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ClassicsOnline Home » ZEMLINSKY, A.: Lyric Symphony / BERG, A.: 3 Pieces from the Lyric Suite (Robinson, Trekel, Houston Symphony, Graf)
Alexander von Zemlinsky’s best known work, the seductive Lyric Symphony, inspired Alban Berg, who quoted its third movement in his own Lyric Suite, three movements of which Berg himself arranged for string orchestra. Described by Theodor Adorno as “a latent opera”, Berg’s masterpiece was publicly dedicated to Zemlinsky but carried a secret programme: his illicit love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. Zemlinsky’s richly scored symphony, a late-Romantic song cycle by any other name, recalls both Mahler’s Song of the Earth (8.550933) and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder (8.557518-19).
By Lawson Taitte
The Dallas Morning News
By Patricia Kelly
By David Denton
Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942): Lyric Symphony
Alban Berg (1885–1935): Three Pieces from the Lyric Suite
Alexander von Zemlinsky was a Viennese musician who wrote important orchestral and theatrical works, art songs, and chamber music. The teacher, friend, and brother-in-law of Arnold Schoenberg, he spent many successful years in Prague and Berlin before eventually being forced to emigrate; he died in New York at the age of 71. The Lyric Symphony, Op. 18, for orchestra, soprano, and baritone, completed in August 1923, is one of his most important works. It is composed of seven “songs” based on the poems of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, which are performed in alternation by the baritone and soprano. Zemlinsky arranged the poems so that they tell a love story, one that ends with parting and farewell.
The theme of the first poem is an invocation of transcendence, metaphysical longing, the “thirst for faraway”. The second poem portrays a young woman’s readiness to surrender herself. In the third poem Tagore defines love as the projection of one’s own wishes and desires. The fourth poem, a scene of tenderness, forms the centre of the cycle. The fifth poem highlights the peripatetic impulse: driven by the desire for freedom, the man attempts to banish the magic of love. At the core of the sixth poem is the image of love being like a dream. The last poem sings of the “sweet parting”, the wondrous end.
Zemlinsky called his work the Lyric Symphony, instead of, for instance, an orchestral song-cycle. but the designation “symphony” does not seem quite so arbitrary when we bear in mind that the seven songs either follow each other without a break or else flow into one another, that the cycle begins with a long prelude and ends with a postlude, and finally, that certain themes recur throughout the work.
The first song, Ich bin friedlos (I am restless), developed extensively over 190 measures, truly resembles the first movement of a symphony in its weight. Divided into a prelude and three verses, it is based primarily on two alternating themes. The second song, Mutter, der junge Prinz (O mother, the young prince), in four parts, has many scherzo-like touches in the primary subject (main tonality A major), whereas the subordinate subject (main tonality D flat major) remains cantabile throughout. The third song, Du bist die Abendwolke (You are the evening cloud), is conceived of as the Adagio, and indeed, as the heart of the symphony. These first three movements are captivating because of their expansion of tonality, their refined and constantly surprising harmonic language, the complexity of their symphonic textures, the brilliance of their instrumentation, and not least, their variation and intensification of expression.
The three following movements, in part somewhat shorter, could be compared with intermezzi. The fourth song, Sprich zu mir, Geliebter (Speak to me, my love), to be sung “very delicately”, is like an arioso. In contrast, the very rhythmic fifth song, Befrei’ mich von den Branden (Free me from the bonds of your sweetness, love), is to be performed “fiery and with strength”, and even, towards the end, “stormily”. The sixth song, Vollende denn das letzte Lied (Then finish the last song), built on top of an organ pedal-point, resembles a Sprechgesang [a type of vocal performance between speech and song], and it comes close to Schoenberg’s atonal idiom. The finale, Friede, mein Herz (Peace, my heart), is written as a long farewell.
There is a direct connection between Zemlinsky’s Lyric Symphony and Alban Berg’s Lyric Suite, a masterpiece of new music. This highly ambitious work is based on a secret but well-developed programme. Its six movements are like an autobiographical novel that tells the tale of the composer’s unfulfilled love for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the wife of a Prague industrialist. Hanna reciprocated Berg’s feelings. The mutual love was as full of pathos as it was mutual, but doomed from the start because Berg did not want to leave his wife, Helene, nor did Hanna want to leave her husband and two small children. Even so, Berg was driven into a serious crisis by his feelings for Hanna. For several years love letters travelled from Vienna to Prague.
The first movement of the piece, the Allegretto gioviale, serves as a kind of introduction. The second movement, Andante amoroso, is conceived of as a scene in Hanna’s house. The third movement, Allegro misterioso, signals the confession of love. The fourth movement, Adagio appassionato, envisages a dialogue of love. The fifth movement, Presto delirando, gives expression to the state of near insanity of the composer after he left Prague and returned to Vienna. Berg thought of the finale as a song without words. In the copy of the printed score, which was intended for Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the words from a poem by Charles Baudelaire, De profundis clamavi (Out of the depths have I cried) have been written underneath the music in several of the particularly melodious spots for all four of the instruments. This Largo desolato closes, “dying in love, longing, and grief”.
The Lyric Suite, written in 1925–26, was given its first performance by the famous Kolisch Quartet on 8 January 1927. Shortly thereafter Berg arranged the second, third and fourth movements for string orchestra. This arrangement had its première in Berlin on 31 January 1929, under the baton of Jascha Horenstein.
In a letter to Hanna, Berg said that the Andante amoroso was the most beautiful music that he had ever written. This music, in the form of a rondo, presents a portrait of Hanna and her two children, seven-and-a-half year old Munzo, and four year old Dorothea. In the annotated copy mentioned above, Berg inscribed above the top of this movement: “This ‘Rondo’ is dedicated to you and your children: a musical form in which the themes (particularly yours) constantly return, closing the lovely circle”. Whereas Hanna’s Theme (Tempo I) is characterized by expressiveness and tenderness, Munzo’s Theme (Tempo II) has the feel of a Ländler. The theme for Dodo (the pet name for Dorothea, Tempo III) is nothing more than an ostinato repetition of the syncopated note “c” (“do”).
One of the exceptional things about the tripartite Allegro misterioso is the tone character of the outer parts. Their music seems like an ostinato, like a perpetual motion machine, with semiquavers (sixteenth notes) in restless motion. The dynamic level almost never leaves the realm of pianissimo and the entire movement is played with mutes. The score abounds with relatively unusual technical directions about how to play the music. In the annotated copy Berg himself summarised the movement’s tone character as “like a whisper”, and “whispered”. The narrator confesses the story of his love in a whisper.
The Adagio appassionato finally leads into the emotional high point of the work. The idea of wave-like music was important to the musical-poetical conception of the movement, which is characterized from the start by surging, by ascent and descent. The movement grows out of the vision of a passionate love dialogue, one that finally “completely ebbs into the spiritual, soul-filled supernatural”. In two places in the movement, first the viola, and then the second violin, cite a phrase from Zemlinksky’s Lyric Symphony, none other than the meaningful assertion, “you are my own, my own”.
Berg was a friend of Zemlinsky, and the Lyric Suite is dedicated to him, but in reality, the work was a tribute to Hanna Fuchs-Robettin, the distant and immortal beloved. Berg wrote in a letter to her that every note of the work was consecrated to her.
English translation by Susan Scarrow
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