Articles & Essays

Alexander Zemlinsky and Der Kreidekreis in Berlin

By Marc D. Moskovitz

In 1927, Alexander Zemlinsky, the fifty-seven year old conductor of Prague's New German Theater, headed for Berlin, hoping for a fresh musical start. During the previous seventeen years he had given the Czech capital everything he had and had kept the city abreast of contemporary musical currents, but he had been longing all the while to be free of Prague's provincialism. Zemlinsky's preference was always to return to Vienna, the city of his birth, but Vienna seemed indifferent to what he had to offer, and offered him nothing in return. When Otto Klemperer invited the veteran conductor to join his staff at Berlin's newly formed Kroll Oper, Zemlinsky jumped at the chance. He would spend the next five years in the Prussian capital. Yet rather than providing true musical fulfillment and the recognition that was Zemlinsky's due, Berlin proved to be his undoing. His work as a conductor would be cut short when Klemperer's experimental theater was closed down after four years, and shortly thereafter Zemlinsky and his seventh opera, Der Kreidekreis, became early victims of Goebbels' yet-to-be defined—or refined—musical policies.

These misfortunes could not have been predicted. Indeed, upon his arrival in Berlin early in September 1927, Zemlinsky encountered a revitalized metropolis. The crippling post-war inflation that had left Berliners demoralized, hungry and unemployed as late as 1923 had been brought under control, and optimism and confidence had returned. The path was paved for Berlin's goldenen Zwanzigerjahrigen, the Golden Twenties. The city had supplanted Vienna as the musical capital of the German-speaking world and was now home to a number of Zemlinsky's friends and colleagues, among them the composers Arnold Schoenberg, Franz Schreker and Paul Hindemith and such world-class conductors as Bruno Walter, Erich Kleiber and Wilhelm Furtwängler. Berlin was likewise attracting many of Europe's premier architects, scientists, writers and artists and developing the progressive institutions with which they were associated.

By 1931, however, Berlin's promising political and cultural climate had disintegrated. The Kroll Oper, for example, under siege from the right -wing press almost from the start for fostering what it perceived as a Judeo-Negro epoch in Prussian art, was finally shut down, and by the summer of 1932 Germany once again found itself knee-deep in recession. With thousands of small businesses failing and six million people out of work, new parliamentary elections were held. Victory went to the National Socialists, now the most powerful party in Germany, claiming 230 seats in the Reichstag. Then, in January of the New Year, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor.

The closure of the Kroll brought to an end the last conducting post of any consequence that Zemlinsky would hold; this was in part a personal choice and in part a result of diminishing professional options as the National Socialists began to tighten the noose around non-Aryans. As a result, Zemlinsky turned increasingly to composition. In 1930 he had begun crafting a libretto based on a play, Der Kreidekreis (The Circle of Chalk), by Alfred Henschke (better known as Klabund); by midsummer of that year he was at work on the short score, and for two years he composed nothing else. In October of 1932, Zemlinsky finished what proved to be his last completed opera, and his publisher, Universal Edition, arranged for Der Kreidekreis to receive premiere performances the following year in various German cities, including Berlin, Frankfurt, Nuremberg and Cologne. Zemlinsky finally seemed poised for a breakthrough.

Based on a masterpiece of the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Yuan dynasty established by Kublai Khan, Der Kreidekreis revolves around the pretty Haitang, whose family is caught in a web of extortion spun by the mandarin Ma. Unable to pay his taxes, Haitang's father hangs himself, and her brother, Chang-ling, becomes a revolutionary. Destitute, Haitang's mother sells her daughter into prostitution. Pao, a prince, falls in love with Haitang and bids for her, but he cannot match the sum Ma is willing to pay. At the start of the opera's second act, Ma's childless wife, Yu-Pei, learns that she is to be eliminated from Ma's will because Haitang has given birth to a son. Yu-Pei poisons Ma and points the finger of blame at Haitang, paying off “witnesses” to bolster her case, all the while maintaining that the child is hers. Haitang is sentenced to death, but she is granted a stay of execution when Pao, who has since attained the rank of emperor, suspends all death sentences as his first act of justice. Pao brings the two women together and, placing the child between them in the middle of a circle of chalk, declares that whoever can pull the baby from the circle is the rightful mother. As Yu-Pei begins to pull the child away, Haitang relinquishes her grip so as not to cause him harm. Her true compassion proves her innocence and maternal rights, and exposes Yu-Pei's guilt. Pao then confesses to having seduced Haitang as she slept during her first night in the mandarin's house. Haitang's dream is now reality: her child is elevated to the rank of prince and she to that of empress.

