On the 11th of February 1900, during the world premiere of the Frühlingsbegräbnis, a cantata in memory of Brahms, Alexander Zemlinsky and Alma Schindler met for the first time.
She thought his appearance was terrible (in her autobiography she talks about a ‘hideous gnome’), but as a future composer she was only too eager to meet him: Zemlinsky was not only admired for his compositions, he also had the reputation of being the best composition and harmony teacher. By the end of that year Schindler was not only his pupil but also his lover.
It was not an obvious choice, as Zemlinsky was not really what we could call an attractive man. He himself felt quite badly about it: “Short and skinny (weak points: inadequate). Face and nose: impossible; every other part of the face: ditto. Hair too long, but something can be done about that. I looked more closely at myself in the bath ( with your permission!!): no excesses or deformities, muscles not too weak, amazingly well developed potential! Everything else as mentioned above. Hence the conclusion: hideous.”*
Does the description remind you of Der Zwerg, the ugly, deformed person from the opera of the same name who does not recognise his own reflection?
And yet Zemlinsky had the reputation of a real womaniser and his many mistresses cannot be counted. In 1907 he married Ida Guttmann, the younger sister of his former fiancée Melanie. It was not a happy marriage, Zemlinsky was a passionate philanderer.
Around 1914 he met the then fourteen-year-old Louise Sachsel. A twenty-nine year younger girl, who was not only an aspiring singer but also a gifted painter, came to him to take singing lessons. Six years later they became lovers and in 1930, one year after Ida’s death, they got married.
Alexander Zemlinsky was born in Vienna in 1871 into a highly multicultural family. His Slovakian grandfather and the Austrian grandmother on his father’s side were both Roman Catholics. His other grandmother was a Bosnian Muslim and his grandfather a Sephardic Jew. When his parents married the whole family converted to the Jewish faith. Alexander was born as a Jew and was raised as such, he also played the organ in his synagogue. In 1884 he started his studies at the Conservatory of Vienna. He studied piano with Anton Door, music theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. It was also at that time that he began to compose.
In addition to being a composer, Zemlinsky was also appreciated as one of the best conductors of his time, and his remarkable interpretations of Mozart were widely praised.
Zemlinski conducts the overture from Don Giovanni. The recording probably dates from 1926: