In his Lyric Symphony, Alexander Zemlinsky combines a variety of immerging musical ideas into a hybrid of early twentieth century genre and style. Written for baritone, soprano and orchestra, this work is a seven-movement crossbreed between a symphony and an opera (Beaumont). The work is also known for incorporating diverse compositional styles ranging from impressionism to atonality. Although Zemlinsky weaves an unusual array of musical techniques into his eclectic sound, he avoids making any new innovations of his own.
As a composer, Alexander Zemlinksky primarily wrote for voice in the form of Opera and song. His instrumental works are fewer and include chamber music, orchestral works, and piano pieces. Zemlinsky’s music is unique because it draws on the ideas of a varied group of composers including: Strauss, Mahler, Debussy, Brahms, Ravel, and Berg, many of whom he knew personally. Like numerous composers of his time, Zemlinsky was also a prominent conductor, holding posts in famous musical cities such as Vienna, Prague, and Berlin (Oncley). His work as a conductor introduced him to large-scale works by major composers, such as Mahler, whom he later came to admire. In this way, his conducting had a profound impact of his compositional style.
Lyric Symphony Op. 18, one of Zemlinsky’s most important pieces, was premiered in 1924 at the International Society for New Music in Prague. He used text from a set of poems by Rabindranath Tagore, an Indian writer, entitled The Gardener. Zemlinsky carefully selected seven poems from the set and arranged them as a type of dialogue between a man and a woman longing for love. He used a German translation of Tagore’s poems, which were originally written in English. The seven songs in Lyric Symphony are performed continuously without breaks between movements. The soprano and tenor never sing together, instead they take turns singing alternating movements.
The first movement begins with a gallant and stately introduction, setting the stage for the baritone’s character. The baritone sings of his great desire to see other lands and to go beyond what he knows. It is a song of yearning to experience new things and foreshadows the new experiences both characters are about to discover. The second movement introduces the soprano’s character. She sings a light, peasant-like song about her excitement that the prince is going to pass by her door. She later tells that she threw her ruby necklace at him even though he didn’t notice. This movement establishes the contrasting lives of the two characters. The third movement returns to the baritone in a dream-like song. The melody is passionate and flowing as he sings about the night sky and love. The fourth movement is the sopranos night song, however, her’s has a slightly different tone. She sings about how day will come and they will see each other but go their separate ways. The tonality twists and the orchestration is sparse with frequent interjections from a solo violin. The fifth movement is fast paced and fiery. The baritone sings that he wants to be freed back to the light so that he can offer his love. In the sixth movement the music becomes increasingly atonal. The soprano sings of how her heart is hurting and worries that they will forget their love when day comes. The baritone finishes the work with the seventh movement. He refers to their parting, suggesting they consider it not “death but completion” (Beaumont). At the end of the movement turmoil builds in the orchestra but then resolves into a dream-like state and floats to a pleasant ending. Both the sixth and seventh movements bring back material form earlier movements, similar to a leitmotiv. The piece has a thick and complex orchestral texture and requires strong operatic voices and careful interpretation for all parts to be heard (Gorrell).
Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony is a combination of such a wide array of styles, it is difficult to compare it to just one type of early twentieth century music. Like many other composers of his time, Zemlinsky was experimenting with new ideas. However, several styles are specifically referenced in the work. One example is his use of an ethereal orchestral texture in several movements, particularly those taking place at night. This technique is attributed to the influence of Debussy and Ravel. Zemlinsky is also said to have written his symphony with Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in mind, intending to pay homage to the composer (Gorrell). The two works have important similarities in form and in the use of text by non-western writers. Lyric Symphony, in turn provided inspiration for another work, Berg’s Lyric Suite that quotes the symphony’s third song.
I was originally drawn in by the unusual timbre of this piece. I was surprised by Zemlinsky’s ability to capture so many different styles. He combined the sounds of everything that was going on around him, impressionism, late romantic symphonic writing, atonality, exoticism, primitivism, and more. I was also fascinated by his use of Tagore’s poetry. He arranged seven unrelated poems into a type of story. The characters have a strange connection, even though they are singing about their individual experiences, they are also singing to each other.
Zemlinsky created Lyric Symphony by combining a wide range of styles, an innovation of sorts. At the same time, by copying other composers he avoided inventing a musical style of his own. Composers like Debussy and Mahler are known for shaping music into something it hadn’t been before, which is why they’re considered great composers. Zemlinsky didn’t do this; he just took their ideas and used them in his music. Although I like his work, this is the main reason I feel it isn’t currently in the canon and should not be added. Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony is a fascinating piece but lacks originality.