Alexander Zemlinsky’s The Mermaid

Notes by TŌN clarinetist Mackenzie Austin

The Composer
Alexander Zemlinsky was a talented composer, orchestrator, teacher and conductor who held an array of prestigious conducting appointments extending from Vienna to Prague. In his early years of composing, Johannes Brahms was one of his most enthusiastic supporters, attending many of his premieres and performances and even recommending some of the young composer’s works for publication. Zemlinsky settled on the program of his tone poem, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”—a fairy tale of a lover who fails to secure her intended—in response to losing his own first love, Alma Schindler, to the greater charms of Gustav Mahler.

The Little Mermaid
Andersen’s tale, as opposed to the Disney version, recounts the story of a young mermaid who, upon turning 15, is allowed to swim to the surface of the sea to catch a glimpse of the world in which humans dwell. She rescues a prince from drowning in a shipwreck and becomes so smitten with him that she bargains with a sea-witch to exchange her tongue for legs, allowing her to seek him out in the world of humans. The prince ends up marrying a human princess, as a consequence of which the mermaid is doomed to meet the fate of all mermaids when they die, which is to dissolve into seafoam. Andersen later appended a “happy ending” in which her soul proves immortal and she ascends to the skies to join other spirits of the air.

The Music
Zemlinsky’s talent as an orchestrator is displayed clearly throughout the work. The opening, depicting the underwater kingdom, uses the deepest instruments in the orchestra in a slow scale crawling upward. Muted violins then add a high shimmer, followed by flickering motives from the winds like fish darting around. It’s a brilliant evocation of a dark and eerie underwater scene. Furthermore, the music features several Wagnerian leitmotifs (expressive melodic fragments) which reveals Zemlinsky’s absorption of Wagnerian harmony, with the chromatic surging of Tristan-esque passion escalating through the texture. The work was performed around Europe before it was consigned to the inevitable wrath of the Nazis and deemed “degenerate music.” After Zemlinsky’s death,, the score became divided. It wasn’t until the 1980s that fragmented passages were pieced together and identified as a brilliant, and unfortunately widely unknown, masterpiece.