Alexander von Zemlinsky has never had a champion like Mahler's Bernstein, and gained no prominence in the New World like his student Schoenberg. As his work continues to be revitalized in the 21st century, his role becomes more distinct as one of many ferrymen who guided the dying Romantic era into 20th century modernity. The Escher Quartet, under the auspices of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, presented Zemlinsky’s cycle of numbered quartets, roughly spanning the first four decades of the early 20th century. Violinists Adam Barnett-Hart and Aaron Boyd, violist Pierre Lapointe, and cellist Brook Speltz, demonstrated consistent focus, refined control, and, above all, athletic poise in this quartet-athon.

Escher String Quartet © Sophie Zhai
Escher String Quartet
© Sophie Zhai

Zemlinsky’s First Quartet of 1896 is the embodiment of a young composer in Brahmsian Vienna. Organized neatly into conventional forms, the first movement's naive optimism characterizes the entire work. The first movement begins with a callow sigh as the music navigates harmonies and contours of Brahms and Johann Strauss II. A clumsy dance forms the second movement as the stammering tempo wobbles unsteadily, a caricature of an awkward Zemlinsky stepping on the toes of young debutantes. This notion of the carefree juvenescence would dissolve over the next decade as the anguish of his own personal life and the influence of his student, Arnold Schoenberg, would drastically transform his compositional style.

Fast forward to 1914, and Alma Mahler has been a widow for three years. Zemlinsky’s close circle has gone through periods of tumultuous fervor, and he writes to Alma about his Second Quartet, hoping it will have a “certain impression” on her. In this letter, he also alludes to the hidden messages in the quartet. Throughout his life, Zemlinsky obsessed over numerology and cryptic extra-musical symbolism, and as a result, his compositions are shrouded in obscurity. For instance, Zemlinsky told Schoenberg that his Second Quartet would pretend to be in F sharp minor; the key signature reads three sharps, but the majority of the harmonies, however, point to D minor. Not by chance, F sharp minor was the key of Schoenberg's own Second Quartet of 1908, a work which shocked the music world. The Second Quartet begins with what could be interpreted as an antecedent response to the first bars of Schoenberg’s quartet, and overall it is an emotional amplification of the awkwardness from his youth. The first movement frantically skitters throughout the four string players, and the exactitude in which the Eschers passed these fleeting motives heightened the sense of paranoia and anxiety. The Adagio that follows continuously builds and shifts, seeking dissolution rather than resolution, until shifting to a disturbing romp in the third movement. Ultimately, the finale summarizes the entire quartet: all voices speak at the same time, interrupting one another and moving in isolation with little consideration for what the other has to say.

Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde, passed away in 1924, and her widower Schoenberg broke the traditional 12 months of mourning to remarry before the year was up. Distraught by the loss of his sister and influenced by the new music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev and Hindemith from a recent visit to Prague, it is clear from the Third Quartet that his mind no longer occupied the Vienna of Mahler and Schoenberg. Zemlinsky was seeking new direction, and the evidence is in the multitude of unanswered questions posed at the beginning of this quartet. In the Third Quartet, Zemlinsky experimented with new sounds like sul ponticello and Bartókian pizzicato, and the work appropriately ends with a taunting Burleske, unified by a theme based on a distorted version of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto.

Zemlinsky’s Fourth, and final, Quartet was written soon after the tragic death of his friend Alban Berg on Christmas Eve 1935. Unfortunately, his music was banned by the Nazis, and Zemlinsky was unable to get his quartet performed before his own death in 1942. The quartet begins with melancholic organ-like harmonies – the foregone Romantic world calls from beyond. It is answered by a neoclassical idiom that comforts its friend as it progresses into a frenzied Burleske, an indulgence in the demise of high society. The Eschers expressed no sign of exhaustion in this final work and were mere inches away from playing heavy metal as they dug into the horrific dance of the fourth movement before forcefully plunging forward to the brutal conclusion. Much like Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, Zemlinsky’s final string quartet signifies the death of the Romantic world while laying the groundwork for the 20th century, but in contrast to Mahler’s cry of distress, Zemlinsky indulged in the new and eagerly descended into the future.

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