I am without peace, I thirst for things far away."
So begins Anton Zemlinsky's Lyric Symphony, a lushly scored, post-romantic journey into the heart of love that will be performed for the first time by the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra this week. Soprano Jessica Jones, baritone Brett Polegato and conductor Emmanuel Krivine are involved in this rare and welcome opportunity to experience the music of the unusually gifted, under-appreciated Zemlinsky, whose time, at last, may be coming.
"For years, the popularity for Mahler and Strauss completely overshadowed this guy," says the French conductor. "I propose [Zemlinsky] to many orchestras, but they don't accept."
Krivine isn't alone in championing the Viennese-born composer, who died in 1942 at the age of 70 in the United States, an emigre from the Nazi menace. James Conlon, in particular, has devoted considerable energy to the task of getting Zemlinsky out of the shadows; in the past few years, he has conducted acclaimed world premiere recordings of several pieces.
To understand the driving force behind much of Zemlinsky's work, including the Lyric Symphony, it helps to know a little about his connection to eminent composer Gustav Mahler - and Mahler's wife - a connection that left the deepest mark on Zemlinsky, musically and personally.
Zemlinsky fell in love with one of his composition students in 1901. Her name was Alma Schindler, a brainy Viennese beauty destined to devastate several brilliant artists over her long life. She found the diminutive Zemlinsky "dreadfully ugly," yet "quite enthralling." Their passionate affair ended when Alma suddenly fell for and married Mahler. The scar from that loss remained with Zemlinsky the rest of his life.
It also affected his music, especially the 1921 opera, Der Zwerg (The Dwarf). Here, the composer let all of the hurt out in what must have been a supremely cathartic act.
The opera is based on one of Oscar Wilde's fairly tales, The Birthday of the Infanta, about a spoiled princess who takes great delight in the dancing of a dwarf. "Perhaps the most amusing thing about him was his complete unconsciousness of his own grotesque appearance," goes the story. The dwarf, convinced that the princess loves him, confronts a mirror for the first time. Realizing that the princess "had been merely mocking at his ugliness, and making merry over his twisted limbs," he dies of a broken heart.
No one who knew Zemlinksy and his romantic history could miss the symbolism. It is possible to find symbolism, too, in the Lyric Symphony, an engrossing and affecting work from 1923. The texts, divided between two singers, are by Nobel Prize-winning Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore.
The similarity in construction and mood between the symphony and Mahler's The Song of the Earth, composed more than a decade earlier, is unmistakable. It's not too much of a stretch to hear Zemlinsky finally putting to rest all of the anger and humiliation of having lost Alma, using Mahler's own music as an inspiration.
In Das Lied, Chinese poems (also sung by two singers) paint impressions of spring, love, nostalgia and the peace that comes with the eternal rejuvenation of life. In the Lyric Symphony, Tagore's eloquent verses address the conflict between earthly passion and idealized affection. The piece is a kind of dialogue between two searchers who taste love, only to find it fleeting. In the end, reality unsettles both. They part, wiser, humbled. "Dreams cannot be captured," the woman sings. The man's response, set to music of a calm, Mahler-esque beauty: "Let the time of our parting be sweet, let it not be a death, but a completion. Let love melt into memory and pain into songs."
For Jones, who sang memorably with the BSO in 2001, the message of the Lyric Symphony is that "desire is never quite fulfilled." Polegato, who won a Grammy Award last month for his part in the Best Classical Album (Vaughan Williams' A Sea Symphony), does not find the message bleak. "There's no regret in this," he says. "There's always a sense of looking forward. And there's something so positive about the last line - 'I hold my lamp up high to light your way.' He is ready for the next journey."
Both singers had never performed anything by Zemlinsky before this week's BSO assignment; both have found the experience rewarding. "It's a matter of becoming familiar with the musical language he uses," the soprano says. "The first time I listened to the piece, the melody of the second song suddenly just drew me in." The baritone, who discovered Tagore as well for the first time, finds the poetry "still so contemporary" and the music as subtly beautiful as Debussy's Pelleas et Melisande.
Zemlinsky, whose death was barely noticed by the world 60 years ago, would be amazed at how more and more people today are being - to borrow from Tagore - "caught in the net of [his] music."
What: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra
When: 8 tonight and Friday, 3 p.m. Sunday
Where: Meyerhoff Hall, 1212 Cathedral St.
Admissions: $26 to $72