Alexander Zemlinsky's Fantasies on poems by Richard Dehmel, Op. 9 is a set of four pieces for solo piano, written 1900. These Dehmel Fantasies are the last piano pieces he published and they represent a period of conflicting influences for the composer. His Op. 1 was collection of collection of country-dances from 1892 that reveal a Brahmsian influence infected with a proto-modernist instinct of a then unknown art nouveau sound. In 1895, he became the informal student of a then-unknown Arnold Schoenberg, who would go on to become the most influential and controversial musician of the twentieth century. When Zemlinsky met his idol of chamber music, Johannes Brahms in 1896, the elder master encouraged him to suppress his modernist instincts and carry on the Romantic tradition. By 1899, Zemlinsky and Schoenberg had evolved from a teacher and pupil student relationship to two great young composers, and the younger Schoenberg was determined to write the music of the future. Zemlinsky was not about to be left behind, and his Op. 9 reveals that these men were now influencing each other.
In 1899 Schoenberg had completed his Transfigured Night, Op. 4. Scored for string sextet, it concerns a poem of the same title by the widely admired Dehmel. Schoenberg's work depicts the emotional current between two lovers conversing. Zemlinsky's Op. 9 from 1900 (published 1901 by Doblinger) actually illustrates what is going on in the poems. For example, the sound of branches rustling in the poems is imitated in the piano. Both Schoenberg and Zemlinsky are writing a sort of programmatic music, but Schoenberg's Op. 4 is metaphysical while Zemlinsky's Op. 9 is physical.
The Op. 9 is not Romantic. There is no quest, no yearning, no lonely, bittersweet love of things bucolic or any other such affect easily associated with the Germanic music of the period. The harmonic treatment and counterpoint is clearly Middle European from approximately 1900, but the feeling the Op. 9 produces is closer to the work being done in France by Debussy and Satie. It is not about catharsis and does not set up tensions in order to consummate them. Nor is it French music. Zemlinsky was on to something uniquely his own, something steeped in the geography of Vienna.
During this period, many great Viennese artists were seemingly more determined to carry on the Germanic artistic tradition than were the Germans. With Freud's discoveries in psychoanalysis making their city the cutting edge of psychoanalytic thought, Schoenberg and others would follow the interior journey of the "talking cure" because of its obvious place in the evolution of human thought. And they would drag the Romantic tradition along with them, inverting the Romantic quest from its travels in the world to the world of the psyche. Zemlinsky, the painter Gustav Klimt, and some others looked elsewhere for inspiration, and they found it in their own backyard, Turkey. Vienna's historical adversary and the gateway to the East, was rife with man-made forms that would were fascinating and tangible. The physical description of the architecture alone, as processed though the senses of the European artist, supercharged the qualities of the already exotic East. All that was required was an attentive, artistic record, to reveal how the artist perceives the exotic, creating art that is art nouveau. Before Zemlinsky could do this, he had to be able to describe things musically without falling back on Romantic rhetoric. This is what the Op. 9 accomplishes. Later Zemlinsky's music would absorb influences from the East, just as the Ottoman Empire had an influence on Vienna.
- Stimme des Abends