Despite the rags-to-riches story line of Der Kreidekreis and its fairy-tale ending, the opera is distinguished from all of Zemlinsky's earlier work through its reliance on a variety of powerful themes — good versus evil, rich versus poor, the brutality of the ruling class, rebellion, victimization, suicide and revolution. The story's focus on social order and morality, however stereotyped, places it squarely within the prevailing operatic zeitgeist, resulting in the timeliest of all Zemlinsky's operas. i The form and style of the opera also suggest Zemlinsky's attempt to keep pace with his contemporaries, particularly Kurt Weill and Berthold Brecht, whose Dreigroschenoper had burst onto the Berlin scene two years before Zemlinsky set to work on Der Kreidekreis. The latter opera's jazz associations, its combination of song, spoken dialogue and melodrama (spoken voice with orchestral accompaniment) and even its themes of social criticism all point to Brechtian dramaturgy and, arguably, to Berlin nightlife.

From the first scene, Zemlinsky is in territory far removed from any he had previously explored. Tong, the teahouse/brothel proprietor, speaks directly to the audience, accompanied by the soft swing of the saxophone. The atmosphere is seedy and mysterious, and, if not for the libretto's indication that the scene opens in a teahouse, it could just as easily play in a smoky Berlin cabaret. Musically, however, Der Kreidekreis displays strong connections to Zemlinsky's other works of the period. As in the Symphonische Gesänge and the Third Quartet, Zemlinsky here relies on tight motivic cells, static ostinato patterns and neue Sachlichkeit restraint, and he charts a harmonic course parallel to that of the Symphonic Songs, moving from D minor to D major -- a symbol of the plot's transcendent movement from darkness to light.

Der Kreidekreis's Berlin premiere was to have been led by Otto Klemperer in April of 1933, but in mid-March, six weeks after Hitler's ascent to power, Zemlinsky got word that his opera was being placed on hold. The Reich had yet to establish its “official” policy regulating what could and could not be performed, but already its intent was clear where Jews and their music were concerned. Until January, the attacks had come via the Nazi press and through the disruption of concerts, but in February and March, members of the Sturmabteilung (SA) began invading opera houses and threatening conductors. Klemperer and the Staatsoper drew attention to themselves in February with an unorthodox interpretation of Wagner's Tannhäuser, which Goebbels considered a travesty and which was marred by cries of disgust from Nazis in attendance. Before another Klemperer concert, a caller threatened to disrupt the performance, which was then cancelled outright “for reasons of public safety”. ii In view of these events, Heinz Tietjen, General-Intendant of Berlin's opera houses, refused to allow Klemperer or the Staatsoper to take unnecessary risks and wrote to Klemperer, in March, that the decision to postpone Der Kreidekreis was “primarily preventive”. iii Universal Edition expected the other theaters around Germany to follow suit.

Zemlinsky's letters to Universal during this period reflect his frustration and anxiety. He was accustomed to production complications, but the current problems were new and sinister, and he did not know what to make of them. What, Zemlinsky wanted to know, was the exact nature of the situation? “Are the problems with the libretto — the music — myself ?” iv For the moment, nothing was certain, except that Zemlinsky's case was not unique. Already in 1932 Ernst Toch's opera Der Fächer had been shut down in mid-rehearsal when storm troopers wrested the baton from the conductor's hand. Berthold Goldschmidt's opera Der Gewaltige Hahnrei, on the other hand, went more quietly: scheduled for performance at Berlin's Städtische Oper in 1933, following its successful Mannheim debut, it was simply cancelled with no explanation. In Dresden, the music director Fritz Busch was manhandled in rehearsal and he subsequently resigned. Although he was not Jewish, Busch was openly and vehemently opposed to Hitler and the Nazi Party. The Jewish conductor Bruno Walter, physically barred from conducting in Leipzig, requested police protection for a concert with the Berlin Philharmonic, but rather than honor his request the authorities had him replaced. v For Zemlinsky, Universal still held out hopes that his opera would have its premiere in mid-November, but because the new regime did not expect to have its people and policies in place before the end of April, the Staatsoper could make no immediate decisions.

