From an early age, Alma Mahler was obsessed with music. Through it she expressed her passion and her pain. In music she found glory, and refuge when tragedy overtook her.
Alma lived at the hub of fin de siècle Vienna’s vibrant intellectual and artistic life. Her artist father, Emil Jacob Schindler, had died tragically when she was 13. Her social circle was at the era’s avant garde, the Vienna Secession, cofounded by her stepfather, Carl Moll and the artist Gustav Klimt, who would be Alma’s first kiss. Intelligent, beautiful, and renowned as ‘the loveliest girl in Vienna, Alma absorbed culture eagerly, like a flower open to the sun.
As often as three times a week she went to the opera and was overwhelmed by the grandeur and passion. Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde – ‘incomparable, unearthly’ with its ‘mad passion and boundless longing for the unknown ’ was her favourite. She was an accomplished pianist, took music lessons with the blind composer, Josef Labor, from the age of 15, and focused on composition. By 1897 she was producing two or three piano pieces each week, variations or song arrangements based on works by her favourite poets. By 18, Alma had crystallised her astonishingly bold ambition to be a composer. Women were then barred from the music academies and female composers were unknown. Alma was undeterred. She wanted ultimately to do something no woman had ever achieved – to compose a really good opera. But she was plagued by crippling self-doubt. She saw her femininity as ‘weakness’, and feared that she lacked sufficient application – and education: ‘Why are boys taught to use their brains, but not girls?’ she railed.
In the rising young composer, Alexander Zemlinsky, she found the exacting teacher she needed. He heard her music, decided that she had real talent but lacked technical ability, and agreed to teach her, alongside his other pupils Arnold Schoenberg and Anton Webern. Zemlinsky was exacting but encouraging, could be cruel and sarcastic, but he believed in her talent and was ‘stimulating beyond measure’ to her.
Alma’s most productive period was between 1897 and 1901, when she was aged 18 to 21 and already showed distinctive range and ability. Her songs, often written in response to rejected love, intense loneliness, grief at her father’s death, are sensitive renderings of poetic texts, emotional and technically complex, skilful in their range of colour, harmonies and textures.
Alma’s relationship with Zemlinsky deepened as they fell in love. Lessons dissolved into passionate embraces. They talked of marriage. But when she met the composer Gustav Mahler at a friend’s dinner party in November 1901, her life was thrown into turmoil. Within days, Mahler, the director of Vienna’s Court Opera, was declaring his love for her and, despite his concern about their age difference – he was 42, she 21 – talking of marriage. Alma spent weeks in anguish, torn between Zemlinsky, who believed in her, and Mahler, whose passionate intensity was overwhelming.
She chose Mahler, but in December a passing comment about her work provoked a 20-page letter in which Mahler effectively declared that there was room for only one composer in their marriage. If they were to marry, could she not abandon her music and take possession of his? For the role of composer was his; hers was to be ‘the loving partner and sympathetic comrade.’
Though Alma was initially shattered – ‘as if a cold hand had torn the heart from my breast,’ within 24 hours, she accepted the terms. She would renounce her music for a higher cause , to nurture and support his great talent and make him happy. Alma stuck by her promise. But regret haunted her. ‘I buried my dream and perhaps it was for the best’, she wrote later. ‘It has been my privilege to give my creative gifts another life in minds greater than my own.’ And yet she added, ‘the iron had entered my soul and the wound was never healed.’
Even as Alma dedicated herself to her husband and to his music, which she grew to revere, music still ran through her head, sometimes ‘so loud and insistent that I hear it between every word I speak’. Quite often she fell into depression, and knew that music could have cured it. She resented Mahler’s indifference: ‘Gustav, why did you bind to you this splendid bird so happy in flight, when a grey, heavy one would have suited you better?’ she pleaded. By then she had ‘dragged’ her hundred songs with her ‘wherever I went like a coffin into which I dared not look.’
Then one day, as she neared home from a walk with her daughter, after a crisis in their marriage precipitated by her affair with Walter Gropius, she heard her ‘poor forgotten songs’ being played. She stopped, petrified ‘overwhelmed with shame and also angry.’ Mahler rushed out exclaiming , “What have I done? These songs are good. Really excellent.....God, how blind and selfish I was in those days”. He insisted they must be published, and arranged for the most eminent singers to perform them. Alma blossomed in his new-found admiration for her talents and achievement.
When Mahler became terminally ill in 1911 her composing ended as she devoted her life to nursing him over the months of his slow decline. When he died in May 1911, she was stricken with grief. Playing music was again her salvation. When she recovered, composing no longer consumed her. From then on, Alma perfected her skills as the nurturer to creative talent, ‘filling my garden with geniuses’, as she put it. Of an output of perhaps up to a hundred works by Alma, only seventeen songs survive in published form. Most were lost when Alma fled Austria with her Jewish husband in 1938, leaving behind everything she possessed.But as interest in neglected women composers grows, Alma’s distinctive talent steadily gains renewed recognition.
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