(Alex Ross’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 5/13; Zemlinsky, once regarded as a weak-willed eclecticist, is attracting modern admirers. Illustration by Romy Blümel.)

The Musica Non Grata series, in Prague, explores the glittering, elusive world of Alexander Zemlinsky.

Alexander Zemlinsky, who composed several of the most subtly entrancing operas of the early twentieth century, embodied the cosmopolitan chaos of the old Austrian Empire. His father came from a Slovakian Catholic family; his mother was a Sarajevo native of Sephardic Jewish and Muslim descent. Born in Vienna in 1871, Zemlinsky apprenticed there under Gustav Mahler; had an illustrious stint conducting at the New German Theatre, in Prague; and later landed at the radical-minded Kroll Opera, in Berlin. His mature works draw, variously, on Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, Rabindranath Tagore, and Langston Hughes. To what nation or tradition does such a polymorphous figure belong? A sorcerer of orchestration, Zemlinsky wrote music that glimmers ambiguously in the air, and his life seemed to do the same.

In April, I went to Prague for the final installment of a four-year series called Musica Non Grata, which focussed on German-speaking Jewish composers who thrived in the First Czechoslovak Republic, between 1918 and 1938. The principal venue was the Prague State Opera, as the New German Theatre is now known. The German government provided support, memorializing the Germanophone culture that once flourished in Czech lands. Two of Zemlinsky’s operas, “A Florentine Tragedy” and “Kleider Machen Leute” (“Clothes Make the Man”), were presented on the final Musica Non Grata weekend. As it happens, I had recently seen Zemlinsky’s “Der Zwerg” (“The Dwarf”) at L.A. Opera, whose music director, James Conlon, is a tireless advocate of composers who lost their careers—and sometimes their lives—to the Nazis.

Efforts to recuperate artists who were victims of prejudice might be seen as special pleading. Would the music of the historically oppressed—whether the composers are Jewish, Black, or female—compel our attention if we knew nothing of their struggles? Aren’t we rewriting history to compensate for past misdeeds? Such questions suffer from the dubious assumption that the core repertory has emerged from a purely organic process unaffected by sentimental factors. Consider how the cult of Mozart dwells on his early death, or how that of Beethoven emphasizes his deafness. In any case, no revival of a forgotten composer can be rooted in anything but love, and Zemlinsky’s circle of devotees, while not exactly vast, is steadily expanding.

His musical gifts were never in doubt. Recordings of his work as a conductor are meagre, but his contemporaries praised him as an expert, elegant interpreter of modern and classic repertory alike. Igor Stravinsky, not one to hand out compliments freely, recalled a Zemlinsky-led performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” as the “most satisfying operatic experience of my life.” In Prague, Zemlinsky selflessly promoted not only his fellow-Viennese, like his brother-in-law Arnold Schoenberg and members of the Schoenberg school, but also Stravinsky, Bartók, Hindemith, and Weill. Having begun as an acolyte of Brahms, Zemlinsky brushed against atonality, neoclassicism, and popular song. His openness to myriad influences caused him to be perceived as a weak-willed eclecticist. But Theodor W. Adorno, in a beautiful defense of Zemlinsky’s music, questioned the belief that “force is an integral part of greatness,” arguing that there is genius in sensitivity, empathy, and reticence.

“Der Zwerg” (1919-21), an adaptation of Wilde’s story “The Birthday of the Infanta,” has long been the most often performed of Zemlinsky’s eight operas. I had previously seen productions at the Spoleto Festival, in 1993, and at the Komische Oper, in Berlin, in 2002. The story, in which a dwarf falls in love with a cruelly teasing princess, has autobiographical dimensions: throughout his life, Zemlinsky felt like a freakish outsider. In 1900, he became smitten with the composer Alma Schindler, who found him at once “horribly ugly” and “touchingly sweet.” (She dropped him in favor of Mahler, who was neither.) The omnipresence of antisemitism in Vienna must have shadowed the opera’s conception.

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