During the four years that separated Alexander Zemlinsky's Symphony in D minor and the premiere of the Symphony in B flat major (his first two efforts in the genre, aside from an incomplete work penned during his student years), the young composer had caught the eye and the fancy of the Viennese musical world. "The work's fresh, original ideas and genuinely exalted, youthful fire made a great impression on the audience and unleashed an intense salvo of applause," wrote one critic in response to the 1896 premiere of Zemlinsky's Waldegespräch (for soprano and chamber ensemble). These years also saw Zemlinsky winning two prestigious awards, the Luitpold Prize and the Beethoven Prize. His compositional skills had been refined during the mid 1890s as well. The Suite for Orchestra from 1895, for example, gave Zemlinsky an opportunity to create more adventurous orchestral colors than had been found in the admirable but conservative D minor Symphony. Thus, when one compares the B flat Symphony to his earlier symphonic effort, one notices that, while the same amalgamation of influences and styles is represented, more of the composer's own voice comes through -- prompting one observer to suggest two different ways of looking at the work: "either as Zemlinsky's last early work or his first mature one."
Though Zemlinsky had links to the "conservative" faction of the Brahms/Wagner dichotomy (Brahms had even attended an early performance of the D minor Symphony's first movement), he had little interest in the polemics that so sharply divided the two camps. His distance from the volley of words allowed him to freely draw upon both realms of musical innovation, and both of his early symphonies owe moments to Brahms as well as Wagner (and, of course, Wagner's symphonic follower Anton Bruckner). In the B flat Symphony, however, his polystylistic emulation takes on the form of assimilation and innovation. While still utilizing the standard four-movement symphonic form, Zemlinsky ties the movements together in a cyclical fashion through a system of thematic cross-references; a prominent theme in the opening movement, for example, reappears in the subsequent Scherzo and heavily informs the motivic material of the Adagio. The melodies within the work have a lyrical, almost operatic quality, even when those lines are housed within an architectonic musical structure. On the other hand, in the finale, we find a theme and variations form containing a fugato section that seems the direct grandchild of Brahms's classicist pursuits. Many examples of influence are perhaps more difficult to parse, as Zemlinsky's creative orchestration paints familiar gestures in new hues -- an example of musical ecumenicism that in turn would be followed by Zemlinsky's pupil, Arnold Schoenberg. "The message [of the B flat major Symphony] is loud and clear," observes Zemlinsky's biographer, Antony Beaumont, "[T]his score marks the end of an apprenticeship. The years of study are over; mastery has been attained."