Welcome to Feature Fridays! Each week AU Music Library staff highlight an item from our collection. While the library is closed, we will feature items that are available for streaming. This week, guest reviewer Dan McCahon, Bender Library Building Operations Specialist (and former Music Library student assistant!) reviews Alexander von Zemlinsky’s Trio in D Minor, Op. 3, from the new recording VIENNE 1900.
Music in Uncertain Times
Music, like all art forms, does not exist alone. It isn’t insulated from the context of its creation. Musical movements come into being because of cultural movements. Art reflects change, and the unknown that comes with change is not lost. The uncertainty of the turn of the century for Vienna was not lost on the Viennese composers, who had lived through the stock market crash of the 1870s. Vienna was a city that pushed itself to grow and modernize. This modernization was not guaranteed to be successful. This growth in territory and architecture was not accompanied by social growth. Rather, support was growing for Anti-Semitism, leading into the First World War. The uncertainty of where Vienna was headed, as well as how these different beliefs would clash (e.g. the hatred that is Anti-Semitism, versus support for marginalized people) are what led to these changes in musical composition. Attempting to combine aspects of previous musical movements with the modernity desired of composers at the turn of the century was an area of focus for the composers featured on VIENNE 1900.
Trio in D Minor, Op. 3 was written by Beethoven. It is an extraordinary achievement for the German composer who at the time of its completion in 1895, had been dead for 68 years. In reality, this score was written by Alexander von Zemlinsky, not a zombified Beethoven. It debuted in Vienna at a concert competition where the composer facetiously signed it ‘Beethoven’ and won Third Prize.
This piece is included in VIENNE 1900, from performers Emmanuel Pahud, Paul Meyer, Daishin Kashimoto, Zvi Plesser, and Éric Le Sage. VIENNE 1900, released on July 10, 2020, is a collection of “Viennese musical modernism” and features works by Erich Woflgang Korngold, Gustav Mahler, Alban Berg, Arnold Schönberg, and Alexander von Zemlinsky. These works span the years of 1896 to 1923, and illustrate the sheer diversity of musical thought in a time of radical change for Vienna.
This radical change is felt in the shifting themes in the Trio’s movements. The first movement, Allegro ma non troppo, opens with the theme in the clarinet and cello, prefacing the buildup of the movement with a slow minor cadence. This continues gradually, until the piano breaks away and delivers the second theme, striking down and leading, until once again the clarinet and cello regain the melody and return to the opening theme. This back and forth continues throughout the first movement, innovating on itself and allowing the clarinet to move fluidly and resonate with the deeper and fuller cello and piano. This call and response at times melds into a harmony that is patient only for a while, until the tone becomes fervent once again and breaks away. This movement is my favorite of the three in how it twists and winds around, the only point of familiarity being the haunting opening theme. The guidepost of Allegro ma non troppo is still uncertain, and as the frenzy of the movement gains in the later sections you are unsure of how it can ever be made certain and resolve itself. Until, at its conclusion, the three instruments run together, faster and more expressively than before, rushing forward into that unknown.
Much like the initial uncertainty of who wrote this trio, the work itself is a response to the uncertainty of a new century. Zemlinsky’s first movement embodies that relationship between a people and the times; holding onto what you can and pushing forward despite not knowing what comes next.