Toward the end of 1933 Zemlinsky finally received the long-awaited good news: Der Kreidekreis had been cleared to play in Germany. Opera houses scrambled to put things in order and in the first few months of 1934 the floodgates were thrown open. Productions were staged in Stettin (January 16), Coburg (January 21) and Nuremberg (January 25), as well as in Graz, Austria (February 9). On January 23, Berlin hosted the first of over twenty performances, and at the Cologne premiere a few days later the opera achieved overwhelming success. iv Productions in Bratislava and Prague followed toward the year's end. Throughout Germany, the reviews were, predictably, widely divergent. Many critics praised Zemlinsky's technique, his control and his colors. The Berlin critic H. H. Stuckenschmidt wrote, “one would have to be struck blind and deaf in order not to recognize the high level and high artistic worth of this (consciously restrained) music.” But mixed with the praise were other more scathing reviews, such as the vitriolic criticism of Fritz Brust of the Allgemeine Musikzeitung: “It is undoubtedly true that Der Kreidekreis does not gain depth by repeated listening.” viii Considering Germany's volatile sociopolitical climate, such polarized views were to be expected, and Zemlinsky and others would undoubtedly have discerned the anti-Semitic nature of the press that attacked his music because of his origins. Yet, in spite of the occasional harsh word, Zemlinsky, now 63 years old, seemed finally to be on the verge of realizing international acclaim.

But his optimism was short-lived. Stettin's chief of police, who had heard about the opera at second hand, canceled all further performances and the rest of Germany soon followed suit. Der Kreidekreis was branded entartete Musik — degenerate music, unfit for German society.

The ban on Der Kreidekreis thrust Zemlinsky into the epicenter of the Reich's ban, for reasons far beyond his Jewish origins. He was simultaneously composer, conductor, teacher, colleague and friend of many who were falling victim to the new decrees, and his association with other known “degenerates” - among them Schoenberg, Hindemith and Schreker - not to mention his association with the Kroll, was enough to have condemned his work. And while his latest opera may have played behind an Oriental scrim, its themes — prostitution, destitution, decadence and, above all, governmental oppression — were particularly abhorrent to the Nazis. At what was arguably the most heartbreaking moment of Zemlinsky's career, Der Kreidekreis was struck from the repertoire just when it appeared destined to triumph. Zemlinsky was never again presented with such an opportunity. In a life already plagued by more than its share of disappointments, this was surely among the hardest to endure.


Hailey, Christopher. 1993. Franz Schreker, 1878-1934: A Cultural Biography. Cambridge : Cambridge University Press.

Heyworth, Peter. 1983. Otto Klemperer : His Life and Times, vol. 1 (1885-1933). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Meyer, Michael. 1991. The Politics of Music in the Third Reich. New York: Peter Lang.

Posted September 8, 2010


  • i. Ernst Toch's Der Fächer, another Zeitoper with a Chinese subject, received its 1930 premiere in Königsberg. As the music historian Christopher Hailey has suggested, a similar social thread runs through other works of the time, including Hindemith's Mathis der Maler, Schreker's Der Schmied von Gent, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Krenek's Karl V and arguably the era's best known indictment of social corruption, Brecht and Weill's Dreigroschenoper. See Hailey (1993), 260.
  • ii. Meyer (1991), 23.
  • iii. Quoted in Heyworth (1983), 415.
  • iv. Letter to Universal Edition, April 10, 1933.
  • v. See Meyer (1991), 23. Richard Strauss agreed to act as Walter's replacement, but only if his fee was donated to the orchestra.
  • vi. K. H. Ruppel, “Der Kreidekreis in der Staatsoper”, Kölnische Zeitung (January 26, 1934).
  • vii. H. H. Stuckenschmidt, “Der Kreidekreis in Berlin”, Berliner Zeitung (January 24, 1934).
  • viii. Fritz Brust, “Zemlinskys ‘Kreidekreis’ in der Staatsoper”, Allgemeine Musikzeitung (January 1934).
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