Operas by Alexander Zemlinsky

Alexander Zemlinsky (1871-1942) was well known in his lifetime as the general music director of the New German Theater (now the State Opera) in Prague, a position he held for sixteen years, from 1911 to 1927.

Alexander Zemlinsky, His Life and Work (brochure from an exhibition in Frankfurt, 2007)

Zemlinsky was also much in demand as a music teacher. One of his students, Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951), later became a famous composer who was controversial because of his role in defining the technique of twelve-tone rows.

Another student of Zemlinsky’s was a young lady named Alma Schindler, with whom he had an intense but frustrating love-affair.

I will resist the temptation to go into detail about Alma Schindler, except to mention that she was at various times married to the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius and the author Franz Werfel.

For a while, she was also the mother-in-law of a younger composer, Ernst Krenek (1900-1991), who later criticized her extensively in his autobiography.

Frankfurt Opera in the intermission of “Der Traumgörge”

In addition to his conducting and other duties, Alexander Zemlinsky found time to compose eight operas, four of which I have seen:

Program booklet for “Der Traumgörge” in Frankfurt

Zemlinsky’s opera Der Traumgörge (usually translated as “George the Dreamer”) was commissioned by Gustav Mahler in his capacity as director of the Vienna Court Opera (now the Vienna State Opera) and was composed by Zemlinsky from 1904 to 1906.

Rehearsals for a world premiere in 1907 were well underway when Mahler, worn down by a bitter anti-sematic press campaign, resigned as opera director. Mahler’s successor canceled the premiere, with the result that Der Traumgörge was not performed in public until 1980, thirty-eight years after Zemlinsky’s death.

When I saw Der Traumgörge in Frankfurt (2024) I was impressed by the music, but less so by the libretto. The only really dramatic part was at the end of the second act, when George rouses himself from his dream life long enough to save his girl friend from a lynch mob. Otherwise there are long stretches without much happening.

The libretto was by Leo Feld, not to be confused with the composer Leo Fall, whose operetta Die Dollarprinzessin (“The Dollar Princess”) by coincidence actually did have its premiere 1907 in Vienna, as it was not cancelled like Zemlinsky’s opera. (I once saw “The Dollar Princess” in the new opera house in Erfurt with Frauke Schäfer in the title role, in a clever production including among other things a swimming pool full of dollars, as in a Scrooge McDuck comic.)


Program booklet for A Florentine Tragedy and The Dwarf in Frankfurt

Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) and Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) are two short operas that Zemlinsky composed, several years apart, during the busy period in his life when he was general music director of the New German Theater in Prague. Both these one-act operas are based on texts by Oscar Wilde (1854–1900), who also wrote Salome and The Importance of Being Earnest.

A Florentine Tragedy is based on an unfinished play that was never published in Wilde’s lifetime. A wealthy merchant in 16th century Florence comes home from a business trip and finds his wife in the arms of the local prince.

The Dwarf is based on Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” first published in 1891 as one of four “fairy tales” in A House of Pomegranates. A Spanish princess is given an ugly dancing dwarf for her birthday. All the mirrors in the palace are covered up, because the dwarf has never seen himself in a mirror and does not know how ugly he is. He believes the princess is in love with him, until he sees himself in a corner of a mirror and realizes she is only playing with him.

I saw both of these operas several times in 2007, when they were staged in Frankfurt by Udo Samel, better known in German-speaking countries as an actor who has played many film and television roles, for instance the role of the composer Franz Schubert in a 1980s Austrian television series.


Program booklets for “Der König Kandaules” in Cologne and Kaiserslautern

In the autumn of 1938, several months after German troops occupied Austria and declared it a part of the German empire, Zemlinsky and his family left Vienna and fled to New York by way of Prague, Belgium and France.

He took with him the manuscript of an unfinished opera, Der König Kandaules (King Candaules), based on a drama by the French author André Gide (1869-1951). This drama was first performed at the Théâtre de l’Œuvre in Paris in 1901. (André Gide was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1947.)

CD cover for “Der König Kandaules”

Queen Nyssia, the wife of King Candaules, was in the king’s opinion the most beautiful woman in the world, but he was annoyed that he could not show her off to his courtiers because she always kept her face and body concealed.

To show off his wife, King Candaules arranges for Gyges, a poor fisherman, to hide in his bedroom, using a magic ring to make himself invisible, and observe his wife as she gets undressed. Gyges does this, unwillingly at first, but then is so smitten that he makes love to the queen in the darkness. The next morning (in Act 3 Scene 3 of the opera) Queen Nyssia tells the king, “Oh, of all our nights, this night of love was the loveliest.”

When Nyssia realizes what has happened, she gives Gyges the choice of killing the king or being killed himself. He choses to kill the king; then he marries Nyssia and crowns himself king, beginning a new dynasty.

André Gide’s main source for the story of King Candaules was an account by the ancient Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus, who wrote that Candaules was the 22nd and last king of the Heraclid dynasty in the kingdom of Lydia (in what is now western Turkey) for 505 years. Another source was Plato’s Republic, which added the detail of the magic ring that could make its wearer invisible.

The opera Der König Kandaules was unfinished when Zemlinsky died in 1942. The score was later reconstructed and completed by Antony Beaumont for the Hamburg State Opera, where the world premiere finally took place in 1996, fifty-four years after the composer’s death.

So far, I have seen Der König Kandaules twice. The first time was in Cologne in 1999, with the original Hamburg staging and cast, including Nina Warren as Queen Nyssia. The second time was in Kaiserslautern in 2009, with a different cast and staging.


My transparency with a list of Zemlinsky’s operas

This is my listing of Zemlinsky’s eight operas, on a transparency that I used to have with me when I was teaching opera appreciation courses at the adult education center in Frankfurt. For some reason, I included the aristocratic von in his name, even though the composer himself stopped using it early in his adult life. The word von had been added to the name by his father, apparently without any convincing justification.


Zemlinsky’s star in Vienna’s Walk of Fame

All you loyal readers of my post on the Music Society in Vienna might recall that Vienna’s “Walk of Fame” includes a sidewalk star honoring Alexander von Zemlinsky, including the aristocratic von — but his signature on the star omits the von.

He seems to have dropped it around the time he dropped the second z in his name, which his father had spelled von Zemlinszky.

 

My photos in this post are from 2016 and 2024. I wrote the text in 2024.

See more posts on Alexander Zemlinsky.
See more opera lists by composer.

5 thoughts on “Operas by Alexander Zemlinsky”

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment. Zemlinsky is one of the lost generation of composers, whose works are gradually finding their way back into the repertoire.

  1. Interesting. Many years ago when my husband introduced me to Mahler, he mentioned Mahler’s wife, Alma Mahler, and I thought he was joking. I was thinking alma mater and it being a play on words. It took him a few minutes to convince me Alma Mahler was her real name. We still joke about it.

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