ALEXANDER ZEMLINSKY – String Quartet No. 3

Austrian composer Alexander Zemlinsky [1871-1942] wrote four string quartets. His life and music are inextricably linked to Arnold Schoenberg. Initially, he was Schoenberg’s first and only teacher. It must have been before this time that he wrote his First String Quartet, which is a lush, saccharine, blatantly Romantic work. I hesitate to call it pap, but I don’t find it very fulfilling. Eventually, the roles were reversed and Schoenberg began to teach Zemlinsky, whose subsequent output emerged in an Early Modern style, increasing in intensity from No. 2 to No. 4, which is a long, and difficult work. Subsequently, Schoenberg married Zemlinsky’s sister, Mathilde to complete the cycle of their relationship.

I am going to discuss String Quartet No. 3, which is in four movements.

The work opens with a series of atonal melodies and chords, with a very open feeling. Now the music becomes more energised, and the ensemble use this new found vigour to construct a short, abstract passage. A mood change features a gentle, but dissonant passage, which is very introspective. The violins then move into a more rhythmic mode, before the previous feeling returns. This is extremely sparse as the violins barely lift their heads above water. It does however lead to a fabulous sound, one of deep contemplation. Towards the end, there is a slight flourish from the violins, before the close.

The next movement starts in a very sparse manner, with plenty of silence and a few short interjections from the ensemble. Finally the tension breaks and the violins burst into life. This doesn’t last and the music returns to a measured sense of abstraction. The mood is very static, as things happen very slowly. There is a brief Romantic passage which, strangely enough, doesn’t interrupt the abstract mood. In fact, it becomes more sparse and simply ends on a very quiet phrase.

The third movement follows on from the previous atmosphere and violins project very quiet and sparse, slightly atonal melodies. A brief louder passage is fleeting and another inward-looking mood returns. Towards the end, we hear a slight rise in volume, and a lone violin concludes what would have to be one of the most introspective movements that I have come across.

The finale commences with a lilting violin which receives support from the ensemble. A brief pizzicato interlude leads into a scurrying violin, again at a very low volume. The cello enters in a vigorous manner while the violins express themselves in a way that I haven’t heard before in this work. There is a slightly burlesque moment and some violin melodies occur before the end comes with two strong chords.

I find this to be a slightly strange work. It is very original, but the composer seems to be infatuated with introspection. So be it.

The quartet is freely available on Amazon US and UK. My review copy was a 2-CD complete set by the Schoenberg Quartet. I also like the sound of a similar set by the LaSalle Quartet. You can obtain various single CD releases. The quartet is on Spotify and there is a plethora of individual movements and complete quartets on YouTube.

Listenability: Early Modern, but very easy on the ear.

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