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Alexander Zemlinsky
Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”) Fantasy

Alexander Zemlinsky

  • Born: October 14, 1871 in Vienna
  • Died: March 15, 1942 in Larchmont, New York


Die Seejungfrau (“The Mermaid”) Fantasy

  • Composed: 1901-02
  • Premiere: January 25, 1905 in Vienna, Alexander Zemlinsky conducting the Wiener Konzertverein Orchestra
  • Instrumentation: 4 flutes (incl. 2 piccolos), 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, E-flat clarinet, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, chimes, crash cymbals, glockenspiel, suspended cymbals, triangle, 2 harps, strings
  • CSO notable performances: These performances are the CSO premiere of Die Seejungfrau.
  • Duration: approx. 40 minutes

Composers after Mendelssohn discovered many additional layers of meaning in the Melusine story. In Antonín Dvořák’s opera Rusalka (1900), a late Romantic treatment of the topic, it is only a small step from the fairytale to the passions of mad love, jealousy and betrayal. A couple of years later, Alexander Zemlinsky could identify with some of these emotions on a personal level. After all, he had been in a passionate relationship with the beautiful and gifted Alma Schindler, who left him to marry the powerful director of the Court Opera in Vienna, Gustav Mahler. Zemlinsky was ready to write a ‟symphony of death,” as he confided to his friend Arnold Schoenberg, formerly his pupil and now his brother-in-law. He poured his most personal feelings into this lushly romantic, 45-minute score, his most important artistic statement to date.

In his early 30s, Zemlinsky was already a noted presence on the Viennese musical scene. He had earned Brahms’ approval with an early string quartet; the old master even offered him financial support. His Symphony in B-flat won the prestigious Beethoven Prize in 1897; his opera Es war einmal (‟Once Upon a Time”) was premiered at the Court Opera under Mahler’s direction in 1900. Yet, in Die Seejungfrau, based on the Hans Christian Andersen version of the tale, Zemlinsky wanted to try something he had never done before (and would never do again), namely to write a symphonic poem in response to Richard Strauss. Zemlinsky had been studying Strauss’s recent Heldenleben (‟A Hero’s Life”) and was fascinated, but he thought Strauss had gone too far. He felt that the violently dissonant section of ‟The Hero’s Adversaries” could ‟no longer be taken seriously.” His approach was to be different. The harmonic language had to be less extreme, and the thematic unity of the work much stronger. Therefore, Zemlinsky organized the entire composition around a few recurrent themes that gave the symphonic poem a clear sense of form.

In his sketches, Zemlinsky labeled these themes by descriptive names (a practice inspired by Wagnerian leitmotifs) like ‟Home,” ‟World of Humans,” ‟Pain, Despair,” or ‟Man’s Immortal Soul.” Zemlinsky’s intended program has not come down to us in its entirety, and we only have a brief summary that he gave in a letter to Schoenberg.

Considering how much this composition meant to Zemlinsky, it may come as a surprise that he withdrew it after only a few performances, and the score was lost to the world for decades. One reason for this may be that, at the 1905 premiere, Die Seejungfrau shared the program with Schoenberg’s Pelleas und Melisande and, although Zemlinsky’s work was better received that night, it was soon overshadowed by his brother-in-law’s bolder vision. In a way, the two works are very similar: both are huge, post-Wagnerian tone poems; even their subjects are related. Melisande, the heroine of Maurice Maeterlinck’s drama and Debussy’s opera of the same name, is, like Melusine, a young female of mysterious origin who meets a prince, with equally disastrous consequences.

Having put his Mermaid to sleep in her palace deep in the ocean, Zemlinsky started a new life in Prague. For unknown reasons, he detached the first movement from his manuscript and gave it to his friend Marie Pappenheim, who had written the libretto for Schoenberg’s one-act opera Erwartung (‟Expectation”). This movement is in the possession of Pappenheim’s heirs to this day. Zemlinsky kept the second and third movements and brought them with him when he immigrated to the United States in 1938. After the composer’s death in 1942, these untitled pages ended up at the Library of Congress with the rest of his papers. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that researchers examined the manuscripts in Vienna and Washington, D.C. They established that the two belonged together and formed the symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau. (There were many telltale signs, but the ‟smoking gun” is found at the very end of the third movement, which contains a literal repeat of the first movement’s opening theme.) This musicological detective work made it possible for the piece to come back to life; it has been performed with increasing frequency since 1984.

There was one passage in the piece, however, which was still unknown: the scene where the Mermaid visits the Sea Witch to ask for her help. This scene had been cut by the composer and was restored only recently. The full original version of the piece was not performed until 2013. The publisher has written about this fuller version: ‟[It] builds to a wild climax, bordering on hysteria, and disrupts the formal balance of the work.” Although the new passage is rather brief—about two minutes long—it adds significantly to the overall effect and makes this lush late Romantic masterpiece sound even more powerful.

—Peter Laki