Michael Morton-Evans looks at the tumultuous liaison of a once forgotten composer

I guess most music lovers have heard the cruel but funny song that American mathematics professor Tom Lehrer wrote about Alma Schindler: Her lovers were many and varied / from the day she began her beguine / There were three famous ones whom she married and God knows how many between. Our Alma had quite a varied love life at a time when a woman with multiple husbands and lovers was frowned upon. Composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel all fell for her, and all three liaisons ended in either death or divorce.

But there was a fourth lover that history has ignored, a composer largely forgotten in the musical world these days, but who became her composition teacher and took her virginity at the age of 21. He was Alexander von Zemlinsky. With a large aquiline nose and narrow little eyes hidden behind rimless spectacles, he was strangely unprepossessing to look at and yet young Alma, no Boticelli Venus herself, loved him and gave herself to him, ensuring however that their relationship remained a guarded secret.

Alma used to tease Zemlinsky constantly about his ugly features, taunting him with remarks like how she could easily replace him ten times over; unsurprisingly he began to get a little tired of the ribbing and the relationship started to cool. She recorded in her diary that he was ‘dreadfully ugly, almost chinless’, and he in turn felt nauseated by her vanity, her salon and the ‘cliques of sclerotic souls’ she associated with.  Some 12 months later, while at a cocktail party in Vienna, Alma was introduced to the 40-year-old Gustav Mahler and that was that.

Zemlinsky is one of those composers who are not that well known these days, but whose work was held in high regard during his lifetime. He had been admitted to the Vienna Conservatory at the age of 13 and it was clear that he was musically talented. Johannes Brahms heard his compositions and was instrumental in persuading a publisher to publish his work. He went on to teach the young Arnold Schoenberg counterpoint and the two were to become lifelong friends. Despite Mahler having stolen his lover, he regarded the older man with enormous admiration and modelled his Lyric Symphony op 18 on Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. In 1911 he took over the operatic wing of the German Theatre in Prague and remained there for 16 years, before going to Berlin where, during the 1920s, he worked principally as a conductor.

His career came to a shuddering halt when the Nazis came to power, and Zemlinsky fled to America, but by now he was a broken man. He composed only a few works during the next couple of years and then, following a series of serious strokes, he died in 1942. The musical world almost immediately forgot him. It was not until the 1970s that his central works were performed and began to be recorded. His major works are now regularly played on this and other classical music radio stations around the world and are a perfect snapshot of the great changes that took place in the musical world between the 1890s and 1940s.