On 3 May 1921, Alexander Zemlinsky received the following telegram: “have read your opera the dwarf with great enjoyment cologne is prepared to accept sole rights for world premiere would you be prepared to entrust your work to us Klemperer.” Der Zwerg received its world première one year later, on 28 May 1922 in Cologne under Otto Klemperer. During this era of change, audiences displayed a growing enthusiasm for ‘Zeitoper’ (opera of the times), neoclassicism and New Objectivity. Apparently exaggerated, late-romantic music like Der Zwerg began to lose popularity. Following a series of performances, the work vanished from the stage for half a century and only made a triumphant return to concert programmes in 1981, along with A Florentine Tragedy. Friends and acquaintances did not necessarily share Zemlinsky’s enthusiasm for this “drama of the ugly man”, primarily because Georg C. Klaren, the librettist, had depicted the title role – if perhaps inadvertently – as the composer’s Doppelgänger. By identifying himself with a figure so closely modelled on his own physical traits, it was feared that Zemlinsky would expose himself to public ridicule.
It was probably the experience of seeing and hearing Zemlinsky’s one-act opera A Florentine Tragedy at the Vienna Hofoper in April 1917 that prompted the sixteen-year-old Georg Klaren to write to the composer and offer his services as librettist.1 Already then, this precocious young man was avidly studying the sexual theories of Sigmund Freud and Otto Weininger, and had indeed become something of an expert in that field. Soon afterwards, he wrote a libretto on an original plot and sent it to Zemlinsky in Prague, where the latter had been active since 1911 as principal conductor of the Neues Deutsches Theater. Zemlinsky considered Klaren’s libretto to contain ‘many good things’,2 and he promptly invited him to collaborate in adapting a literary classic for the operatic stage. ‘When I first contacted him about librettos’, Klaren recalled, ‘Zemlinsky expressed his interest in three projects, each of which proved to be undramatic, but of psychological interest. Two of them were novels by well-known authors, the third was a short story [A Village Romeo and Juliet] by [Gottfried] Keller. [...] In one of the other literary sources, Keller’s idyllic vision intersects with that desire for brute force common to all men of a passive disposition, manifested as eroticism, as the sadism of a Don Juan: an archetypal lady-killer, beyond all notion of Good and Evil. The third idea that inspired Zemlinsky to musical treatment depicted a vulnerable hero confronted by an almost improbably domineering female. Finally we settled for “The Dwarf” [...]: an individual, unaware that he differs from those around him, is destroyed by a woman who, instead of penetrating to the depths of his soul, or telling him how he differs from his fellow men, simply toys with him.’3
Klaren initially opted for the ‘archetypal lady-killer’ (Raphael de Valentin, the hero of Balzac’s La peau de chagrin), and in April 1918 he completed the libretto of a one-act opera in four scenes, entitled Raphael. Zemlinsky was not entirely satisfied with it. ‘Inevitably, much has had to be coarsened,’ he wrote to Schoenberg. ‘What a shame!’4 Nevertheless, during his vacation at Spindelmühle (Spindlerüv Mlyn) in the Giant Mountains of Northern Bohemia, he sketched out some of the music. Finding the political situation in the autumn of 1918 unpropitious for creative work, he set the task aside, only to return to it in June of the following year. Soon afterwards, Klaren sent him his libretto of The Dwarf freely adapted from Oscar Wilde’s Birthday of the Infanta. This was far more to Zemlinsky’s liking. It had been his intention to complete Raphael in time for the 1919/1920 season, but by the end of the summer he had abandoned the project altogether (though he did salvage one of its ideas as the principal theme of his next work, the Lyric Symphony) and set to work in a frenzy of creativity on The Dwarf. Friends and acquaintances did not necessarily share his enthusiasm for this ‘drama of the ugly man’, primarily because Klaren had depicted the title role
- if perhaps inadvertently – as the composer’s Doppelgänger. By identifying himself with a figure so closely modelled on his own physical traits, it was feared Zemlinsky would expose himself to public ridicule. On more than one occasion, as emerges from his correspondence with the director of Universal Edition, Emil Hertzka,5 he felt obliged to explain and defend his choice: ‘So now I am working on “The Dwarf” (Birthday of the Inf.). The libretto is uncommonly well suited to me, which is why I accepted it despite all the objections. Furthermore, I am composing as never before. In a matter of weeks I have set three quarters of the libretto to music, i.e. only one quarter is still left. I simply must tell you that everything so far has turned out exceedingly well.’6 ‘If only people wouldn’t keep putting stumbling blocks in my way
- as ever – and depriving me of all the pleasure, it could turn out to be really excellent.’7 ‘What do you think of Klaren’s “erotic theory”? I would be most interested to know!’8
Work on the remaining scenes was held up by an unusually heavy conducting schedule, but on 26 December 1919 Zemlinsky reported to Hertzka: ‘I have finished composing “The Dwarf”. Now (should it be of any interest to you) I shall start work on the orchestration.’9 234 pages of full score were completed the following summer at Bad Liebwerda in the Iser Mountains (Bohemia),10 but the 1920/1921 season was again a busy one, and it took four months to complete the last 38 pages (the final double-bar of the autograph full score is dated 4 January 1921). During that summer of 1920, Zemlinsky’s assistant in Prague, Heinrich Jalowetz, had started work on the piano reduction, delivering it in sections to Universal Edition, as and when they were complete. Thus, already in mid-March 1921 the vocal score was engraved and printed, ready for distribution.
