Seth Cropsey writes to recommend “Dido’s Lament (Opens in a new window)“ by Henry Purcell (1659–95). “I have always thought of “Dido’s Lament” and the Enigma Variations’ “Nimrod” as twin jewels in the crown of English music,” says Seth. It’s hard to disagree with Seth on anything.
Allen Guelzo notes an important Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) anniversary this month. More soon on this. It’s worth noting meanwhile that it was a century ago that Vaughan Williams went to America for the first time. He loved the poetry of Walt Whitman. His Sea Symphony (Opens in a new window) from 1903 and Toward the Unknown Region, (Opens in a new window) first performed in 1907, were both settings of Whitman’s work.
Ken Jensen shares a beautiful piece — with a remarkable singer — by Claudio Monteverdi (Opens in a new window) (1567–1643). Monteverdi composed both secular and sacred music. He was an innovator who loved tradition. Monteverdi was also a pioneer in opera. Try this (Opens in a new window), from his opera L’Orfeo.
Jacopo Peri’s opera Euridice, the earliest opera to survive complete, premiered on October 6, 1600, at the Pitti Palace in Florence on the occasion of the wedding of Marie de’ Medici and Henri IV of France. Peri sang the role of Orfeo. Following the wedding of Orfeo and Euridice, tragedy strikes and a rescue begins. Here’s (Opens in a new window) an excerpt; scene two, the “Messenger Scene.”
I’m listening this week to the music of Alexander Zemlinsky, who was born in Vienna on October 14, 1871. Of all the men associated with Alma Schindler (1879–1964) — including composer Gustav Mahler, painter Gustav Klimt, neurologist Sigmund Freud, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel — Zemlinsky is remembered the least. He was regarded highly at the time.
Zemlinsky won prizes for his piano performances from an early age. He was so talented that Brahms took him under his wing. Bruckner taught him theory. Cellist Arnold Schönberg befriended him.
Zemlinsky was part of the Habsburg hodgepodge. His grandfather came from Žilina, Hungary (now in Slovakia). His mother was born in Sarajevo to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Bosnian mother. Alexander was raised Jewish. In fashionable, exclusionary Viennese circles, he never quite fit in, even with his father having added an aristocratic “von” to his name.
Zemlinsky fell madly in love with his composition student Schindler, who had feelings for him; a passionate affair ensued. But pressure from her family and friends — they insisted she could do better, with a man of higher international prestige — led Schindler to break things off. She married Mahler instead (and after Mahler, she wed Gropius and then Werfel). Alma Schindler was a force. She was glamorous, a brilliant conversationalist, and a gifted musician and composer in her own right. She had this irresistible way of leaning in close when a man spoke. Little did the flattered know that she was deaf in one ear.
Zemlinsky was a force in his own right. He ran the Vienna Volksoper, served as conductor of the Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, and worked under Otto Klemperer in Berlin. Stravinsky considered Zemlinsky the finest conductor of the time. A string of professional achievements came to an end in 1938, though, when — with his wife Luise — Zemlinsky fled Nazi Germany. The couple left for the United States and ended up in Los Angeles, where so many of the leading exiled German and Austrian artists congregated. Zemlinsky’s friend Schönberg — who married Zemlinsky’s sister Mathilde — ended up teaching at USC. But Zemlinsky could never quite find his way in America. He struggled professionally. His work was neglected. Following a series of strokes, he died of pneumonia in Larchmont, New York, on March 15, 1942.
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Billy Wilder found his way. His was a life on the run, to be sure, writes Matt Hanson. He was born Samuel Wilder on June 22, 1906, to a Jewish family in a small village in Poland that was at the time part of the Habsburg Empire. Sucha Beskidzka was a half hour outside Vienna, he’d say — by telegraph. Wilder’s path to Hollywood took him through Vienna, Berlin, and Paris. He started as a stringer for local papers writing about sports and crime.
Read (Opens in a new window) Hanson’s review of Joseph McBride’s biography of the great filmmaker. It’s a fantastic story and gripping social and cultural history, with success mixed with ample reflection and melancholy.
There are plenty of things to commend at the moment, including Peter Skerry on our messy tug-of-war over migrants today (Opens in a new window) and Arch Puddington on a debate (Opens in a new window) we need to have: Is it really wise that we keep giving adversarial authoritarians the same free-speech rights we guarantee Americans? Andreas Unland joins us from Germany by Zoom on Ukraine on October 11 at 12 noon ET. Roya Hakakian comes in from NYC on October 14 to speak for an American Purpose salon in Washington on the upheaval in Iran. Listen to Mathilde Fasting’s recent podcast with Azar Nafisi here (Opens in a new window).
Watch for managing editor Carolyn Stewart’s terrific essay this coming Monday. Carolyn sorts the complicated life and legacy of American architect Philip Johnson. For years, Johnson was a fixture of Manhattan’s art scene, and a Nazi fascist.
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There’s a biography of Zemlinsky by Antony Beaumont I’ve just ordered. Beaumont is marinated in the period. He published an English-language edition of diaries kept by Alma Mahler-Werfel.
But finally, here’s (Opens in a new window) music from Zemlinsky, the forgotten one — a symphony.
Try this (Opens in a new window), too, a string quartet. It’s vibrant late romanticism from 1896. You can hear the boundaries of tonality beginning to stretch.
The same is the case with the following: I can’t resist sharing a piece (Opens in a new window) by Zemlinsky’s student and love Schindler. She pushes harmonic convention here, too, in a song called “Balmy Summer Night.” (Opens in a new window)
It’s been said a million times of this period: It was flourishing aside fragmentation; violent — and exciting, creative! — breaking of norms, coupled with an intense and desperate clinging to ways of the past. Novelist Werfel said everything was coming either too early or too late.