Zemlinsky was born in Vienna to a highly multicultural family. Zemlinsky's grandfather, Anton Semlinski, emigrated from Žilina, Hungary (now in Slovakia) to Austria and married an Austrian woman. Both were from staunchly Roman Catholic families, and Alexander's father, Adolf, was raised as a Catholic. Alexander's mother was born in Sarajevo to a Sephardic Jewish father and a Bosnian Muslim mother. Alexander's entire family converted to the religion of his maternal grandfather, Judaism, and Zemlinsky was born and raised Jewish. His father added an aristocratic "von" to his name, though neither he nor his forebears were ennobled. He also began spelling his surname "Zemlinszky."
Alexander studied the piano from a young age. He played the organ in his synagogue on holidays, and was admitted to the Vienna Conservatory in 1884. He studied piano with Anton Door, winning the school's piano prize in 1890. He continued his studies until 1892, studying theory with Robert Fuchs and composition with Johann Nepomuk Fuchs and Anton Bruckner. At this time he began writing music.
In Johannes Brahms, Zemlinsky had a valuable supporter. In 1893, on the invitation of Zemlinsky's teacher Johann Nepomuk Fuchs, Brahms attended a performance of Zemlinsky's Symphony in D minor. Soon after that, Brahms attended a performance of one of Zemlinky's quartets by the Hellmesberger Quartet. Brahms, impressed with Zemlinsky's music, recommended the younger composer's Clarinet Trio (1896) to the N. Simrock company for publication.
Zemlinsky also met Arnold Schoenberg when the latter joined Polyhymnia, an orchestra in which he played cello and helped found in 1895. The two became close friends and later mutual admirers and brothers-in-law when Schoenberg married Zemlinsky's sister, Mathilde. Zemlinsky gave Schoenberg lessons in counterpoint, thus becoming the only formal music teacher Schoenberg would have.
In 1897 Zemlinsky's Symphony No. 2 (chronologically the third he had written, and sometimes numbered as such) was a success when premiered in Vienna. His reputation as a composer was further helped when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal (Once Upon a Time) at the Hofoper in 1900. In 1899 Zemlinsky secured the post of Kapellmeister at Vienna's Carltheater.
In 1899, Zemlinsky converted to Protestantism. He alluded to the Christian cross and to Jesus in the text of Turnwächterlied, and included verses from Psalms in several of his compositions.
In 1900, Zemlinsky met and fell in love with Alma Schindler, one of his composition students. She reciprocated his feelings initially; however, Alma felt a great deal of pressure from close friends and family to end the relationship. They were primarily concerned with Zemlinsky's lack of an international reputation and by an unappealing physical appearance. She broke off the relationship with Zemlinsky and subsequently married composer Gustav Mahler in 1902. Zemlinsky married Ida Guttmann in 1907, but the marriage was an unhappy one. Following Ida's death in 1929, Zemlinsky married Luise Sachsel in 1930, a woman twenty-nine years his junior, and to whom he had given singing lessons since 1914. This was a much happier relationship, lasting until Zemlinsky's death.
In 1906 Zemlinsky was appointed first Kapellmeister of the new Vienna Volksoper, from 1907/1908 at the Hofoper in Vienna. From 1911 to 1927, he was conductor at Deutsches Landestheater in Prague, premiering Schoenberg's Erwartung in 1924. Zemlinsky then moved to Berlin, where he taught and worked under Otto Klemperer as a conductor at the Kroll Opera. With the rise of the Nazi Party, he fled to Vienna in 1933, where he held no official post, instead concentrating on composing and making the occasional appearance as guest conductor. In 1938 he moved to the United States and settled in New York City. Although fellow émigré Schoenberg was celebrated and feted in the Los Angeles of the 1930s and 40s – teaching at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and the University of Southern California (USC) and gaining a new generation of acolytes – Zemlinsky was neglected and virtually unknown in his adopted country. He fell ill, suffering a series of strokes, and ceased composing. Zemlinsky died in Larchmont, New York of pneumonia.
Zemlinsky's best-known work is the Lyric Symphony (1923), a seven-movement piece for soprano, baritone and orchestra, set to poems by the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore (in German translation), which Zemlinsky compared in a letter to his publisher to Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde (though the first part of Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder is also a clear influence). The work in turn influenced Alban Berg's Lyric Suite, which quotes from it and is dedicated to Zemlinsky.
Other orchestral works include the large-scale symphonic poem Die Seejungfrau (The Mermaid), based on the tale of the same name by Hans Christian Andersen. It premiered in 1905 at the same concert as Schoenberg's Pelleas und Melisande. Zemlinsky withdrew the work, which was thought lost until a copy was discovered in the 1980s. It was performed again in 1984 in Vienna. It has become one of Zemlinsky's most frequently performed scores. A three-movement Sinfonietta written in 1934, admired by Schoenberg and Berg, is written in a style comparable to contemporary works by Paul Hindemith and Kurt Weill.
Among his other works are eight operas, including Eine florentinische Tragödie (1915–16) and the semi-autobiographical Der Zwerg (The Dwarf, 1919–21), both based on works by Oscar Wilde; chamber music, including four string quartets; and the ballet Der Triumph der Zeit (1901). He also composed three psalm settings for chorus and orchestra and numerous song cycles, both with piano and with orchestra, of which the Sechs Gesänge, Op. 13, to texts by Maurice Maeterlinck is the best-known.
