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Composed: 1902-03

Length: 45 minutes

Orchestration: 4 flutes (3rd and 4th = piccolo), 4 oboes, English horn, 3 clarinets, bass clarinet, 3 bassoons, 6 horns, 3 trumpets, 4 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, triangle, tubular bells), 2 harps, and strings

About this Piece

Alexander Zemlinsky was life's punching bag. After initial successes that pointed to an accomplished career for the young Zemlinsky - a prize-winning first opera, a second opera accepted by Gustav Mahler for the Vienna Court Opera, and a star pupil in the person of Arnold Schoenberg - things started to go wrong. A failed love-affair turned him into a laughing-stock, a miscalculated refusal of a post at the Berlin Opera didn't help his career (it was the same post Strauss had held), and the rise of the Nazis forced him into exile, first in Switzerland, and then in New York. The Little Mermaid was the first in a series of musical attempts to grapple with the demons of defeat - his opera Der Traumgörge (Goerge the Dreamer) and Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), both rife with autobiographical elements, were part of this process. Together, they are works that, in their bittersweet lyricism and moments of defiant exuberance, provide ample proof that no matter what life dealt him, Zemlinsky never lost confidence in his gifts as a composer.

We have a failed love affair to thank for The Little Mermaid. Zemlinsky met Alma Schindler at a dinner party in February 1900 and was immediately captivated by her glamour and brilliance; her admission that Tristan und Isolde was her favorite opera was the icing on the cake. Her initial impression of him was slightly less rapt - she described him as "chinless, small, with bulging eyes" and as "dreadfully ugly" - but she began going to him for lessons anyway. After pursuing her for nearly two years, Zemlinsky was rejected by Alma, who had decided instead to marry Gustav Mahler, the composer-conductor who was director of the Vienna Court Opera at the time.

As Antony Beaumont has pointed out in his study of Zemlinsky, the composer wrote The Little Mermaid as part of a psychological process meant to exorcise the trauma of Alma's marriage to Mahler. Zemlinsky turned to Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid story because of its resonance with his own situation at the time. In Andersen's story, a Mermaid saves a Prince from drowning and falls in love with him in the process. She goes to the Mer-witch, who, in exchange for her voice (the Witch cuts out the Mermaid's tongue), makes her human. But the bargain is perilous, for if the Mermaid fails to win the Prince, she will die. When the Prince marries another, the Mermaid's sisters go to the Mer-witch to try and save her. The Witch says that the Mermaid must kill the Prince, but she cannot bring herself to do it. Heartbroken, she plunges into the sea, but, instead of dying, is transformed into a Daughter of the Air and given another chance to regain her immortal soul. According to Beaumont, the composer saw himself as the Mermaid, with Alma as the Prince. In his musical setting of Andersen's tale, Zemlinsky was able to express his pain.

The Little Mermaid opens with a musical depiction of the first lines of Andersen's tale: "Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it. Many church steeples, piled one upon another, would not reach from the ground beneath to the surface of the water above. There dwell the Mer-king and his subjects." The movement is the most literal in its adherence to Andersen's narrative. Zemlinsky tells the story musically through a series of motives; an ascending figure depicting the bottom of the ocean, and the Mermaid's theme, introduced by solo violin, are among the motives heard at the outset of the first movement. The middle of the movement, which functions like a development section after the lengthy thematic exposition that precedes it, portrays the turbulent storm during which the Prince falls overboard; just as the music seems poised to reach its climax, we hear a sweet, extremely lyrical version of the Mermaid's theme.

The second movement, a glittering scherzo, captures the atmosphere of the ball at the Mer-king's palace, "one of those splendid sights which we can never see on earth," as Andersen described it. The orchestration is brilliant in the best Richard Strauss style. Five minutes into the movement, we hear the Mermaid alone, stealing away to the Mer-witch's lair. The music is insinuating, mysterious, and tinged with tragedy. A motive of great nobility, which Zemlinsky associated with the immortal soul, brings the section to a close. The movement ends with a return of the music from the ball, varied and given a lighter, more luminous orchestration.

The Mermaid takes her first, tentative steps onto land as the final movement opens. Zemlinsky revisits motives and themes from earlier in the work over the course of the movement, which is predominantly lyrical until a massive climax. The Mermaid has discovered the Prince and his bride; her sorrow gradually transforms into a rapturous coda representing her transfiguration and its promise of immortality.

The Little Mermaid was not a critical success following its premiere in Vienna on January 25, 1905 (on a concert program that also included Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande), and Zemlinsky immediately withdrew the score. When he escaped from Europe in 1938, he brought only two movements of The Little Mermaid with him to New York. The two parts of the score were finally reunited in 1984; since then, the work gradually has been gaining a much-deserved place in the repertory.

– John Mangum