Musical Anniversary: A Florentine Tragedy

On this date in 1917, Alexander Zemlinsky’s Eine florentinische Tragödie (A Florentine Tragedy) was premiered in Stuttgart. It is the first of two operas that Zemlinsky (1871-1942) based upon the works of Oscar Wilde. Der Zwerk (The Dwarf) followed in 1922. Here is an excerpt featuring Diana Axentii and Chad Shelton:

Zemlinsky was right in the thick of things in Vienna in the decades before WWII. As a composer he studied with Bruckner and enjoyed the advocacy of such figures as Brahms and Mahler. As a conductor and teacher he, in turn, played a role in the careers of Viktor Ullmann (his assistant conductor), Hans Krasa and Erich Wolfgang Korngold (composition students) and Arnold Schoenberg, who married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde. In addition to conducting the world premiere of Schoenberg’s Erwartung, Zemlinsky holds the distinction of being the only teacher to give formal lessons (in counterpoint) to his otherwise self-taught brother-in-law.

Zemlinsky’s music evolved from a Brahmsian starting point to the kind of ravishing, post-Wagnerian style we hear in Strauss and Korngold. The “Wilde” operas are part of this mature stylistic world, at times opulent and at times brutally visceral. In the late 20s and 30s, Zemlinsky took a more objective turn, down the path taken by Hindemith and Weill despite his close personal association with the composers of the Second Viennese School.

A Florentine Tragedy (video above) is a one-act opera with only three characters: a merchant, his wife, and the aristocrat who cuckolds the husband. It features a shocking twist as this pretty routine society tragedy descends into a violent confrontation between the two men, and we learn which kind of power matters: brute strength or institutional power.

The Dwarf, based on Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta” is also a one-act, and the two works pair naturally, both musically and literarily. The Dwarf is in part a dramatization of the pain that Zemlinsky suffered when he lost Alma Schindler to Gustav Mahler. He was apparently considered unattractive, and he knew it. The Zemlinsky-Wilde Dwarf, however, doesn’t know it. He’s been led to believe, for the amusement of onlookers, that he’s a handsome prince, worthy of the love of the Infanta to whom he’s been given as a birthday gift.

Here is a video (for some reason, with piano only), of the scene in which the Dwarf sees his reflection for the first time. The eventual outcome: a new rule, whereby the Infanta is not be given any more living toys, because they break so easily.

There’s no finer advocate for Zemlinsky than James Conlon, whose recordings I recommend:


I haven’t seen the syllabus, but John may very well be discussing Zemlinsky in his upcoming spring class on Degenerate Music (Entartete Musik) — a study of composers who were affected by the Third Reich. As Jew, Zemlinsky had to leave Europe in 1938 and lived his final four years in obscurity in New York City.

Today’s post is by Bonnie Gibbons.