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Forgotten man of the Romantic period is worth another listen

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Alexander Zemlinsky was in charge at the Prague State Opera for over 15 years before moving on to become assistant to Otto Klemperer (pictured) in Berlin.

Alexander Zemlinsky was in charge at the Prague State Opera for over 15 years before moving on to become assistant to Otto Klemperer (pictured) in Berlin.

Alexander Zemlinsky was in charge at the Prague State Opera for over 15 years before moving on to become assistant to Otto Klemperer (pictured) in Berlin.

One of the delights of listening to music on the radio is the happenstance of hearing a new, previously unknown delight. That most pleasant of experiences came my way when the sound of a wind quintet filled the car.

Small wind ensembles create a different kind of intimacy compared to, say, a string quartet. Handel's joyous 'Arrival of the Queen of Sheba' performed on four saxophones conveys a light-heartedness that would be less evident in the jollity you'd detect if two violins, a viola and a cello were playing.

There was all of that in the Humoreske that I'd been listening to. It was written by a composer I hadn't come across before. Alexander Zemlinsky was the forgotten man of the late Romantic period, hugely successful in his day both for the operas that he wrote and the captivating, carefully crafted melodies that seem to sum up the charm of fin-de-siècle Vienna.

Unfortunately for him, his musical legacy fell between two stools, too chic for the conservatives, not progressive enough for the pioneers, and it was only when his centenary rolled around that his output got more of an airing.

Zemlinsky was born in 1871 and was very much a part of the Viennese scene. He was an early mentor of Arnold Schoenberg, who went on to become one of the 20th Century's most important composers. Schoenberg, in fact, married his sister.

Opera was Zemlinsky's principal area of engagement. Gustav Mahler, the major force in Viennese music at the time, conducted the premiere of his second – 'Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time)' – a fairytale piece that was well received at the time.

The maestro encouraged him to write another, and it was all ready to go when Mahler fell out with the management at the Opera House, and the production was dropped.

Zemlinsky, by this time Mahler's assistant, resigned in protest. He gave up on the opera and moved on to other things.

That might have been the end of it, but with renewed interest in him around the 100th anniversary of his birth, the rummaging in the vaults of the Opera House in Vienna unearthed the score.

'Der Traumgörge (Görge the Dreamer)' reworked the formula of 'Es war einmal', this time focusing on a young man in search of a princess.

It made enough of an impression to interest a promoter and it was finally premiered in Nuremberg in 1980.

Zemlinsky had continued to write as he developed a career as a conductor. He was in charge at the Prague State Opera for over 15 years before moving on to become Otto Klemperer's assistant in Berlin.

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He fled from the Nazis, heading first back to Vienna, then on to the United States, where he suffered a stroke, and died in 1942.

"I always firmly believed that he was a great composer," Schoenberg had said of Zemlinsky.

That his music is still around bears that out.

GEORGE HAMILTON PRESENTS THE HAMILTON SCORES ON RTÉ LYRIC FM FROM 10AM EACH SATURDAY MORNING.

GHAMILTON@INDEPENDENT.IE


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