Göteborgs Symfoniker
Published at 20 Oct 13.00
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Zemlinsky: Die Seejungfrau

Recording with the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, September 22, 2022, Gothenburg Concert Hall.
Zemlinsky was fascinated by the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. Here we get to hear his imaginative representation of the tale of the mermaid who saves the life of a prince when his ship sinks. The music evokes a sense of both the stormy emotions and the powerful waves of the violent sea.  The orchestra is led by Ryan Bancroft, who will be the new Chief Conductor of the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra from the 2023-2024 season.

Alexander von Zemlinsky is one of the gifted Jewish composers from the turn of the last century whose music was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis. He taught composition and orchestration (Arnold Schoenberg was one of his students), and was also a conductor, primarily in Vienna. In Die Seejungfrau, The Mermaid, he uses all of his knowledge to convey water and longing. The brush strokes are broad, with a melody beginning in the cello that moves up to the violins and concludes in a solo instrument. At other times, the entire orchestra is a disturbed ocean. In this story, the symphony orchestra is as key to setting the mood as in a movie about outer space. The mermaid longs to reach the surface; the sea witch lurks in the depths, and the mermaid’s love for the prince is so strong that she sacrifices first her entire watery world, then her fish tail, and ultimately her very life for love.

 

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Programme

Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871–1942) Die Seejungfrau. Alexander von Zemlinsky is one of the gifted Jewish composers from the turn of the last century whose music was labelled “degenerate” by the Nazis. He taught composition and orchestration (Arnold Schoenberg was one of his students), and was also a conductor, primarily in Vienna. In Die Seejungfrau, The Mermaid, he uses all of his knowledge to convey water and longing. The brush strokes are broad, with a melody beginning in the cello that moves up to the violins and concludes in a solo instrument. At other times, the entire orchestra is a disturbed ocean. In this story, the symphony orchestra is as key to setting the mood as in a movie about outer space. The mermaid longs to reach the surface; the sea witch lurks in the depths, and the mermaid’s love for the prince is so strong that she sacrifices first her entire watery world, then her fish tail, and ultimately her very life for love. Unrequited love may have been a motivating factor for both Hans Christian Andersen and for Zemlinsky in the creation of this story. The Danish storyteller was in love with Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind, a love she never returned. And if she had, he most likely would have been terrified. As far as we know, Andersen never had a love affair with a woman. Zemlinsky, on the other hand, seems to have been quite successful in love, despite his protruding eyes, big nose, sloping chin and 157 centimetres. But not long before composing The Mermaid, he had had a less successful affair with one of his composition students: Alma Schindler, who later married Gustav Mahler. Alma was a tall, incredibly beautiful woman and their relationship lasted nine months. But Zemlinsky was neither rich nor successful, and Alma’s friends and family advised her against the match. She was absolutely not the cold, disdainful woman described in the Grove dictionary of music, which mentioned her in half a sentence as a Jewish woman who rejected him on account of his unsightly appearance. In any case, Zemlinsky was of course disappointed and some say The Mermaid can be interpreted as his portrait of himself and Alma Schindler. If so, the mermaid and wonders of the sea represent him, while she is the prince – human beauty, perfected. Far more than depicting the story’s narrative, the music portrays the mermaid’s longing, vision of death, love, loneliness and suffering. Life went on for Zemlinsky after his separation from Alma Schindler. He had two marriages and emigrated to the US to escape the Nazis. Sadly, he was never successful there, as he had a stroke before managing to become established in his new home country. He died three years later. The music was first performed in its entirety in 1984. Katarina A. Karlsson

Participants

Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra

Ryan Bancroft conductor