Date of Degree
MA (Master of Arts)
Marian Wilson Kimber
In 1929, Alexander Zemlinsky composed the Sinfonische Gesänge, Op. 20, a collection of orchestral song settings of German translations of works by Harlem Renaissance poets. The seemingly exotic poetic texts as well as the composer's subtle incorporation of primitivistic instrumentation and rhythmic gestures commonly associated with jazz aptly reflect Weimar Germany's fascination with African-American culture at the time.
The seven poems selected for the work feature a variety of topics that contribute to the pervasively somber tone of the cycle. The poetic themes either focus on issues that are considered to be particular to African-American life, such as slavery and lynching, or ones that are more general and universal, like loss, disillusionment, and death.
Although all of the texts were penned by black American writers, the musical settings reveal a complex understanding of African-American life that is highly influenced by the perceptions of early twentieth-century Austro-German society. Each song's illustrative orchestration and symbolic motivic treatment accentuate an aspect of the constructed culture that is demonstrated through poetic characterization, setting, or theme. As a result, the overall arrangement of the songs as a cycle presents a multifaceted version of a distant African-American world that would have been accessible to its intended European audience.
Copyright 2010 Stevie Lynne Garza
Garza, Stevie Lynne. "Representations of African-American life In Alexander Zemlinsky's Sinfonsiche [sic] Gesänge, O20." thesis, University of Iowa, 2010.