Of the many conductors and theatre directors who received copies of the vocal score during the spring of 1921, Otto Klemperer, musical director of the Städtische Bühnen in Cologne, was the first to react.11 On 3 May he cabled as follows to Zemlinsky in Prague: ‘have read your opera the dwarf with great enjoyment cologne is prepared to accept sole rights for world premiere would you be prepared to entrust your work to us klemperer’. Cologne may have been, to Zemlinsky’s mind, ‘musically speaking, something of a backwater’ and the public ‘perhaps also too insipid’, but he leapt at the chance, knowing Klemperer to be a ‘guarantee of first-rate musical presentation’.12 The search for a singer with sufficient range, stamina and acting ability for the title role, conceived as it was for a fusion of character tenor and Heldentenor, caused the production to be post-
poned more than once, but eventually the first night was announced for 28 May 1922 – too late, as Zemlinsky grumbled, to serve as propaganda for the following season. Yet all was not lost, for he had shown the score to Richard Strauss and obtained an undertaking from him, in his capacity as director of the Vienna State Opera (together with Franz Schalk), to promote the work in Vienna.
An invitation by the Cologne Theater Commission enabled Zemlinsky to attend Klemperer’s final rehearsals. Taking advantage of a short break in his Prague schedule, he set out for the Rhineland in the fourth week of May. ‘The grub is good here’, he reported to Schoenberg,13 and between meals he found time to make retouches to the orchestration and implement a few cuts. On returning to Prague, he made further revisions. ‘Some passages still struck me as too heavy & disrupted the vocal line,’ he explained to Hertzka.14 Later in the year, having eliminated a few discrepancies between the vocal and orchestral scores, he consigned the opera to posterity and turned his attention to other projects.
During the Twenties, with the growing popularity of ‘Zeitoper’, the advent of New Objectivity, neo-classicism and other new trends and techniques, the effusive, post-Romantic music of The Dwarf appealed ever less to public taste. New productions, as listed here, were accordingly few and far between: Vienna (Staatsoper), 24 November 1923; Karlsruhe (Landestheater), 11 March 1924; Prague (Neues Deutsches Theater), 28 May 1926; Berlin-Charlottenburg (Stadttheater), 22 September 1926. Due to the difficulty of casting the title role, plans to stage the work at Freiburg and Olomouc (dates unknown), Darmstadt (1922 and 1927), Aachen (1931) and Stuttgart (1931) came to nothing. The Dwarf vanished from the repertoire for half a century, only to make a triumphant return on 20 September 1981, when it was performed in a double-bill with A Florentine Tragedy at the Staatsoper Hamburg. This production, presented under the title Der Geburtstag der Infantin (slightly abridged and with a radically altered libretto), played a significant role in establishing Zemlinsky’s reputation as an operatic composer, paving the way for a series of concert performances at Cologne on 11-13 February 1996 at which the work was finally heard as its authors had intended it.
1. Georg C. Klaren, born in Vienna on 10 September 1900, evidently saw himself as a spiritual descendent of the ‘boy poets’ of the belle époque, Arthur Rimbaud and Hugo von Hofmannsthal. While working on The Dwarf, he was also occupied with writing a study of the psycho-pathologist Otto Weininger (Otto Weininger, der Mensch, sein Werk und sein Leben, Leipzig 1924). Later he wrote primarily for the film industry, beginning in 1927 with a silent movie adaptation of Schnitzler’s Liebelei (Gehetzte Frauen, 1927) and reaching his zenith with a much-acclaimed screen adaptation of Büchners’s Wozzeck (East Berlin, 1947), which he also directed. Criticized by the Stalinist regime in Moscow for allegedly ‘formalist’ tendencies, he subsequently returned to Vienna, then in 1954 he emigrated to England, where he died at Sawbridegworth on 18 November 1962.
2. Zemlinsky to Arnold Schoenberg, ca. June 1918 in: H. Weber (ed.), Zemlinskys Briefwechsel mit Schönberg, Webern, Berg und Schreker, Darmstadt 1995, p. 194. In this letter, Zemlinsky remarks that he and Klaren had never met. Hence he was probably unaware that his literary partner was only 18 years old.
3. Georg C. Klaren, Zemlinsky vom psychologischen Standpunkte, in: Der Auftakt, vol. 1, Prague, October 1921, p. 197
4. Zemlinsky to Arnold Schoenberg, ca. June 1918, in: Weber, p. 194
5. O. Hagedorn (ed.), Zemlinskys Briefwechsel mit der Universal Edition, in preparation
6. Zemlinsky to Universal Edition, 23 August 1919
7. Zemlinsky to Universal Edition, undated (autumn 1919)
8. Zemlinsky to Universal Edition, 11 June 1920
9. Zemlinsky to Universal Edition, 26 December 1919
10. In the autograph full score, the passage where the Dwarf sings ‘Jetzt weiß ich, daß ich liebe’ (p. 210-211), is dated ‘Liebwerda i. B., 3. August 20’.
11. Even before the opera was complete, the musical director at Darmstadt, George Szell had expressed his intention to conduct the world premiere.
12. Zemlinsky to Universal Edition, arrival stamp: 3 May 1921
13. Zemlinsky to Arnold Schoenberg, 27 May 1922, in: Weber, p. 233
14. Zemlinsky to Universal Edition, 11 June 1922