Who was Alma Mahler?
Thwarted as a composer, was Alma Mahler really a ‘boundless narcissist’? A recently rediscovered song suggests a troubled soul lurking beneath
Alma Mahler’s reputation as a serial, trophy-hunting adultress, alluring and then casting off one artistic giant after another, may be ineradicable but only partly justified. Certainly, in addition to her three husbands – the composer Gustav Mahler, the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel – she enjoyed the favours of a number of talented men.
But too few commentators have tried to see things from Alma’s point of view, rather than portray her as an opportunistic social climber, neglectful of her wifely duties to a series of distinguished creative artists.
Some of Alma’s character traits, combined with a penchant for anti-Semitic remarks (despite her various Jewish husbands and acquaintances), make her a complex, perplexing figure maybe hard to love yet worthy of our attention.
But quite apart from the fact that Alma was a highly intelligent, accomplished pianist and singer, and a composer of even greater potential, any attempt to understand her has to take into account the social and psychological circumstances of her upbringing.
The role of Gustav Mahler
Early admirers included the artist Gustav Klimt and the composer and conductor Alexander Zemlinsky, with whom Alma had composition lessons from 1900. Zemlinsky unsurprisingly fell in love with his attractive 21-year-old pupil and Alma was sufficiently enamoured to consider marrying him.
But then Mahler spun into her orbit and after suffering agonies of indecision, she cast her lot with him. By the terms of an extraordinary pre-nuptial agreement, on which Mahler insisted and to which Alma consented with extreme reluctance, she gave up composing. Mahler feared that a wife who spent her time being creative would not give him the undivided attention he required.
Why did Alma agree to Mahler’s ban on her own creativity? And why – her detractors ask – if she was so serious about composition, did she not return to it after Mahler’s death in 1911? Alma, after all, was to live another 53 years – she died as an American citizen in New York in 1964. In short, she was keen to marry and Mahler’s talent made him worthy of her attention. She felt that marriage would give her empty life a meaning and that it would be a noble act.
Mahler had warned her of the likely deprivation involved and she was determined to prove herself strong enough to withstand it. As for not returning to composition, she felt that her status as Mahler’s widow required her to move on. She surely realised that the lack of a rigorous conservatoire education would lay her open to ridicule.
Scepticism about Alma, verging on outright hostility, has long been the default position of Mahler commentators. The eminent Mahlerian Henry-Louis de La Grange, author of a monumental four-volume biography of the composer, was first off the mark in a magazine article written in 1969 while the biography was still maturating. Here he presented Alma as an ambitious, calculating and unreliable witness.
By the final volume of his biography, published in 1984, De La Grange’s struggle to understand Alma had not advanced far beyond the suggestion that as an alcoholic with a ‘near-pathological craving’ for ‘admiration and devotion’ she was too self-centred to minister adequately to a creative genius.
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Alma Mahler - 5 Lieder for voice and piano
Writing on Alma Mahler
Alma’s stormiest affair was with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, who was able to come to terms with the inevitable break-up only by creating a life-size doll in the form of her, which he claimed to have taken to the opera. It is assumed that Alma destroyed most of her letters to Mahler, Kokoschka and Franz Werfel, no doubt for fear that they would tarnish her image to posterity. The diaries that have survived, on the other hand, are painfully candid and honest.
She also published two volumes of memoirs – the English versions were entitled Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters (1946) followed by And the Bridge is Love (1959) – which, for all their inaccuracies and prevarications, are hardly an exercise in self-glorification. But even that is held against Alma by De La Grange, who accuses her of such ‘boundless narcissism’ that she could not bring herself to destroy the actual documents. Clearly she couldn’t win.
Alma’s autobiographies do provide a kind of truth as seen by her, coloured by personal experience; nor does she shrink from observations that reveal her feelings all too frankly. And indeed, De La Grange does admit that she left behind countless documents that actually contradict her published accounts.
Of recent biographies of Alma, the most comprehensively researched is that of Oliver Hilmes. His painstaking trawl of archives, plus court and medical records, brings valuable information to light about Alma, her family circle and acquaintances that requires sensitive interpretation. That such an interpretation is lacking in Hilmes’s own biography is presaged by the title of the English edition: Malevolent Muse: the Life of Alma Mahler. (The German original, Witwe im Wahn – the sense of which is ‘delusional widow’ – is little better.)
