Closeness and Alienation

Zemlinsky and Schönberg / II


"… it seems we do not have a common time"
Schönberg, 1927

Between 1908 and 1911 Schoenberg completed the decisive steps towards composing without a tonal foundation. Zemlinsky rejected this development and did not want to follow it but as an artist and friend he supported it. "I do not always have the same love for Schoenberg's recent works but boundless respect." (1912)
At around the same time Schoenberg went through a crisis in his private life that indirectly also affected Zemlinsky. After an affair with the painter Richard Gerstl, Mathilde Schoenberg left her husband for a short time. When the situation proved to be irreconcilable, Gerstl committed suicide at the end of 1908. We do not know how Zemlinsky behaved towards his sister and his brother-in-law but the situation certainly tested the friendship between the two composers who lived until 1909 in the same house in the Liechtensteinstrasse in the 9th district.

Even after Zemlinsky had left for Prague, he and Schoenberg at first remained close. They maintained a lively correspondence, met in the summer holidays and continued their commitment for new music in the Association for Private Performances in Prague, of which Schoenberg had been appointed honorary president in 1922. Zemlinsky emphatically supported the performance of Schoenberg's works and created opportunities for him to conduct. For his part Schoenberg arranged performances of Zemlinsky's works in Vienna. The two had a difference of opinion when Zemlinsky suggested to his friend an abridged version of Pelleas und Mélisande. In Schoenberg's "absolute" understanding of art a work that had once been completed was untouchable; for the more practically minded Zemlinsky it was a matter of how effective the performance would be.

Mathilde died in 1924. Schoenberg married again only a few months later, a fact that led to a serious upset in his friendship with Zemlinsky. Artistically their paths also separated increasingly: Zemlinsky was very sceptical about Schoenberg's twelve note technique. It was not until they were both in exile in America that the two composers were again able to speak together on a warm and friendly basis. Nevertheless they only met once more when Schoenberg visited Zemlinsky who was already fatally ill in December 1940 in New York.

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Letter from Zemlinsky to Schoenberg, New York, February 1940. It was the last letter written by the fatally ill Zemlinsky to Schoenberg. As he could no longer write himself, he probably dictated the letter to his wife. At the end of 1939 the couple had decided to move to California as Zemlinsky saw no hope of recovering from his illness in New York. The removal did not come about as Zemlinsky soon suffered a relapse. The opera libretto referred to is Circe based on a text by Irma Stein-Firner and Walter Firner. Zemlinsky was only able to compose a little more than one act of this opera.