While the influence of Brahms is evoked in Zemlinsky's early works (prompting encouragement from Brahms himself), an original voice is present from the first works on, handling dissonances in a much freer manner than Brahms. Later works adopt the kind of extended harmonies that Wagner had introduced and also reflect the influence of Mahler. In contrast to his friend Schoenberg, he never wrote atonal music, and never used the twelve-tone technique. However, some of his late works such as the Symphonische Gesänge, Sinfonietta and the third and fourth string quartets move away from post-Romanticism towards a leaner, harder-edged idiom that incorporates elements of Neue Sachlichkeit, Neoclassicism, and even jazz.
As a conductor, Zemlinsky was admired by, among others, Kurt Weill and Stravinsky, not only for his notable interpretations of Mozart, but also for his advocacy of Mahler, Schoenberg and much other contemporary music. As a teacher, his pupils included Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Hans Krása and Karl Weigl.Ein Lichtstrahl (A Ray of Light). Mime drama for piano (scenario by Oskar Geller, 1901, rev. 1902)
Ein Tanzpoem. A Dance Poem in one act for orchestra (Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1901–04, final version of the ballet Der Triumph der Zeit)
Incidental music for Shakespeare's Cymbeline for tenor, reciters and orchestra (1913–15)
Frühlingsglaube for mixed chorus and string orchestra (T: Ludwig Uhland) (1896)
Geheimnis for mixed chorus and string orchestra (1896)
Minnelied (T: Heinrich Heine) for men's choir and chamber ensemble (c.1895)
Hochzeitgesang (T: Jewish liturgy) for tenor solo, chorus, and organ (1896)
Frühlingsbegräbnis (Text: Paul Heyse). Cantata for soprano, baritone, mixed chorus and orchestra (1896/97, rev. c.1903)
Aurikelchen (T: Richard Dehmel) for women's choir (1898)
Psalm 83 for soloists, mixed chorus, and orchestra (1900)
Psalm 23 for chorus and orchestra, Op. 14 (1910, first performance, Vienna 1910)
Psalm 13 for chorus and orchestra, Op. 24 (1935)
Waldgespräch (T: Joseph von Eichendorff) for soprano, two horns, harp and strings (1896)
Maiblumen blühten überall (T: Richard Dehmel) for soprano and string sextet (c.1898)
Sechs Gesänge after poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, Op. 13 (1913, orchestrated 1913/21)
Lyric Symphony for soprano, baritone and orchestra, Op. 18 (after poems by Rabindranath Tagore) (1922–23)
Symphonische Gesänge for baritone or alto and orchestra, Op. 20 (T: from Afrika singt. Eine Auslese neuer afro-amerikanischer Lyrik, 1929)
Lieder, Op. 2 (1895–96)
Gesänge, Op. 5 (1896–97)
Walzer-Gesänge nach toskanischen Liedern von Ferdinand Gregorovius, Op. 6 (1898)
Irmelin Rose und andere Gesänge, Op. 7 (1898/99)
Turmwächterlied und andere Gesänge, Op. 8 (1898/99)
Ehetanzlied und andere Gesänge, Op. 10 (1899–1901)
Sechs Gesänge after poems by Maurice Maeterlinck, Op. 13 (1913)
Sechs Lieder, Op. 22 (1934; first performance, Prague 1934)
Zwölf Lieder, Op. 27 (1937)
Three Songs (T: Irma Stein-Firner) (1939)
Symphony in E minor (1891) – two surviving movements only
Symphony No. 1 in D minor (1892–93)
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat major (1897)
Drei Ballettstücke. Suite from Der Triumph der Zeit (1902)
Die Seejungfrau (The Little Mermaid), fantasy after Hans Christian Andersen's "The Little Mermaid" (1902–03, premiered in Vienna in 1905)
Sinfonietta, Op. 23 (1934, first performance, Prague 1935)
Three Pieces for cello and piano (1891)
String Quartet in E minor (c.1893)
Sonata in A minor for cello and piano (1894)
Two Movements for string quintet (1894/1896) – surviving movements of the String Quintet in D minor
Serenade (Suite) for violin and piano (1895)
Trio for clarinet (or violin), cello and piano in D minor, Op. 3 (1896)
String Quartet No. 1 in A major, Op. 4 (1896)
String Quartet No. 2, Op. 15 (1913–15, first performance, Vienna 1918)
String Quartet No. 3, Op. 19 (1924)
Two Movements for string quartet (1927) – completed movements of abandoned quartet, originally intended as No.4
String Quartet No. 4 (Suite), Op. 25 (1936)
Quartet for clarinet, violin, viola and cello (1938/39) – unfinished, fragments only
Humoreske (Rondo) for wind quintet (1939)
Jagdstück (Hunting Piece) for two horns and piano (1939)
Ländliche Tanze, Op. 1 (1892)
Vier Balladen (1892–93)
Albumblatt (Erinnerung aus Wien) (1895)
Fantasien über Gedichte von Richard Dehmel, Op. 9 (1898)
Menuett (from Das gläserne Herz) (1901)
Principal publishers: Universal Edition, Ricordi Berlin, Simrock/Boosey & Hawkes