Quartet No.2, Op.15

Composer: Alexander Zemlinksy (b. 1871 - d. 1942)
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Composer: Alexander Zemlinksy (b. 1871 - d. 1942)

Performance date: 04/07/2014

Venue: Bantry Library

Composition Year: 1915

Duration: 00:40:34

Recording Engineer: Richard McCullough, RTE

Instrumentation Category:String Quartet

Artists: Zemlinsky Quartet (František Souček, Petr Střížek [violins], Petr Holman [viola], Vladimír Fortin [cello]) - [quartet]

The story of this quartet is inextricably
entwined with Zemlinsky’s relationship with Schönberg. Both of them were born
in Vienna with
Zemlinsky the older by two years. Zemlinsky, blessed with well-off parents,
received a thorough musical education at the Vienna Conservatoire, unlike
Schönberg, whose background was so impoverished that he finished school at
sixteen. He taught himself the cello and was thus able in 1895 to join
Zemlinsky’s amateur orchestra, Polyhymnia.
He and Zemlinsky became firm friends and in 1901 Schönberg married
Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde. Two years earlier he had composed for her that
sensual hymn to love, Verklärte Nacht.
They had two children but Schönberg was not easy to live with and in 1908
Mathilde began an affair with the painter, Richard Gerstl, and briefly eloped
with him. She soon returned to Schönberg for the sake of the children, but
Gerstl committed suicide later that year. The fall-out from this tragedy
affected all of them for years afterwards and in many ways Mathilde never
recovered, dying prematurely in 1923. In the interim, the heartfelt friendship
between the two composers was severely shaken.

Zemlinsky’s Second Quartet dates from 1915
and he dedicated it to Schönberg in a spirit of rapprochement. When he told him
of the dedication, he added the enigmatic comment that the work would pretend to be in F sharp minor. In
fact the work rotates firmly around the tonal axis of D and the key of F sharp
minor scarcely appears. The explanation for Zemlinsky’s key signature lies in
the symbolism of the key, for the German word Kreuz has a double meaning, signifying both sharp and cross. So the
three sharps of this key provide a schematic depiction of Golgotha,
thus a symbol of pain, suffering, grief and guilt. The work contains a wealth
of other symbols, Zemlinsky’s own musical monogram as well as a similar one for
Mathilde, while Schönberg himself is often referred to by his instrument, the
cello, as well as by his own monogram.

It is not necessary to follow these symbols
in detail in order to understand this chamber music drama, whose six movements
are played without a break. Violence and passion make an early appearance in
the first movement and we are immediately made aware of the overwhelming
intensity of the drama that is about to unfold. Early in the second movement
Mathilde’s theme can be heard sounding out in utter solitude, instantly
contrasted with busy inconsiderate voices, ignoring and rejecting her. The
second half of this long movement then builds to a searingly intense musical
climax leading to a quiet and pensive aftermath. The Scherzo paints a not
entirely sympathetic portrait of Schönberg through a rigidly inflexible figure
in the cello. The fourth movement begins dramatically but slowly works towards
some kind of peaceful reconciliation that is broken into by the preparation for
more drama in the fifth movement. It has been said that Zemlinsky adopted for
this quartet Schönberg’s imagery of the string quartet as the family circle
whose interrelationships vary in dizzying combinations. The sixth and final
movement tries hard to work towards a stable resolution of all these
conflicting forces, reaching at the close for apotheosis.