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  • Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge:A Post-Wagnerian Pentecost Play or, on the Emergence of a Pogrom from the Middle of the Christian Community
  • Sigrid Weigel (bio)

“Fairy tales must come alive.”1 This line, sung repeatedly by the eponymous hero of Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Traumgörge (Görge the Dreamer), is widely interpreted as the leitmotif and theme of the work. Such an interpretation runs as follows: Görge is a solitary figure whose books and reveries are mocked by the inhabitants of his village surroundings, and in particular by Grete, the woman intended to be his bride. He departs from the village at the end of the first act to pursue a vision. He begins the second act, set three years later, a social outcast. By this time he has rejected the possibility of integration into an active, even powerful, place in society as the eloquent leader of rebelling peasants. Horrified by the violence revolt entails, he relinquishes the role, instead rescuing Gertraud, a woman accused of witchcraft, from a bloodthirsty mob attempting to burn her at the stake. Shortly after, she becomes his betrothed. A postlude, yet another year later, presents them in a petit bourgeois idyll: an economically successful and socially recognized miller and his wife, in whose lives, as it were, dreams have become reality.

In the face of this unapologetically fairy-tale-like and seemingly trivial plot, the question of the relation of Leo Feld’s libretto to Zemlinsky’s score arises, particularly given Zemlinsky’s status as a central and influential figure of the Second Viennese School. Theodor W. Adorno, whose 1959 radio essay on Zemlinsky, as well as his repeated references to Zemlinsky’s works in his 1968 Graz lecture “Konzeption eines Wiener Operntheaters”2 (Conception for a Viennese opera theater), contributed significantly to the composer’s rediscovery in the 1970s, deemed him a master.3 He emphasized both Zemlinsky’s “art of omission, withholding, of compositional ‘understatement’” in addition to the focused lines and technically perfected formal progress of his compositions.4 Adorno characterized Zemlinsky as a musician who employed traditional means even as he prepared the way to modernism: “In his works for the stage, too, which are primarily lyrical [End Page 6] in nature, he scorns all shrill, overemphatic gestures; in this respect he was a true disciple of the French.”5

In this context, Adorno referred to the already canonical formula on Zemlinsky’s place in the history of music: “As early as 1936 in Das neue Musiklexikon, the German edition of Eaglefield-Hull’s Dictionary of Modern Music and Musicians, edited by Alfred Einstein, he is described as ‘a typical representative of that synthesis of Wagnerian and Brahmsian elements which can be discerned in so many works of the Viennese school.’”6 A further canonical characterization bears upon Zemlinsky’s place in the genealogy of new music, in particular his stance toward the twelve-tone music most strongly associated with his student, brother-in-law, and friend Arnold Schoenberg. Whether Zemlinsky is considered to represent a late tonality whose harmonic language undermines tonality from within,7 or whether he is supposed to have shrunk back from the final step to atonality,8 his music is consistently described from the perspective of a seemingly compulsory linear development in the history of music. In this development, Zemlinsky appears as the representative of a synthesis of old and new, of convention and modernism. In light of the current increased attention to and staging of compositions from the beginning of the twentieth century, including the operas of Franz Schreker, Richard Strauss, Alberto Franchetti, and Zemlinsky, precisely this constellation becomes particularly interesting, whether or not—as Manfred Angerer has put it—“the borders of tonality are more interesting than the new and uncontained field of atonality.”9 With this in mind, I will investigate the opera Der Traumgörge as a stage of modernity, and Zemlinsky’s musical theater as the product of a composer who worked at the threshold of new music without crossing over it.

Der Traumgörge: A Fairy-Tale Opera?

What role does the fairy tale play in all this? To begin with, one must recognize that...


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