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Born in Vienna with a mixture of Catholic, Muslim and Jewish cultures, his three psalm-settings make up almost all of his sacred music compositions. He intended to marry Anna Schindler had Gustav Mahler not got there first but, despite this domestic upset, Mahler was still chosen to conduct the premiere of Zemlinsky’s Opera, Es war einmal (Once upon a time) and it might have been Mahler’s music which was the inspiration for Alexander’s sweeping phrases and arching climaxes. Yet, alongside his conventional harmony in the mould of Wagner and Brahms, it is the ground-shifting chromaticism which points us to another family connection: Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde in 1901, and 1907 was the year of both the composition of Schoenberg’s Friede auf Erden and the marriage of Zemlinsky to Ida Guttman. After formative years immersed in the music of the Jewish faith, Zemlinsky had converted to Protestantism in 1899, the same year that he took up the position of Kappelmeister at Vienna’s Carltheater. Another similar post followed in 1906 at the Vienna Volksoper so this creative burst of choral works is perhaps not entirely surprising and his three psalm-settings rank among his finest works.
The use of the oboe in the orchestral introduction of Psalm 23 is perhaps an obvious choice, since this instrument has been used since the Baroque period to suggest the countryside as depicted in the words of this psalm. The vocal lines retain a certain folksong simplicity and the use of mainly higher voices lends an angelic feel to the mood. The harmonic language becomes more chromatic and sensuous as the psalm’s valley of death approaches and rustic spice is added to the sumptuous instrumentation, with glockenspiel, harp, piccolo and cymbals emphasizing the rather high-lying world of the shepherd, suggesting those instruments (timbrel, pipe, harp etc.) which feature so often in the Book of Psalms. For those who know the sound of the bridge passage before the Chorus Mysticus of Mahler’s Symphony No 8, there are little hints of this sound-world in Zemlinsky’s Psalm 23. The two works were premiered in the same year and it is worth recalling the esteem in which Zemlinsky held Gustav Mahler.
from notes by Greg Murray © 2018
|Bernstein, Stravinsky & Schoenberg: Symphonic Psalms & Prayers|
Joined by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, Tenebrae performs contrastingly iconic responses to the Book of Psalms by Stravinsky, Bernstein and Zemlinsky, plus Schoenberg’s fiendishly unaccompanied 'Friede auf Erden'.» More