Almost unbelievably, Hilmes resorts to Sigmund Freud’s long discredited, misogynistic theories of female hysteria to explain Alma’s behaviour.
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Rewriting the narrative
A more empathetic interpretation would start from the observation that Alma had a troubled, unhappy childhood: her beloved father Emil Schindler died when she was 12 and when her mother remarried, she felt marginalised in the household. What is abundantly evident from her diaries is that her wish to be at the centre of attention stemmed from a basic insecurity, even an inferiority complex.
Her compulsive flirtation arose from a desperate desire to be wanted: an inner need for self-respect. And the series of more or less disastrous affairs into which she threw herself can be seen as attempts to deal with unconscious sexual conflict by attracting and humiliating a series of lovers.
We should remember, too, that the diaries that survive are those of a young woman barely out of her teens. Mature and ahead of her time she may have been in many ways, but she was still suffering the pangs of love, the emotional turmoil and the lack of certainty about her place in the world that any girl of her age would recognise. Alma was acutely aware that it was virtually impossible for a woman of her era, however accomplished and intelligent, to fulfil herself or fully realise her creative potential. (‘Oh! If only I had been born a boy!’ she laments.)
Marriage was the only viable option and Alma determined that being the wife of the prestigious director of the Vienna Court Opera was the most promising path to self-fulfilment, even if it meant sacrificing the one thing that meant most to her. For all the frustrations of being married to an egotistical genius, she decided that a certain measure of satisfaction could be derived from facilitating the successful careers of such outstanding men as Mahler and Werfel.
Alma Mahler: Lieder und Gesänge
A more informed appreciation of Alma’s accomplishments should take account of her compositional output, not least her song Einsamer Gang, written when she was barely out of her teens and only recently rediscovered by the authors of this article. It is clear that for Alma musical composition provided a hugely important creative outlet.
Her diaries reveal that she composed prolifically: some 46 songs are mentioned by name and a further 27 without titles, though there may well have been others. She also wrote piano music (including an unfinished sonata) and chamber music (including a violin sonata and a fragmentary piano trio). Only 14 songs were published in her lifetime, and two further ones were edited by Susan Filler for the Hildegard Publishing Company in 2000. All the others were lost in World War II, so Einsamer Gang is only the 17th surviving song of a considerably greater output.
Interview with Alma Mahler about Gustav Mahler
Publication of Alma's songs
In 1900 Alma’s stepfather, the artist Carl Moll, decided to prepare a private publication of three of Alma’s songs – Leise weht ein erstes Blühn, Meine Nächte and Einsamer Gang – for her 21st birthday. Moll’s friend Koloman Moser, another of the leading lights of the Viennese Secession, was to design the publication.n
The songs were not published at that time after all, though they did reach the stage of printer’s proofs, which Alma showed to Zemlinsky shortly before she began composition lessons with him. (She had already studied with the blind composer Josef Labor from 1894 or ’95 and indeed continued with him for a short time even after beginning with Zemlinsky.)
While researching for the programme The Art of Love: Alma Mahler’s Life and Music, featuring music by Alma and Gustav Mahler, Zemlinsky, Wagner and Webern, we became curious as to the fate of those proofs and of Alma’s autograph manuscripts. We finally tracked them down among the Mahler-Werfel Papers in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts at the University of Pennsylvania, which acquired them as one of two lots auctioned at Sotheby’s in the early 1990s.
Einsamer Gang exemplifies Alma’s customary sensitivity to the texts she set, and poignantly expresses the loneliness she felt in a world apparently indifferent to her needs. Her setting speaks more eloquently than any diary entry of the troubled spirit of this much misunderstood woman.
Freya Parr is BBC Music Magazine's Digital Editor and Staff Writer. She has also written for titles including the Guardian, Circus Journal, Frankie and Suitcase Magazine, and runs The Noiseletter, a fortnightly arts and culture publication. Freya's main areas of interest and research lie in 20th-century and contemporary music.