• Christopher Austin
  • Six Songs after Poems by Maeterlinck (Zemlinsky orch. Austin) (1910)

  • Chester Music Ltd (World)
  • 1(pic,alto fl).1(ca).1+bcl.1/1100/perc/hp.pf(cel).acn/str(11111)
  • Mezzo Soprano
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Sechs Gesänge, Op. 13

Lieder had been Zemlinsky’s passion since youth: growing up in Vienna, he was surrounded by the songs of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and Wolf. However, in the 1900s, Zemlinsky dedicated his time to larger projects such as opera and orchestral works. It was only in the summer of 1910 that Zemlinsky returned to song. Holidaying in Bad Ischl, he was inspired by Maurice Maeterlinck’s 'Quinze Chansons'. The poetry is typical of Maeterlinck’s style: sensuous, mysterious and evocative. Zemlinsky’s score captures this atmosphere.

Wandering chromaticisms and non-functional harmonies reflect the unpredictability of the verse. Mahler’s influence comes to the fore in moments of lyricism; indeed Derrick Puffett described the last of the Maeterlinck songs as ‘all the Songs of a Wayfarer, indeed all the Mahler symphonies, rolled into one, a lifetime’s experience collapsed into a few minutes of music’.

© Mark Seow, 2014

Orchestrator's note

In the foreword to his famous treatise on instrumentation, Walter Piston wrote: ‘The true art of orchestration is inseparable from the creative act of composing music.’ If this is true – and I believe that, broadly speaking, it is – where does this leave a musician like me when asked to make a new version of Zemlinsky’s Sechs Gesänge? What can be the artistic basis for undertaking such a project? Clearly there is a specific tradition within which an endeavour such as this lies – the chamber versions of orchestral works as varied as Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune and Webern’s Sechs Stücke für Orchester (miraculously rendered by a mere thirteen players, albeit three of them percussionists) that were made for concerts at Schoenberg’s Society for Private Musical Performances in Vienna.

In 1921 Erwin Stein – whose chamber version of Mahler’s Symphony No. 4 has already featured in this series of concerts and recordings – made instrumentations of the second and fifth songs for nine players, but went no further. This is an understandable reluctance since the scope of the original orchestral textures is constantly shifting between opulent tutti and moments of greatest intimacy. This sense of scale is one of the things that I have tried to embody in my new instrumentation of these songs and I have at all times endeavoured to be faithful to the spirit of Zemlinsky’s originals, in the full knowledge that this can often require total infidelity to the letter of the score. This is the crux: I had to work from inside Zemlinsky’s score, understanding the weight of sound, the recurrent use of particular colours that bring a unity to the score as a whole, and so on, not merely imitate the surface of his sound.

My own score contains two instruments that do not feature in the originals: the accordion – to me a more flexible and powerful ‘evolution’ from the harmonium which features in nearly all the Viennese transcriptions – and the vibraphone. Alongside the harp and piano, the vibraphone not only creates a resonating chamber into which I can pour the other instrumental colours, but also connects with forward-looking aspects of Zemlinsky’s score which, in its particular blending of diatonicism and chromaticism suggests, to me, a tiny glimpse of the world of Alban Berg’s Lulu, where the vibraphone provides hugely important colour. Zemlinsky’s original scoring creates an acoustic unique to these songs and this is my way of giving these new versions their own acoustic. Orchestration that is organic has a grammar like any other part of a composer’s thought and it comes from within the idea and completes it. In fact, this is how I approach all my orchestrations and as such it is also the answer to the question I posed at the beginning of this note, and constantly to myself while immersed in Zemlinsky’s magical sound-world.

© Christopher Austin, 2014



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