Yesterday evening the Chamber Music Society webcast the Escher String Quartet performing all four quartets by the Austrian composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. I knew almost nothing of Zemlinsky's music and had never heard any of his quartets, so I was quite looking forward to this performance. For an understanding of the composer's development as an artist the quartets seemed an ideal place to start as they were written over the full course of his career.
Zemlinsky began his studies in 1884 at the Vienna Conservatory where he was a student of Johann Nepomuk Fuchs. It was Fuchs who first introduced Brahms to Zemlinsky's music. The older composer, in turn, shortly before his death recommended Zemlinsky to his publisher Simrock. It was around this same time that Zemlinsky first met Schoenberg; their friendship was cemented when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister Mathilde in 1901. (Several years later there was a major scandal when Mathilde briefly left Schoenberg for the Viennese artist Richard Gerstl who then committed suicide when Mathilde returned to her husband.) Although Zemlinsky and Schoenberg were quite close - it was Zemlinsky who taught the latter counterpoint - Zemlinsky remained aloof from the Second Viennese School and never wrote any atonal music or made any use of the twelve-tone system. Instead, after his initial attraction to Brahms's music had worn off, he was influenced by Mahler, who conducted Zemlinsky's second opera in 1900, and later by neoclassicism and the Neue Sachlichkeit. Unfortunately, the composer never received anything like the recognition given his brother-in-law and was forced to support himself as a conductor first in Vienna, then Prague and finally Berlin (where he was assistant to Otto Klemperer). After the rise of the Nazis, Zemlinsky was forced to flee Europe altogether, as was Schoenberg, and he finally died in obscurity in 1942 in New York.
The quartets were played in chronological order beginning with the Quartet No. 1 in A major for Strings, Op. 4 (1896). It was written after Zemlinsky had graduated from the Conservatory and had joined the Wiener Tonkünstlerverein where he first came in contact with Brahms. Not surprisingly then, the quartet shows a strong Brahmsian influence throughout. It was in the same Romantic-Classical style that Brahms espoused and the work could be interpreted as a sincere tribute to the older composer. Or as a ploy on the young Zemlisky's part to win Brahms's approbation. The fact that Brahms immediately afterwards introduced Zemlinsky to his publisher Simrock can be taken as a sign that the effort was successful.
The Quartet No. 2 for Strings, Op. 15 (1913-15) reveals a Zemlinsky much changed from the young man who tried to impress Brahms. The romantic Viennese mood of the first quartet has been replaced by a much more anxious outlook. Critics have seen in it an attempt to come to terms with the suicide of the promising artist Gerstl after the disastrous affair with Mathilde as well as with his feelings for Schoenberg whose failure as a husband had caused the unfortunate situation to occur in the first place. The work is filled with turbulence that only finds its resolution at the conclusion of the final movement.
The Quartet No. 3 for Strings, Op.19 (1924) differs sharply from the two preceding it. There is a palpable feeling of anger in the work, especially in the final movement, and this most probably had to do with the composer's sense that he was being ostracized by Schoenberg and, with the notable exception of Berg, by his associates in the Second Viennese School. By then Schoenberg, who was at times an insufferable egotist, had more or less set himself up as the sole authority on modern music and this highhandedness could not but have irked his former teacher. (No doubt Zemlinsky was also upset by the unseemly haste with which Schoenberg remarried after the death of Mathilde.) The quartet can then be seen as a deliberate attempt on Zemlinsky's part to demonstrate that his work was not in any way anachronistic but instead as "modern" in its own right as that of the twelve-tone school.
The Quartet No. 4 for Strings, Op. 25 (1936) was written as a memorial to Zemlinsky's friend, Alban Berg, who had died unexpectedly at the end of the previous year. While the quartet's six-movement structure is modeled on Berg's Lyric Suite (which was itself dedicated to Zemlinsky), the music follows the path taken in Zemlinsky's previous quartet. The tone here is, if anything, even more strident. The second movement is marked "Burleske" as was the final movement of the third quartet. In both cases, this is a reference to the "Rondo-Burleske" in Mahler's Ninth Symphony. In addition, the intricately structured final movement is noteworthy for the double fugue contained within it.
Throughout the length of marathon recital, almost three hours in length, the members of the Escher Quartet gave an intense and focused performance of each of the pieces played. In the end, the audience received an excellent introduction to the work of this unjustly overlooked composer.