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Der Komponist im Spiegel - Deutsche Oper Berlin

An essay by Arne Stollberg

The Composer in the Mirror

Dimensions of a self-analysis in Alexander Zemlinsky's DER ZWERG


Autobiographical information

"You must separate the person from the work." This admonishment by the count to his sister the countess in Richard Strauss' CAPRICCIO can hardly be contested as a hermeneutical principle. Even Walter Benjamin insisted on treating "works" not simply as "testimonials", thereby undermining their aesthetic obstinacy. Yet in the case of Alexander Zemlinsky's DER ZWERG, things are more complicated – and there is no better authority on the matter than the librettist himself, Georg C. Klaren. For the special issue of the Prague-based music publication Der Auftakt exclusively devoted to Zemlinsky, published in 1921, Klaren contributed a remarkable essay titled, "Zemlinsky, from a psychological standpoint". In it he championed the idea that every artist's creations stem from individual, mental "requirements", "from the wealth of real experiences, associated meditations, [...] incurred realisations." It is thus, says Klaren, fundamentally false to preserve "a history of literature or music or art" that abstracts "from the creator" and settles "for a wise terminology of theoretical analysis of beats," instead of "achieving the mental comprehension of a work through psychological consideration of the composer".

Specifically for Klaren it is a matter of discussing "sexual pathological standpoints", and he does not hesitate to characterise Zemlinsky as a "passivist" with his "abnormal hypersensitivity": "A passivist is always erotically a masochist and has a certain hypochondria of the idea of the woman [...]." This consequently led him to Oscar Wilde's fairy tale The Birthday of the Infanta, and then to the subject of ZWERG: "A person is placed among people without knowing that he is made differently than they, [...] and he shatters upon the woman who does not wish to know of his deepest being, yet does not tell him what separates him from others, but rather plays with him [...]."

The apparent near inexorability with which Klaren, a proponent of Otto Weininger and student of Freudian psychoanalysis, virtually lays Zemlinsky on the couch, is astonishing today. The question of whether he followed his own principles by revising Wilde's tale in an opera script, and thus self-reflexively turning "sexual psychology", as he conceptualised it as the driving force of artistic activity, along with its foundation in "real experiences", into the actual subject of the libretto becomes automatically virulent. In other words, is the unfortunate dwarf – by Klaren's reckoning – actually identical to Zemlinsky? Then who was the cruel Infanta?

This consideration is by no means as absurd or voyeuristic as it may appear at first glance. Zemlinsky himself notes in a letter to Emil Hertzka from Universal Edition that well-meaning friends had "reservations" about the subject matter, possibly because the references to himself as a person were too on the nose. And for one simple reason: Zemlinsky, frequent victim of derisive caricaturists, was considered – quite like the dwarf from the opera – a distinctly ugly man. And this ugliness had once been presented to him by a young woman such that the idea that Klaren oriented himself toward this and granted the composer – as Antony Beaumont writes – occasion for unprecedented, musical theatre "self-degradation", "self-destruction" and "self-purification" appears more than obvious. The matter at hand is Zemlinsky's affair with Alma Schindler, eventually Alma Mahler. Did real life truly provide the blueprint for sublimating art, with the full awareness of all parties involved?


Alex and Alma

The conflict between outer deformity and internal magnanimity, between erotic repulsion and artistic-spiritual attractive that also climaxed in sexual fantasies, was of such critical importance to the liaison between the 21-year-old Alma Schindler and her teacher eight years her senior, with whom she enjoyed private composition lessons between November 1900 and December 1901 until her engagement to Gustav Mahler, that the step toward the pathological does not seem too remote. Incited by everyday Viennese antisemitism and advice like that from her father's friend Max Burckhard not to "spoil the good race" through an association with Zemlinsky, Alma developed a true obsession with the contrast between her beauty and the ugliness and short physical stature of the equally renowned Zemlinsky. Her diary talks of this, such as on 21 April 1901: "[...] if I were to stand [...] at the altar with Z. – how ridiculous it would be ... He is so ugly – so short, I so beautiful – so tall. My heart could never feel love for this person, no matter how much I may try." Yet then at another point [18 October 1900]: "I do not find him strange – and not ugly, as intelligence radiates from his eyes – and such a person is never ugly." At one point Alma, after she has witnessed "flies mating", which was also not "unaesthetic" as she says, calls longingly for her "Alex", wishing to be his "consecrating pool": "Pour your overflow into me," [24 September 1901]. Then once more she is repulsed by "bringing small, degenerate Jew children into the world" [28 July 1901].

