The Kennedy Center

Die Seejungfrau

About the Work

 Zemlinsky Composer: Zemlinsky
© Peter Laki

Alexander Zemlinsky was born in Vienna on October 14, 1871, and died in Larchmont, New York, on March 15, 1924.  He composed his orchestral fantasy Die Seejungfrau in 1901-02, after Hans Christian Andersen's 1837 fairy tale The Little Mermaid.  It was first performed in Vienna on January 25, 1905.  Arnold Schoenberg's symphonic poem Pelleas und Melisande was premiered in the same program; each composer conducted his own work.  Zemlinsky later withdrew Die Seejungfrau, and the score was long presumed lost.  It only resurfaced in the early 1980s, when it was reintroduced by Peter Gülke in Vienna on November 11, 1984.  Christoph von Dohnányi and the Cleveland Orchestra presented the United States premiere in February 1987. 

Recently, a new critical edition has been prepared by Zemlinsky expert Antony Beaumont (who also wrote the best biography of the composer).  The major novelty of this edition is that it restores an important episode of the sea witch in Part II, which had been cut by Zemlinsky.  This version was first played by the Dresden Philharmonic under Markus Poschner on January 27, 2013.  It will be introduced to the United States for the first time with this weekend's performances.

Die Seejungfrau runs about 45 minutes in performance.  Zemlinsky's score calls for 4 flutes (third and fourth double piccolos), 2 oboes, English horn, small clarinet in E-flat, 2 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, triangle, suspended cymbal, chimes), 2 harps, and strings.

There is a deep human drama in the story of The Little Mermaid, in more than one sense of the word.  The tale of the sea creature who has to pay a heavy price for falling in love with a human is not for childen only.  Its import was keenly felt by Antonín Dvorák when he wrote his opera Rusalka (1900), in which there it is such a short way from folk-inspired, idyllic sounds to the passions of mad love, jealousy, and betrayal.

A couple of years later, Alexander Zemlinsky could identify with some of these emotions as well.  After all, he had been in a passionate romantic 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 thirties, Zemlinsky was already a noted presence on the Viennese musical scene.  He had earned Brahms's 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, 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 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 thematic unity of the work had to be much stronger; therefore, Zemlinsky organized the entire composition around some recurrent themes that give the symphonic poem a clear sense of form.

In his sketches, Zemlinsky labelled these themes by descriptive names (a practice inspired by Wagnerian leitmotifs) like ?Home," ?World of Humans," ?Pain, Despair," or ?Man's Immortal Soul."  Through their interactions, these themes tell a story that has not come down to us in Zemlinsky's own words, though it was reconstructed by conductor Peter Gülke for Die Seejungfrau's revival in 1984.

I.  In the depths of the ocean lies the castle of the sea king.  His six daughters live a carefree life in the watery palace's shimmering halls and flower-decked gardens.  They know no greater pleasure than to listen to their grandmother talking of the human world, of ships and towns, men and animals, green woods and sweet-smelling flowers.

Each princess, on the occasion of her fifteenth birthday, is allowed to rise to the surface of the ocean and see the human world.  None is keener to do so than the youngest.  When her time comes she swims to the surface and sees a ship on which a young prince is celebrating his birthday.  She swims around the vessel in ever closer circles, unable to take her eyes off the young man.

A storm breaks out and the ship is smashed by the waves.  The mermaid swims to the prince, takes him in her arms and pulls him to the shore.  There she lays the unconscious young man fown on the sand and fless when a group of young girls comes running by.  From amidst the waves she sees the prince smile gratefully at one of the girls who is bending over him.  The mermaid is overcome with sadness and returns to the sea bed.

II.  Every subsequent night she swims back to the prince's castle by the sea, and watches him as he sits on the marble steps or sails around in his boat.  She wants more than ever to become human and acquire an immortal soul.  When water creatures die they merely float to the surface of the ocean as foam.  If, however, a human loves them more than anything in the world, and remains faithful to them, the soul of that human passes into theirs and they become immortal.

During a party in her father's palace the mermaid slips away to find the sea witch, the only person who can help her.  She must take a frightening journey across swamps full of toads and snakes.  The sea witch gives her a magic potion that will change her tail into human legs.  Every step she takes will cut into her like a sword, and the mermaid must lose her beautiful voice by way of payment for the potion.

Next morning she swims to the prince's castle, drinks the potion and falls down as if dead.  When she wakes up the prince is standing befor her; he asks her where she has come from but she is unable to answer.

The prince takes her with him to the palace and gives her beautiful clothes to wear.  She is allowed to sleep in front of his door, she accompanies him when he goes hunting and even goes on long walks with him in the mountains, in spite of the fact that her feet bleed.  One evening her sisters swim to the surface and wave to her sadly.

The prince grows increasingly fond of her, but he never thinks of marrying her.  He dreams of the girl who leaned over him, believing it was she who rescued him.  His parents have chosen a wife for him.  A ship is prepared for the wedding and the mermaid accompanies the prince; when he recognizes his assumed rescuer in his wife-to-be, he is overwhelmed with joy.

On the day of the wedding, the mermaid holds the bride's train.  The end of the day will bring her death, for in spite of all her sacrifices she has been unable to win a man's love and fidelity and thus an immortal soul.

III.  When the married couple retire for the night, the mermaid looks out over the waves and sees her sisters.  They give her a knife from the sea witch-if she plunges it into the prince's heart and lets his blood flow over her feet, her tail will grow back and she will be able to rejoin her sisters.

The mermaid enters the tent in which the couple are sleeping, kisses the prince...and throws the knife out into the sea.  She rushes into the water and her body begins to melt away; but as she looks up she sees thousands of diaphanous figures floating above her in the dawn sky.  These are the daughters of the air; the mermaid realizes that she has become like them and flies up to join them.  Although they do not have immortal souls, they can become immortal by doing good deeds. As one of their kind, the little mermaid will attain the immortality she so desired.


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 the mermaid, 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 apart 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 interested in Zemlinsky's music and examined the scores in Vienna and Washington, D.C.  They established that the two manuscripts belonged together and formed the three-movement 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.)  The episode of the sea witch, cut by the composer, was rediscovered and restored to the score only recently.  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 will add significantly to the overall effect, and make this lush late Romantic masterpiece sound even  more powerful.