A little less than a year ago, Naxos released the first of a two-CD set of the complete works for string quartet by Alexander von Zemlinsky. This past June the collection was completed with the release of the second CD in the set. The performers are, again, the members of the Escher Quartet (violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Wu Jie, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Dane Johansen). The entire project was released in reverse chronological order. The two compositions on this new release predate everything on the first release. These are the first two published string quartets, Opus 4 in A major (1896) and Opus 15 (1913).
In writing about the first CD, I found myself particularly interested in relating Zemlinsky’s work to the compositions of Alban Berg, particularly since his final work for string quartet was composed in 1936, shortly after Berg’s death in 1935. Where the earlier quartets are concerned, however, I found myself thinking more about Zemlinsky’s relationship with Arnold Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was Schoenberg’s only composition teacher and would also become his brother-in-law. Both men were strong champions of the work of Johannes Brahms; and Zemlinsky’s Opus 4 seems to show signs of influence from both Brahms and another composer profoundly influenced by Brahms, Antonín Dvořák.
This might help explain how it was that, in the following year (1897), Schoenberg composed a full string quartet in D major that he never published. After listening to a pair of recitals covering Schoenberg’s four published quartets, I asked the quartet leader if the group was going to learn the 1897 quartet. He replied, “Why play second-rate Dvořák when you can play first-rate Schoenberg?” While there is probably more than a little validity in his dismissive assessment, it may well be that Zemlinsky’s Opus 4 provided Schoenberg with the first model of a string quartet that he found useful, making the D major quartet a “response” to Zemlinsky’s effort. Both quartets can be called decidedly uncharacteristic in the full context of what these two composers would later create, but they may still tell us something about the personal relationship between Zemlinsky and Schoenberg.
By the time Zemlinsky got around to composing Opus 15, on the other hand, Schoenberg had not only published two quartets, Opus 7 in D minor and Opus 10 in F-sharp minor, but also (and even earlier) published his “Verklärte Nacht” sextet. Now it was Zemlinsky’s turn to respond, and it is worth noting that there is no key indication for Opus 15. Over the course of its five movements, this quartet seems to be visiting the many different potentials for ambiguous harmonic progressions with which Schoenberg had been experimenting and teasing out new twists for them.
Also, for what it is worth, Schoenberg’s wife left him around the time he was working on his Opus 10 quartet. Thus, by the time of Zemlinsky’s Opus 15, Schoenberg was no longer a student or an in-law to Zemlinsky. The two men were active colleagues. While Schoenberg may have been going boldly where no composer had gone before, Zemlinsky was now following his moves, much to the benefit of his own compositional efforts.
Thus, what makes this Naxos volume particularly interesting is the degree of transition that separates Opus 4 and Opus 15; and, in the course of appreciating that transition, the serious listener may also come to appreciate better what Schoenberg was doing during that same period of his own life.