Such thoughts are not confined to the privacy of the diary, for Alma appears to have spoken openly with Zemlinsky about them. In a letter from 22 May 1901 the deeply wounded "Alex" snaps back at her, "I cannot and will not let myself be dragged down. All of my pride is now growing." And five days later, "So I am terribly hideous?! So be it! I thank God for making me this way. And I thank God that there have been so many girls who reached my soul through my ugliness [...]." On 13 April 1901 Alma's diary contains a quote from "Alex" with which, from the perspective of the eventual opera, he seeks to divest himself from the role of the dwarf: "I will not let myself be toyed with." And his frequent accusation against Alma could also be directed toward the spoiled, indulgent Infanta: "I know: all of your notions, your boundless vanity, hedonism, all prevent you from being happy in our situation" [letter from 4 November 1901].

Alma's engagement to Gustav Mahler on 23 December 1901 was the irrevocable ending point. Seven days prior it had come to an end during a visit by Zemlinsky. In Alma's diary, on 16 December 1901, we read: "A beautiful love was buried today. Gustav, you must do a great deal to replace it for me. [...] My poor Alex – I saw the pain in his face. Your miserable, miserable person!" One can only speculate the extent to which the composer truly did suffer. On 28 December 1901 he laconically wrote to Arnold Schönberg in a letter, "Breaking news: Mahler engaged to Alma Schindler", followed by no fewer than twenty-five dashes, a sign of speechlessness that likewise showed the distinct need for creative articulation. In 1909 Zemlinsky asked his colleague Franz Schreker to write him a libretto: the "Tragedy of the Ugly Man", which would become DIE GEZEICHNETEN, which Schreker scored himself. Despite his marriage with Ida Guttmann in 1907 and the passionate affair with singer Luise [Louise] Sachsel from 1920 until 1930 when, following Ida's death, Sachsel became Zemlinsky's second wife, it seems that the wound that was Alma never healed, the incurred grievance uncompensated, until Georg C. Klaren ultimately delivered the Wilde adaptation DER ZWERG at Zemlinsky's behest: the very thing that the composer clearly needed to respond to his trauma.


"A calling to be a singer drives him forward"

How clear were the circumstances surrounding Alma Schindler and Alexander Zemlinsky to Georg C. Klaren, especially in light of the fact that he, born in 1900, was still an infant at the time? This question is not easy to answer. In any case the fact of the matter is that his changes to the literary template not only seem to aim to place focus on the "sexual-pathological", but also to approximate Zemlinsky's own circumstances. The character of Ghita, not from Wilde's original, who is a "motherly" counter-figure to the coquettish and irresponsible Infanta, has a name that sounds similar to Zemlinsky's wife Ida, although this may be purely coincidental; yet it becomes all the more significant as the composer uses Ghita's statement that, were she the Infanta, she would "grace the people with my love who are joyless and ugly" to allude to one of his own works: the third of the "Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel für Klavier" op. 9, captioned with "Love", from 1898.

The character of the dwarf himself undergoes a major reinterpretation: in Wilde's original the son of a poor collier, coincidentally picked up by nobles in nearby woods, the title character of the opera advances to become a poet and musician – an artist. "A calling to be a singer drives him forward," says the steward, and the Infanta asks the dwarf to sing for her upon their first meeting, because, "It is said that you write poetry better than you speak."

The dwarf's origins remain uncertain: yet that he sailed across the world's seas with a "Spaniard [...] for ten years", has seen "distant coasts like paradise", to then be "sold to the Sultan" and finally given to the Infanta as a gift – this mysterious past gives him an aura of the exotic, cloaked by Zemlinsky in the intricate sound of the sadly lamenting English horn arabesque that accompanies the first mention of the dwarf ["The Sultan sent a dwarf as a game by cruel nature"]. The strange complexion, invoked by the avoidance of common cadence steps, may be planned, although, as Antony Beaumont presumes, it could serve as a musical equivalent for "Zemlinsky's Jewish-Muslim background" as well as his "partial Turkish heritage", in turn once more comparing the character of the dwarf to the composer himself. His love for Alma did ultimately fail when, in the end, his beloved counted him among those "small half-Jews ... who will never escape their Jewish community" [diary from 27 April 1901] – the sad English horn arabesque with the wistful and murky flourish [performance instruction: "do not hurry"] would then simultaneously serve as an identification and a stigma.


