Zemlinsky and the Moon

I’m no scientist, but the way I understand it, the Earth’s blanket of clouds, mist, precipitation, dust, and volcanic ash will change the moon’s color tonight. It might turn blood red, orange, or dark brown. The exact shade of the moon will reveal something about the Earth's atmosphere in a particular moment. Seeing it, you might feel inspiration or a spark of madness or the hope of attaining the unattainable. You might become a werewolf.

I’m not actually superstitious, but when a new Bridge CD of classical songs by Alexander Zemlinsky landed in my mailbox yesterday, I felt a stab of something weird. You see, many of the songs are about the moon.

Poor Zemlinsky. He was a Jew in 1930’s Berlin, and he fell for a completely unattainable woman. He died of heart disease in New York in 1942. In the crazy post-war art scene, his music was eclipsed by Arnold Schoenberg’s and the hipsters of the Second Viennese school.

But now Zemlinsky’s music is coming back. This past fall, when I was in New York City at the NEA conference, I met conductor James Conlon and heard about his efforts to shed light on this composer’s most brilliant works.

Many of the art songs on the new disc (performed beautifully by mezzo-soprano Hermine Haselbock and pianist Florian Henschel) echo the Romantic sentiments of Brahms, Schubert, and Schumann. The moon is a sad character. In the first of Seven songs, he greets a waterlily “with bright longing.”

Bashfully she lowers her head
back down to the ripples,
but then she sees at her feet
the poor pale fellow.

The moon represents unrequited love, but I’m not sure what’s going on in this waltz-song on Tuscan Folk Lyrics by Ferdinand Gergorovius:

Sadly is the moon complaining
how her beams in vain must shine,
heav’n on her will smile no longer
now her light is quenched by thine.

Does she seek her stars to number?
Pale he turns with jealousy;
for two glorious orbs are missing,
which are shining, Love, in thee!

If you could hear this song, you’d hear anxious D minor arpeggios rippling under the soloist, keys shifting constantly with restless tension. Then the piece changes character in the second stanza, sliding in the sweet, comfortable home of F major.

What does it all mean? OK, the moon is a woman: is she eclipsed by another woman? Who turns pale with jealousy? There’s a complicated relationship in there somewhere.

Like tonight’s lunar eclipse, it shines with possibilities.




I refer you to Jay Ansill's settings of the poems of Robert Graves. http://cdbaby.com/cd/jayansill Couple of wonderful 'moon' poems are represented in moving performances.

Thanks for the recommendation.

Dear Anonymous,

I'll check it out and maybe play it next week when I fill in for my wonderful and inspiring colleague Simon Pontin.


I'm not the werewolf

I'm never the werewolf. I'm not even the seer. I'm a lame peasant who, nonetheless, dies in the first round.

Games people play

Dear Andrew,

You sound like you have a victim complex. I suggest you keep your eyes open at all times.


Don't Trust Him, Brenda

Andrew's certainly a werewolf. Sure, he's been a peasant before, but that only increases the odds that he's a werewolf this time.

werewolves and peasants

Dear Rob,

Aren't we each of us werewolf and peasant and seer rolled into one confused lump?


P.S. Rob and Andrew are referring to a party game in which everyone draws a card, closes his eyes, and, based on the card drawn, is a) killed by a werewolf; b) witness to murder; or c) the sneaky wolf. I have played this game with these guys and, trust me, they're both witless peasants. ;)