Humoresque was among the last works composed by Alexander von Zemlinksy before his death in 1942. Conceived as “school pieces” for the sole purpose of earning financial support, the work’s light-heartedness and charm are a far cry from the usual depth and darker themes explored in his music; the production of his opera Kandaules was cancelled by the Metropolitan Opera due to its explicit sexual content. Zemlinsky and his wife fled Vienna at the onset of the Anschluss in 1938 and spent their exile years struggling to make a living in the United States. Displaced from his homeland, Zemlinsky also had difficulty finding acceptance from his fellow composers.
Zemlinsky’s career was grounded in opera, as he held impressive conducting positions in opera houses throughout Vienna, Prague and Berlin for over thirty years. His career as a composer would intersect with many important figures. He received early praise from Johannes Brahms and additional affirmation of his talents when Gustav Mahler conducted the premiere of his opera Es war einmal in 1900.
But Zemlinsky’s relationships were complicated; he fell madly in love with his composition student, Alma Schindler, but she eventually left him for Gustav Mahler. Though at one time in love, Alma regarded Zemlinsky as a “horrible dwarf”. Zemlinsky struggled with his physical self-image throughout his lifetime; his opera The Dwarf is often viewed as a “masochistic self-portrait”. He became close friends with Arnold Schoenberg who married his own sister, Mathilde. When Zemlinsky supported Mathilde’s eventual elopement to another man, Schoenberg harbored resentment towards Zemlinsky, both as a friend and for not following the innovative compositional path he was creating in his own music. Although Zemlinsky received many commissions, he never had a major operatic hit and his music was not embraced in Vienna. Zemlinsky’s musical legacy went largely unnoticed during his final years in the United States.