Do the Math
Leslie Jones attends ‘Zemlinsky & his Quartets’, a talk given by Antony Beaumont, 20th November, Austrian Cultural Forum, as part of the Hampstead Arts Festival, 2013, and reviews Zemlinsky, String Quartet no 4, Op 25 (1936) and other music connected with Vienna, the Brodsky Quartet, Hampstead Parish Church, 3rd December 2013, also part of the Hampstead Arts Festival, 2013
Composing music is presumably difficult enough but the difficulties are compounded if the composer is in thrall to insidious, non-musical influences. Alexander von Zemlinsky, as musicologist and conductor Antony Beaumont pointed out in an informative and entertaining lecture, replete with illustrations on the piano, was obsessed with the putative mystical significance of numbers. This numerological fixation apparently determined key aspects of his compositions, such as the recurrence of particular notes. Certain numbers transposed into notes represented key personalities or elements in the Zemlinsky sphere, such as the antithesis between the ego and the other. Beaumont detects here the influence of Jewish mystical teaching (Kabbalistic thought). According to the latter, every letter, word and number in the Hebrew Bible has an underlying esoteric meaning.
Douglas Jarman notes in ‘Alban Berg, Wilhelm Fliess and the Secret programme of the Violin Concert’, that Berg also regarded particular numbers as fateful and symbolic. Number 10 apparently represented Berg’s mistress Hanna Fuchs-Robettin. A devotee of Wilhelm Fliess’s theory of vital periodicity, Berg regarded number 23 as especially significant for men because, like women, they (allegedly) go through mathematically fixed sexual cycles.
Antony Beaumont believes that qua composer, Zemlinsky always needed a painful external stimulus, such as the break up of a relationship, to banish inanition. In the case of the String Quartet no 4, it was the death in 1935 of Alban Berg. This piece, accordingly, is dark and downbeat throughout, although not devoid of lyrical passages. How fitting, then, to hear this sombre and austere work, arguably indebted to a distinctly Jewish musical tradition, in the atmospheric setting of Hampstead Parish Church, with its fine acoustic. The concert concluded with another melancholy composition, Beethoven’s String Quartet No 115 in A minor, Op 132 (1825). The tragic third movement, in which the composer contemplates his own mortality, is indicatively entitled ‘A convalescent’s sacred song of thanks to the Godhead’ (‘Heiliger Dankgesang eines Genesenen an die Gottheit’). Éblouissant.
Leslie Jones December 2013
Leslie Jones is the Deputy Editor of Quarterly Review