Alma. Her life, loves, lieder.

Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was born on the date of this post, 31 August, in the year 1879. On her death in 1964, aged 85, she had become Alma Maria Mahler Gropius Werfel. Alternatively, Alma Mahler-Werfel. She might be summed up as a Vienna-born composer and socialite who vacuumed up men’s attentions and several wedding rings, leaving behind her much speculation as to what was fact and what was fancy in the documentation of her life. Her last act was unequivocal: she selected none of the music of Gustav Mahler, her first husband, to be played at her funeral.

Those with only a passing knowledge of Alma may recall her as the pitiable, yet distinctly musical wife of Gustav Mahler, who forbade her to compose. The truth was rather more complex. This blog isn’t the occasion to take the microscope to her life, loves and lieder. Rather, if the lady is unknown to you, here’s a wash of the general landscape of her life, which you may find interesting enough to research further.

I’ll start in what may seem an unusual place with an ensemble named in her honour, one that rather reinforces the hard-done-by perception of her as an aspiring musician. Fifteen years ago, the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta was founded in Italy as an ensemble for women musicians dedicated to “Alma Mahler, the wife of Gustav Mahler, a woman of intelligence, beauty and talent, and has the aim of promoting the music of women composers, breaking the apparent conspiracy of silence in this respect.” Our opening extract is taken from the Alma Mahler Sinfonietta’s recording for Naxos of the music of Clara Schumann (8.557552), the close of her Piano Concerto in A minor.

Piano Concerto in A minor:

Fast forward to the present decade and to some commentary on Alma that, again, portrays her less as a femme fatale, and more of a victim of circumstances. American composer Mohammed Fairouz sourced texts from Alma’s writings as the basis of one of his works, Jeder Mensch (8.559783). The composer writes:

Jeder Mensch was the first song cycle that [mezzo soprano] Kate Lindsey commissioned from me, in 2011. It was born out of an obsession that Kate and I have with the figure of Alma Mahler. This woman, who led such a fascinating life, left us with diaries that Kate and I pored over to find the texts for this song cycle. In them she sings of her firm system of beliefs that the eternal source of all strength is “in nature, in the earth, in people who don’t hesitate to cast away their existence for the sake of an idea.” She concludes: “they are the ones who can love.” Alma Mahler speaks of love, isolation and the many men she had in her life. Her words remain a compelling portrait of a brilliant woman forced to live vicariously through the men she loved and lost.”

Here’s the third and final song from Mohammed Fairouz’s cycle, The Celebration of the Spirit, that sets the following text:

“Gustav Mahler—from the struggles of abstraction, Oskar Kokoschka, the genius, Walter Gropius, the improviser of cultures and wills–And Joseph Fraenkel, the genial improviser … From Walter I want children–from Oskar, works–from Fraenkel, the celebration of the spirit that he never offered me. I wish that Fraenkel [Gustav Mahler’s personal physician 1907-1911] had moved in to spend the rest of his life with me.”

The Celebration of the Spirit:

Before we put those names into context, we should mention another two who were on Alma’s early amatory scene. The first was the symbolist painter, Gustav Klimt. He fell in love with Alma; her response to his advances was tepid and short-lived, though they were to remain friends. Then came the composer, conductor and academic (and Schoenberg’s future brother-in-law), Alexander von Zemlinsky. Alma was one of his composition students; he was her first lover, who continued the set standard of creative genius that would attract Alma throughout her life. Here’s one of Zemlinsky’s songs, Meeraugen, that forms part of a programme of works by Alma, Alexander and Gustav contained on the same disc (C5119). A compact ménage à trois, one might say.

Meeraugen:

Alma went on to marry Gustav Mahler in 1902. She was aged 22; he was 41. Did she love him? or merely admire him greatly? Whatever, she submitted to a life of serving her husband’s day-to-day needs while renouncing any aspirations she may have harboured for her own musical advancement. They had two daughters. The elder died of scarlet fever and diptheria in 1907, allowing Alma the opportunity to reproach her husband for tempting fate by having composed his Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Death of Children) (8.554156) which he completed in 1904. Here are the first three stanzas of the final song of the set, In diesem Wetter (In this weather), that translate as follows:

In this weather, in this storm,
I would never have sent the children out;
someone took them out,
I could have no say in it.

In this weather, in this turmoil,
I would never have let the children go out;
I would have been afraid they might be ill,
now these are idle thoughts.

In this weather, in this horror,
I would never have let the children go out;
I was worried they might die the next day,
that is now not a thing to worry about.

In diesem Wetter:

This death of the 5-year old child, Alma’s nascent affair with the architect Walter Gropius, and the discovery of Mahler’s heart defect was the perfect cocktail for a distressed marriage. Following Mahler’s death in 1911, Alma embarked on an affair with the artist Oskar Kokoschka before marrying Gropius in 1915. They had a daughter, Manon, who tragically died of polio at the age of 18. Alban Berg subsequently dedicated his Violin Concerto (8.554755) to Manon, inscribing the work ’to the memory of an angel’. Here are the final moments of the work.

Violin Concerto:

Coda: Alma then began an affair with the Prague-born writer Franz Werfel, subsequently divorcing Gropius in 1920 and marrying Werfel in 1929. One could add codettas, including the song Alma that Tom Lehrer penned following her death, after having read an obituary he described as “the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read.” To maintain decorum, however, we’ll let Alma have the final word with a performance of one of her own songs, Bei dir ist es traut (With you it is pleasant) (ODE1024-2), arranged for voice and orchestra.

Bei dir ist es traut (With you it is pleasant):

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