Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) is a well-known name amongst classical musicians, but far less are aware that his wife, Alma Mahler, was also a talented composer. During her career, Alma wrote approximately 50 works for voice and piano, but only 17 survive today. Unfortunately, Alma’s reputation in society had little to do with her talent, but rather her romantic liaisons with many men, three of whom she married. As singer and satirist Tom Lehrer (b.1928) said before singing a song about the lady, “Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary it has ever been my pleasure to read. It was that of a lady named Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel, who had, in her lifetime, managed to acquire as lovers practically all of the top creative men in central Europe.”
The loveliest girl in ViennaAlma – The loveliest girl in Vienna – Tom Lehrer (1965)
Was Alma, the smartest as well,
Once you picked her up on your antenna,
You’d never be free of her spell.
Her lovers were many and varied
From the day she began her beguine.
There were three famous ones whom she married,
And God knows how many between…
Alma Margaretha Maria Schindler was born in Vienna on 31st August 1879 to landscape artist Emil Jakob Schindler (1842-92) and Anna Sofie Bergen (1857-1938). Alma and her sister, Margaretha Julie (Grete, 1880-1942), received home tuition rather than enrol in a school but regularly attended the Catholic Church, which played a significant role in their early upbringing.
In 1886, Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria (1858-89) commissioned Alma’s father to paint landscapes of the Adriatic coast. The whole family accompanied Schindler on this trip, and his artworks featured in the Kronprinzenwerk (Crown Prince’s Work). This encyclopedia, officially named The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture, is a 24-volume written and visual description of the countries, regions and people of the Austro-Hungarian Crown Lands. Schindler was one of 587 contributors, and his paintings joined the 4,529 images that illustrated the work.
Despite spending a year travelling with their father, Alma and Grete saw little of his work after Schindler rented Castle Plankenberg, near Neulengbach, as his studio, where he also established an artist colony. Yet, Schindler adored his two daughters and arranged for them to have piano lessons with Adele Radnitzky-Mandlick. Their mother had a musical background but retired from public performances shortly after marriage. Some believe Schindler felt jealous of the attention his wife gained from her career, so forced her to quit the stage. Nonetheless, he encouraged his daughters to perform, and they made their public debut at the ages of ten and nine. Although the girls received homeschooling in their early years, their father insisted they obtain the best education, so he enrolled them in a private women’s academy, which was not common practice at the time.
During a family holiday to the German isle of Sylt in 1892, Schindler passed away. Following his death, Alma concentrated on her musical education, studying composition with a blind organist called Josef Labor. Despite his disability, Labor also provided Alma with education about a “great deal of literature”. Although Alma attended school, she quit at the age of 15 in favour of Labor’s teaching. Yet, learning to play and compose music had its difficulties due to Alma’s decreasing hearing following childhood measles.
Max Burckhard (1854-1912), the director of the Burgtheater in Vienna and friend of Alma’s late father, became Alma’s music mentor. He also catered for her passion for literature and presented Alma with two large baskets of books on her 17th birthday. Shortly before this, Alma’s mother married Carl Moll (1861-1945), a former student of Schindler. In 1899, Alma gained another little sister, Maria (1899-1945).
Alma’s step-father Carl Moll was one of the founding members of the Vienna Succession, an Austrian art movement closely related to Art Nouveau. They were “a group organized for the purpose of breaking with Vienna’s tradition-bound Imperial Academy of the visual arts.” Through Moll, Alma met several painters associated with the Succession, including the symbolist painter Gustav Klimt (1862-1918), who professed his undying love for her. Alma enjoyed the attention but did not desire him as a lover or husband. Nonetheless, they remained firm friends for the rest of Klimt’s life.
In 1900, 21-year-old Alma began composition lessons with Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871-1942), who also fell in love with her. Alma reciprocated his feelings but wished to keep their relationship secret. Zemlinsky had a Jewish background, of which Alma’s Catholic family disapproved. The few friends who knew about their romance urged Alma to end things, which she eventually did after the relationship grew strained.
Through her musical connections, Alma met the Austro-Bohemian Romantic composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) at a party in November 1901. By early December, Alma and Mahler were engaged, although they kept this secret for a while. Alma and Zemlinsky’s relationship had not long ended, and it went against societal etiquette to fall in love so soon. They eventually announced their engagement two days before Christmas.
