In the years after 1918, discourse about musical expressionism was controlled by critics rather than composers. Understanding expressionism to be as much a public matter emanating from the concert hall as a private one rooted in the composer's workshop, critics at that time often identified as “expressionist” works that fall outside the conventional notion of an expressionist repertory. In a particularly striking case, those who reviewed the 1918 premiere of Zemlinsky's Second String Quartet, op. 15, described it as experimental, revolutionary, indeed expressionist music. Today, scholars consistently count opus 15 among Zemlinsky's most compelling works, but they do not usually frame it in such charged terms. This article uses reviews of the earliest public performances of the quartet to elucidate the diverse and changing ways in which critics positioned it, as an instrumental chamber work, relative to expressionism between 1918 and 1924. In addition to discussing its music-stylistic features, critics involved the quartet in the heated musical-political debates surrounding expressionism in Austro-German culture at the end of and just after the Great War. These debates concerned everything from the threat of “musical bolshevism” to the (re)interpretation of Bach's and Beethoven's legacies in a postwar age. Zemlinsky's short-lived “expressionist” moment was thus very much a public moment. Reconstructing it opens a window onto the vicissitudes of the early history of musical expressionism, revealing ways in which expressionism was originally meaningful not in relation to composers’ inner lives, but in relation to the turbulent musical and cultural politics that shaped public life.

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