The Reemergence of Zemlinsky’s “MERMAID”

ASPEN, CO—"Thanks for coming, and thanks for staying," said James Conlon from the stage, as the second half of the Aspen Festival Orchestra’s July 13 concert was about to start. He had earlier presided over the Sibelius Violin Concerto with Sarah Chang, and now chose to offer some remarks about the concert’s remaining work, Alexander Zemlinsky’s "Die Seejungfrau [The Mermaid]: Symphonic Fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen."

The Benedict Music Tent had been nearly full for the Sibelius, and there was a modest trickle of audience attrition during intermission. But those who stayed can only have felt invigorated by Conlon´s remarks and, more to the point, by hearing Zemlinsky´s 40-minute, three-movement tone poem. Conlon´s tireless championing of Zemlinsky and other composers whose careers (and in some cases lives) were destroyed by the Nazis is well known. But actually hearing him discuss and conduct this piece was truly inspiring.

He looks forward to the day, he said, when Zemlinsky is as frequently performed as Sibelius. That goal is still in the distance, but the reemergence of this composer is, in fact, progressing quite satisfactorily. When the Festival Orchestra was asked how many had played "The Mermaid" before, surely more hands went up than were expected. And the biographical facts Conlon mentioned‾ that Zemlinsky was Schoenberg´s brother-in-law and only teacher, that he was less than handsome but still had a romantic entanglement with Alma Schindler (later Alma Mahler), that in 1938 he left Austria for New York and died in obscurity four years later‾are beginning to have a familiar ring.

Zemlinsky wrote "The Mermaid" in the aftermath of Alma´s rejection of him in favor of Mahler. According to Conlon, the composer identified with the title character, whose love for the human prince she rescued from a shipwreck went unrequited. The Mermaid experiences a transfiguration into an immortal, which Conlon likened to Zemlinsky´s resolve, after the breakup, to devote himself to art. The conductor alluded to a passage midway through the second movement, which recurs near the end of the third, that symbolizes the Mermaid´s transformation, and he compared it to the Liebestod in "Tristan." If I identified it correctly, it was a lush string passage, with harp accompaniment, in which a fervent melody is heard in the cellos. Conlon did not say so, but it may bear mentioning that the Liebestod occurs in "Tristan" at roughly the analogous structural points: at the climax of the Act 2 Love Duet and at the end of the three-act opera.

Of course, the work is only nominally about Zemlinsky; some of the music, especially in the first movement, is quite obviously descriptive of Andersen´s mermaid—the low-pitched scales at the beginning suggesting the depths of the sea, a lovely solo violin tune probably representing the lady herself and especially the tumultuous orchestral depiction of the shipwreck. But it is better not to get too bogged down with linking music to story and instead focus on Zemlinsky´s masterful skills as a symphonist.

Especially striking is the way he transforms themes. A good half dozen occur repeatedly throughout the three movements. Yet they are presented with sufficient expressive and orchestral variety so as not to seem redundant. Experiencing "The Mermaid" is a little like seeing a play in which each act traces the same action but from a different point of view. For instance, the second movement, which represents festivities in the palace of the Mer-king, at once establishes a totally new, celebratory mood, with its shimmering strings, bells, triangle and glockenspiel. Yet it also uses a fanfare theme that had previously been associated with the shipwreck. It´s all a big, lush, post-Romantic orchestral extravaganza.

Conlon, conducting from memory, masterminded a full-bodied, colorful and gripping reading that benefited from fine contributions by solo winds and strings. It is possible to imagine a performance of even greater orchestral splendor, but this one was more than enough to put the work across vivid ly. As for the Sibelius, Chang played eloquently and delved deeply into the concerto´s expressive content. The very opening solo statement started from nothing and grew into something strongly emotional. I have always found the first movement to be a rambling, even random assortment of ideas, and a very gloomy one besides — a condition steadfastly maintained by the second movement. The rhythmically charged third movement finally gets the piece going, and Chang was often technically dazzling in it, though I have heard it played with more panache. The audience loved her performance, as well they might. But it was the Zemlinsky that made the afternoon for me.
George Loomis
July 17, 2008

Photo: Chester Higgins