small, shifting islands of tonal harmony. In his vocal music, Schoenberg's prime concern was to penetrate to the psychological core of a text and define its musical 'atmosphere'. Berg, in contrast, examined his texts for their architectural potential, which then emerged as rondos, sonata forms, palindromes and passacaglias. Sentiment became subservient to structure.

Altenberg's postcards

Eccentric, psychologically unstable, a heavy drinker, Peter Altenberg (1859–1919) wrote prose poems and a few novels. Known primarily to a small circle of admirers (including Alban Berg and his wife Helene), he cultivated a 'telegraphic' style quite unlike that of Maeterlinck. Altenberg strove for clarity, compassion and wit. Once, while still at school, he was required to discuss 'The influence of the New World on the Old'. He wrote just one word – 'Potatoes' – and failed the exam. Like Maeterlinck, he was obsessed by young girls, but in no sadistic sense. It was their beauty that fascinated him. 'A woman is too old, but never too young', he wrote. 'The law says: no younger than fourteen. But laws are not made by artists.'

Altenberg kept a collection of picture postcards in Japanese lacquer boxes. The first box was dedicated to his heroes: Hugo Wolf, Beethoven, Tolstoy and Klimt; in the second he kept pictures of Mount Fuji and other wonders of the natural world; the third was reserved for photographs of young, often prepubescent girls, posing nude or scantily clad.
The first Altenberg Song is the most complex of the five. Berg drew his texts from Altenberg's Neues Altes (Berlin, 1911). The book also contains three prose poems inspired by Berg's wife, Helene. Adorno compared its opening bars to the Prelude of Franz Schreker's opera Die Gezeichneten:

'The nature of Berg's mixed sonority [...] is such that while the simultaneously juxtaposed colors [...] blend into a whole, they at the same time remain unhomogeneous, independently layered. [...] Planned disorganization becomes organization; such clear-cut intention transforms those eighteen instrumental bars into something other than the chaos they initially appeared to be.'

Schoenberg was more worried about the closing bars: 'I find some things disturbing', he wrote, 'particularly the rather too obvious desire to use new means.' Berg replied: 'Perhaps my mode of expression is like that of a child who hears so many foreign words at home that he uses them all the time, even when he hasn't yet quite mastered his mother-tongue. But at least I cherish the hope that the child uses the foreign words correctly.'

Alexander von Zemlinsky

The first four of Zemlinsky's Maeterlinck songs (the first, second, third and fifth) were composed in 1910 and orchestrated two weeks before Schoenberg's concert, within the space of five days. At the concert, which Zemlinsky was unable to attend, the soloist was the soprano Margarethe Bum (née Pollak, 1882–?). She was known primarily as a concert singer.

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942) was a composer, conductor, orchestrator, teacher, accompanist; Catholic, Sephardic Jew and Muslim all in one; workaholic and womanizer, fond of big cigars and small dogs. Since his rehabilitation in the early 1970s, his artistic stature has never ceased to grow. Schoenberg was Zemlinsky's closest friend, his pupil and (from 1902 to 1923) his brother-in-law. In later years they rarely saw eye to eye. Alma Schindler studied privately with Zemlinsky, loved him and left him in favour of Mahler. Berg, who attended Zemlinsky's orchestration classes, came to value him as mentor, friend, confidant and go-between. The young Zemlinsky was strongly influenced by Brahms and Wagner. His post-Romantic middle period, which began in 1902 with The Mermaid, culminated twenty years later with the Lyric Symphony. His stance grew more progressive; sometimes indeed he flirted with Neue Sachlichkeit, neo-Classicism and jazz. Forced to leave Nazi Germany, he returned to Vienna then fled in 1938 via Prague to the USA, where he died in obscurity.

Maeterlinck Lieder

Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) was the winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911: respectable, cosmopolitan, debonair, renowned for his stage works, notably Pelléas and Mélisande and The Blue Bird. With terse, often monosyllabic language, Maeterlinck lures the reader into dark labyrinths. Rich in symbols – keys, crowns, turrets and caves, gold and silver, light and shadow, the numbers three and seven – his poetry conjures up the magic of a lost world. Many of his dramas depict the fate of young girls, blindfolded, abandoned, molested or left to languish in dark cellars. 'How often, without even the knock of warning, does death's door suddenly gape or stand ajar,' wrote the English journalist Henry W. Nevinson (1909), 'and unseen hands are pulling, and children are drawn in, and young girls are drawn in, and wise men, and the old.' While looking back to a distant, murky past, Maeterlinck's scenarios were also prophetic of real-life monsters in our own time: Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, Marc Dutroux, Josef Fritzl, Ariel Castro.

Zemlinsky completed the cycle in the summer of 1913, and orchestrated the two new songs in 1921. Schoenberg expressed concern that the score would be intricate and require a lot of rehearsal time, but Zemlinsky assured him that the sole difficulty lay in the frequent changes of tempo. 'The Three Sisters will need careful preparation', he wrote, adding that the other three songs needed to be rehearsed 'only with regard to their atmosphere.'


Zemlinsky's middle-period works are terser and less opulently scored than his fin-de-siècle compositions. He began to experiment with harmony based on perfect 4ths, but did not follow Schoenberg further on the path to atonality. To do so would have been to abandon everything he stood for: the expressive, colouristic and symbolic qualities of the diatonic system, the divine order of musical number.

The rising minor triad in the vocal part of 'Die drei Schwester' is quoted – perhaps fortuitously – from an early song, 'O Blätter, dürre Blätter', composed in 1897. This slender link could perhaps throw some light on Zemlinsky's interpretation of Maeterlinck's poem – but perhaps he chose not to interpret it at all. His music provides an appropriate 'atmosphere' for the text – no more and no less. In the two-bar postlude, added to the song in 1913, euphoria erupts into violence: reflection of the Zeitgeist?

'Die Mädchen mit den verbunden Augen' recalls the fate of the seven captive princesses of Maeterlinck's Ariane et Barbe-bleue. The repeated interjections in the poem – '(Take off the golden blindfold!)' – are mirrored by abrupt changes of metre and tempo.
The soft-edged sonority of 'Lied der Jungfrau' emphasizes the devotional quality of the poem, taken from the miracle play Sœur Béatrice (1896). 'That short E-flat major melody at the end is wonderful,' wrote Schoenberg.

Although the text offers no hint of a theatrical origin, 'Als ihr Geliebter schied' was written for the tragedy Aglavaine et Sélysette (1896). Tolstoy was irritated by Maeterlinck's deliberate vagueness. 'Who went out?' he fumed, 'Who came in? Who is speaking? Who died?' The last three songs of the cycle sustain the atmosphere of stoic contemplation established in the second and third.
'My God, how beautiful it all is', wrote Webern.

Antony Beaumont