"... always a little for Schönberg"

Should Zemlinsky's ZWERG be, as described, permeated by the grooves of "real experiences, [...] incurred realisations", once again according to Klaren, it would certainly be too short-sighted to think only of the sexual-pathological. Something else is incorporated – a music history dimension around the immediate time of the Alma affair. In her autobiography Mein Leben, Alma Mahler remembers, "I met Arnold Schönberg when I was being taught by Zemlinsky [...]. Schönberg was Zemlinsky's favourite student, about whom he was already saying at the time, 'The world will be talking about him.'" In that regard Zemlinsky was going to be proven more right than he preferred. A few months after the end of his relationship with Alma, in February 1902, he began working on a "fantasy for orchestras", Die Seejungfrau, based on the fairy tale The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen. In terms of content the plot about the tragic impossibility of love between beings from different worlds may have spoken to him, as his own situation appeared to be reflected and artfully veiled therein. Alma Schindler, who became Alma Mahler on 9 March 1902, may also have felt addressed here in another gender as the Prince. However, on top of this Zemlinsky had begun a friendly competition with his former student, friend and brother-in-law [husband to Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde]: while writing Seejungfrau, Schönberg was working on the tone poem Pelleas und Melisande [inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck], and when Zemlinsky finally received this score he admitted to being truly surpassed by Schönberg: "It is the most tremendously difficult thing to ever happen to me. [...] I am struggling to carry on. I am loving my melodic or harmonic thread with each moment; must start again, and then my head and eyes hurt so much that I must stop."

The fact that both compositions, Zemlinsky's Seejungfrau and Schönberg's Pelleas und Melisande, premiered at the same concert on 25 January 1905 in Vienna was an extremely unfortunate situation for Zemlinsky, as Schönberg's work drew all of the attention, for better or for worse. Resentful at the lack of attention and certainly unnerved by the audacity of the score by his former student, Zemlinsky withdrew Seejungfrau from a planned performance in Berlin, and it appears that throughout his life he made no further attempts to make the composition heard – although he tellingly modelled the string melody of a passage from ZWERG [to the words: "perhaps barely older than twenty, perhaps as old as the sun"], clearly a variant of the aforementioned English horn arabesque, after the main theme of Seejungfrau.
The private affront by Alma thus gave Zemlinsky the sense that he had vanished into musical history. This would become a lifelong theme of his art, with every step that Schönberg took forward toward atonality and ultimately into twelve-tone technique, aware to a degree of how Zemlinsky was increasingly becoming insecure: "I lack your optimism, your patience, your humour, your lust for life," he wrote to his brother-in-law in late March 1903. "I have become far different from how I was." Phases of alienation, including of a private nature [Mathilde Schönberg's affair with the painter Richard Gerstl and his suicide, Schönberg's swift remarriage after Mathilde's death in 1923] also occurred. And yet Zemlinsky kept faith with Schönberg, at least outwardly, without denying that her neither could nor wished to follow his path.

Nevertheless Erich Wolfgang Korngold's memory could not be entirely plucked out of the air. Around 1910 Zemlinsky, from whom he received private composition instruction at the time, underwent "a sort of artistic crisis of self-affirmation against the new and enticing, radical theories from his revered brother-in-law Arnold Schönberg". Erich Wolfgang Korngold's father, music critic Julius Korngold, expressed it somewhat drastically with regard to ZWERG on the occasion of the Vienna premiere in November 1923: "Brother-in-law of Schönberg, Zemlinsky also always composes a little for Schönberg."

What could be meant by this? Indeed not only is the "true" physiology of the dwarf, of which he has no idea ["He hobbles, [...] his entire figure small and crooked"], musically illustrated with stylistic choices that may stem from Schönberg's arsenal of expressionist tonal language [trombone and string smears "entirely on the bridge", noisy concentrations of dissonance, fourth chords, etc.], but rather that one moment in particular in which the protagonist views his own reflection, is composed in a bruitistic manner reminiscent of works like Schönberg's ERWARTUNG – created in 1909, but only premiered in Prague under Zemlinsky's direction. With Theodor W. Adorno's Schönberg interpretation it could be said that the garishly overexposed veil of an artificially mellifluous music tears open, revealing a visible ugliness behind the fabric of lies surrounding the dwarf that means nothing other than the truth. Yet was this Zemlinsky's last word – the admission that truth [including in art] can only be identified with ugliness and beauty is an illusion, a delusion that he had to experience first-hand in his relationship with Alma? It is not that simple: DER ZWERG contains an ambiguity that defies simple answers, as Zemlinsky – perhaps not without irony – confessed upon completion of the opera that he feared having composed it downright "melodically". And thus a modern listener may feel the same as Alban Berg, who experienced the "tragedy" of the piece "in such a painful manner that it [...] can barely be endured", yet who for that very reason basked in the "great parts of pleasure" with their "endlessly sweet and overflowing melody". Zemlinsky would certainly have agreed.


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