ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY: Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), Symphonic Fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen

Alexander Zemlinsky was born in Vienna on October 14, 1871, and died in Larchmont, New York, on March 15, 1942. He began Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid) in February 1902, completing the score on March 20, 1903. The first performance took place in Vienna on January 25, 1905. The large orchestra requires for four flutes (third and fourth doubling piccolo), two oboes and English horn, E-flat clarinet, two clarinets in A and B-flat, bass clarinet, three bassoons, six horns, three trumpets, three tenor trombones and bass trombone, tuba, timpani, glockenspiel, triangle, suspended cymbals, two tubular bells, two harps, and strings.

Like Arnold Schoenberg, Zemlinsky began writing music in the lush late Romantic style of composers like Richard Strauss. Though his style grew more modern in later years, he never followed Schoenberg into the realm of atonality. Partly for this reason (since historical novelty always gains composers extra credit from critics and scholars) his music was far less remembered after his death than Schoenberg’s, though in recent decades it has made a formidable comeback. His four string quartets, several operas (two based on stories by Oscar Wilde), and his Lyric Symphony of 1923 (quite possibly influenced in its shape by Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde) have been recorded and performed more often.

The Mermaid is one of the lushest of his early orchestral scores, a forty-five-minute tone poem in three movements based on Hans Christian Andersen’s 1836 tale of the sea nymph who falls in love with a mortal and yearns to become one herself in order to be with him, only to realize that their union is impossible and that they can never be married, when it is too late for her to return to the sea as a mermaid.

The story is one of Andersen’s most famous, but that may not be the only reason why Zemlinsky turned to it as the subject matter for a lengthy symphonic poem. For at just this time he himself had become the central figure in a story that was all too similar.

When Zemlinsky conducted the world premiere of his opera Es war einmal (Once upon a time), one member of the audience was a beautiful twenty-on-year-old music student named Alma Schindler. Her first reaction to the conductor-composer was not encouraging: “A caricature—chinless, small, with bulging eyes and a downright crazy conducting style.” But two weeks later, when she met him in person at a dinner party, she found that, despite his looks (“he’s downright ugly”), they shared many artistic and intellectual enthusiasms (“I found him quite enthralling”). Before long he became her music teacher, strengthening her understanding of theory and showing her how her songs could be improved. Before long Alma reconsidered her first reaction: “I find him neither hideous nor grotesque, for his eyes sparkle with intelligence—and such a person is never ugly.”

She began to think of marriage with him, though plans were made difficult by the anti-Semitism of many of her friends and their feeling that he was essentially a nobody. Still, she told him that she wanted to have his children and planned soon to consummate a relationship when fate intervened. On November 7, 1901, while Zemlinsky was conducting in Graz, Alma went to a dinner party where she was seated across the table from Gustav Mahler. He immediately invited her to his orchestra rehearsal at the opera the next morning, and within a matter of days she found herself balancing the two men as potential husband material. On December 12, she wrote to Zemlinsky, breaking off their relationship. Mahler married Alma in February 1902.

A few days before the wedding—which he did not attend—Zemlinsky began work on a symphonic poem that he originally planned in two movements, later expanded to three, on the story of the little mermaid. The completion of the score took just over a year. During the summer of 1902 his brother-in-law, Arnold Schoenberg, began a tone poem himself, apparently in a mood of friendly competition, based on Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande. As was customary when he was working well and without interruption, Schoenberg composed with astonishing speed and completed his draft in a few weeks. Ultimately both scores received their first performances on the same program.

Zemlinsky’s biographer Anthony Beaumont points out several links between Andersen’s story and the composer’s decision to create a musical version. The little mermaid was in the first place inspired to look into the world of humans by a memento—a statue of a young man—that had fallen into the sea from a sinking ship. Zemlinsky had his own memento, a portrait of Alma, which he cherished. Both the little mermaid and the composer suffered considerable pain over their love. And in the end, the mermaid was warned by the Mer-witch, “The first morning after he marries another, your heart will break.” Zemlinsky, starting his work just days before Alma married another, told Schoenberg that his Mermaid score was “a preliminary study for my Symphony of Death.”

Despite his depressed mood, though, Zemlinsky attacked the work with all the high-minded idealism that his training had wrought in him. He was particularly concerned to develop thematic coherence throughout the score (in this respect he was a follower of both Brahms, in the realm of symphonic writing, and of Wagner in the theater). He began by creating a series of musical themes, often subtly interconnected in their essential components, out of which the score would grow. While it can be intriguing and even helpful to identify all the thematic ideas in a work like this, it is more important for a listener encountering the work for the first time (as virtually everyone in this audience is surely doing) to be more aware of the general scope of the score and to follow the musical thought for its own beauties rather than to try to identify episodes in the story. This is especially the case because Zemlinsky himself, after laying out the various motives for his music, became more interested in the sheer musical element.

The first movement is closest to Andersen’s story, suggesting the little mermaid’s interest in the human world, a storm at sea, and her saving from a shipwreck of the young prince with whom she falls in love and who motivates her decision to become human.

But he reuses many of the same thematic ideas in a totally new guise for his scherzo (the second movement) celebrating festivities in the palace of the Mer-king. The contrasting trio concentrates on the mermaid herself and her love for the prince, which she will pursue despite the risk of her own pain and death.

The third movement offers only the merest outline of the end of the story, instead developing the musical ideas connected with the mermaid to suggest her first steps on land, her decision to throw herself into the sea to end it all, and the final transfiguration—a truly Wagnerian concept both for the story and the music—that transfigures her into an “immortal soul.” —© Steven Ledbetter