Sun, Dec 05, 2010 - Page 13 News List

The Alma problem

Married to Gustav Mahler at 22, Alma Schindler’s composing career was cut short at her husband’s insistence. But this extraordinary woman was far from a tragic victim of misogyny

By Sarah Connolly  /  The Guardian, London

A visitor looks at a replica of Austrian painter Oskar Kokoschka’s life-size doll of Alma Mahler, originally made in 1918, at the Belvedere museum in Vienna, Austria. Kokoschka was reportedly not happy with the doll, but he drew and painted it time and again, and even took it to the opera and to dinner.

Photo: Reuters

Music is music whether composed by angels or monsters. Alma Mahler was a monster, no doubt, but she was a very intriguing monster. She outlived Gustav Mahler by 50 years, destroying all but one of her letters to him, and suppressing or falsifying many of his to her for fear of being judged too harshly by posterity. None of the music she chose for her funeral was by Mahler.

Pathological cruelty, anti-Semitism, vanity and a sense that the world owed Alma Maria Schindler something in token for her brilliance and beauty were some of the traits her admirers and enemies alike recognized in Alma, traits also shared by her hero, Richard Wagner. Like him, she was a passionate follower of Nietzsche. Her marriages — to Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius and Franz Werfel — and her many relationships, including those with Gustav Klimt (who gave her her first kiss, at 17), her composition teacher Alexander Zemlinsky (her first lover) and painter Oskar Kokoshka (perhaps the only man she really loved), have made her one of the 20th century’s most famous muses and femmes fatales.

Born in 1878, Alma had a privileged yet troubled upbringing in hedonistic Vienna. Her father, Emil Schindler, read her Goethe. An older admirer sent her crates filled with classics including Stendhal and Ibsen. She must have been an enchanting dinner guest: Her deafness in one ear forced her to lean into conversations, ensuring maximum attention and intimacy. Siegfried Lipiner, one of Mahler’s favorite intellectual adversaries, with whom the young Alma discussed Plato’s Symposium, might have empathized with her liking for Nietzsche, but he found her “spiteful, vain and overbearing ... lacking in warmth, devoid of naturalness, sincerity and good sense.”

Her many admirers, however, felt understood, valued, and were deeply affected and emotionally sustained by her energy and commitment to them. This was total, until she had had enough, which always happened.

She was a woman who needed to be surrounded by creative genius, and the young Alma Schindler married Gustav Mahler in 1902 when she was 22, already pregnant with their first child. He, 19 years her senior, idolized her. She greatly admired him, the eminent conductor of the Hofoper (Court Opera), but she was never really a fan of his music, the sixth and seventh symphonies and Das Lied von der Erde excepted. She was attracted to his enormous energy, dynamism and childlike innocence, but it doesn’t seem that she was ever “in love” with him.

Speaking near the end of her life to writer Elias Canetti (who met her when he was involved with her daughter, Anna), she described Gropius, her second husband as “the true Aryan type. The only man who was racially suited to me. All the others who fell in love with me were little Jews. Like Mahler. I go for both kinds.”

In the astonishing, protracted prenuptial letter Mahler sent to Alma, he suggested that were she ugly, men would not care for her intellect and artistic talent.

CAPITULATION

Her own composing, meanwhile, was at Mahler’s insistence, disregarded. “The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner ... I’m asking a very great deal — and I can and may do so because I know what I have to give and will give in exchange.” Astonishingly, Alma capitulated. She became his amanuensis and offered him the most conscientious support. However, later on, this monstrous ban on her composing created insurmountable problems. “I sit down at the piano, dying to play, but musical notation no longer means anything to me. My eyes have forgotten how to read it. I have been firmly taken by the arm and led away from myself. And I long to return to where I was.”

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