Alexander Zemlinsky‘s tone poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), is a beautiful piece that he wrote in 1903 after hearing Richard Strauss’ epic work, Ein Heldenleben.
Zemlinsky sticks to a few main themes over the course of the three movement, 45min work, and this sequence is based on the tragic and haunting main theme.
Now, I’m sure you are familiar with the Disney version of The Little Mermaid, and are probably wondering, “Tragic?? The Little Mermaid is such a happy story! Ariel and Eric defeat Ursula and get married!?!” (sorry if I spoiled that for you)
Yes, I know, but the original tale by Hans Christian Anderson is much, much darker. Not only does the mermaid sell her voice to the sea witch to transform her fin into legs, but every step she takes cuts into her feet like she is walking on daggers. Ouch.
The prince likes the mermaid, but never even considers marrying her, instead marrying the woman his parents pick for him. To add insult to injury, the mermaid has to hold this bride’s gown train as she marries the prince. (WHAMMY).
After the wedding, the mermaid is offered one final chance to rejoin her kin if she can kill the prince with a magical dagger, but instead tosses the dagger into the sea, sealing her fate. She leaps into the sea, melts into sea foam, and becomes a sort of air spirit.
This story is oddly autobiographical for Zemlinsky, who fell deeply in love with the young Alma Schindler and had to watch, heartbroken as she went on to marry the musical giant, Gustav Mahler.
Strive to make a singing, expressive sound, and phrase in a way that captures the heartbreak that is so central to the story. Challenge your soft dynamics as if you are singing this song from far away, as you watch your love go on to marry someone else.
This sequence will help you improve your sound at soft dynamics, your phrasing over large interval leaps, and your minor scales.
Happy (or sad) Practicing!!
Excerpt starts at: 1:25 in the muted Principal Horn, 22:11 in the Bass Clarinet
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