The Austrian composer, conductor and teacher ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY (Alexander von Zemlinsky) grew up in Vienna, in the Jewish suburb of Leopoldstadt. His origins were mixed. His grandfather, Anton Semlinsky, emigrated from Žilina, Hungary (now in Slovakia) to Austria and married an Austrian woman. Both came from Roman Catholic families, and his father, Adolf, was raised as a Catholic. Alexander’s mother was born in Sarajevo to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Bosniak Muslim mother. His entire family converted to his grandfather’s religion, Judaism. His father added an aristocratic “von” to his name, though neither he nor his forebears were ennobled. He also began spelling his surname through “Z”. Alexander Zemlinsky converted from Judaism to Protestantism in 1899.
He was involved with music from a young age. He studied piano at the Conservatory with the famous Austrian pianist and teacher Anton Door (1884-1890), then composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner, and conducting with Franz Krenn (1890 to 1900). It was at this time that Zemlinsky began to write music. As artistic director of the orchestral association Polyhymnia, founded in 1895, he met the 21-year-old Arnold Schoenberg, who became his pupil and close friend, and through his marriage to Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde (1901) also his brother-in-law. Zemlinsky was also a teacher, patron and friend of the composers Anton Webern and Erich Wolfgang Korngold.
Zemlinsky was active as a conductor. In 1906 Zemlinsky was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper, from 1907/1908 at the Hofoper in Vienna. From 1911 to 1927, he was conductor at Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, premiering Schoenberg’s Erwartung (Expectation) in 1924. Zemlinsky then moved to Berlin, where he taught and worked under Otto Klemperer as a conductor at the Kroll Opera. At the same time he taught at the Berlin Academy of Music.
His name is respected and recognized in professional circles in Germany. But after Hitler seized power, in 1933 he was forced to leave the country and returned to Austria. He worked as conductor of the Vienna Concert Orchestra, and in 1938 he fled to New York via Prague and Paris. Unfortunately, his last years were filled with great despair. Neglected and almost unknown in American musical circles, he fell ill and stopped composing. He died in exile of pneumonia. In the decades following World War II, his works were rarely performed.
Zemlinsky’s music combines features of late Romanticism and modernity. His early works were influenced by Brahms, then one can feel his closeness to Mahler and Wagner and Schoenberg. He wrote eight operas, three symphonies, four string quartets, chamber music, piano works, choral works, and songs. In recent decades his work has attracted performers and scholars, and his name is among the most important Austrian composers of the twentieth century.