Friends of both Alma and Mahler expressed surprise about their engagement, especially because Mahler was Jewish. Also, Mahler’s family thought Alma a flirtatious, unreliable young lady. Nonetheless, they married on 9th March 1902, and the birth of their first daughter, Maria Anna (1902-07), followed in November. Their second daughter, Anna Justine (1904-88), became a successful sculptor, despite her parent’s musical backgrounds.
“The role of composer, the worker’s role, falls to me, yours is that of a loving companion and understanding partner.” This was Mahler’s view of marriage, and he refused to allow Alma to compose music. Alma expressed in her diary, “How hard it is to be so mercilessly deprived of … things closest to one’s heart”, but obeyed her husband’s wishes. As time passed, Alma grew resentful of Mahler, who insisted his music career came before his family’s needs.
In Vienna, anti-semitic activities made it difficult for Mahler to work in operatic theatres, so he took his family to Maiernigg in 1907 to have a break from the hostilities. Unfortunately, not long after arriving, both daughters contracted scarlet fever and diphtheria. Whilst Anna recovered, Maria grew steadily worse until she passed away on 12th July. Soon after this tragedy, Mahler learned he had a defective heart and needed treatment from specialist doctors in Vienna.
The death of Maria left Alma depressed and placed a strain on her marriage. She sought attention elsewhere, beginning an affair with the German architect Walter Gropius (1883-1969) in 1910. On learning of this, Mahler sought the advice of Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), although the precise reason is unknown. Some suggest Mahler asked for help with his troubled feelings, whereas others believe he wanted marriage advice. The film Mahler on the Couch (2010) takes a different view, suggesting Mahler wished to curb Alma’s musical passion. Whatever the reason for the visit, family life changed a little in the Mahler household.
In an attempt to save his marriage, Mahler paid more attention to his wife, particularly her musical abilities. He claimed to regret his earlier attitudes towards Alma’s compositions and insisted on studying and editing them for publication. Mahler also encouraged her to write five more songs, which, under his guidance, were published at the end of 1910. Sadly, this newfound affection in their marriage lasted only a year, after which Mahler fell ill with an infection in February 1911. By May, he was dead.
Following Mahler’s death, Alma entered a stormy affair with the Austrian expressionist artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886-1980). Lasting from 1912 to 1914, the relationship grew from one of passion to one of possessiveness. In 1913, Kokoschka painted The Bride of the Wind (Die Windsbraut), an allegorical artwork featuring the figures of Kokoschka and Alma in a loving embrace. Realising that Kokoschka was obsessed with her, Alma brought the relationship to an end.
Kokoschka’s infatuation with Alma continued long after their breakup. In the early months of their relationship, Kokoschka produced portraits of Alma, such as one in the pose of Leonardo da Vinci‘s (1452-1519) Mona Lisa, and later, romantic paintings featuring them as a couple. He illustrated stories about their time together, which he printed on fans and gifted to Alma as presents. He described them as “love letters in pictorial form” and continued to produce them after Alma had left him.
Dramatic sketches of Alma and Kokoschka suggest they conceived and lost a child in 1912. Some interpret from the images that Alma had an abortion, which caused Kokoshka emotional pain. Nonetheless, this event did not diminish Kokoschka’s love for Alma, and he continued to produce portraits of her. After their breakup, Kokoschka expressed his heartbreak and depression through his artwork, often using rapid brushstrokes.
Unable to get over his obsession, Kokoschka commissioned Hermine Moos (1888-1928), a German doll maker, to produce a life-size doll of Alma. He wished to use the doll as a replacement for Alma, both in his portraits and, presumably, in his bed. “Yesterday I sent a life-size drawing of my beloved and I ask you to copy this most carefully and to transform it into reality. Pay special attention to the dimensions of the head and neck, to the ribcage, the rump and the limbs. And take to heart the contours of body, e.g., the line of the neck to the back, the curve of the belly.” He sent Moos strict instructions and several paintings of Alma, hoping for a replica of his former lover. Unfortunately, Kokoschka’s expressionistic painting style was hardly realistic, and neither was the doll. After expressing his disappointment, Kokoschka tried to make the best of it, including the doll in his paintings.
At the end of 1918, Kokoschka declared the doll had “managed to cure me completely of my Passion”. He held a champagne party, during which he displayed the doll dressed in beautiful clothing. The party lasted well into the early hours of the following day and, as dawn broke, a drunken Kokoschka took the doll into the garden and beheaded it.
Meanwhile, Alma resurrected her relationship with Walter Gropius, who she married on 18th August 1915 in Berlin. In 1916, Alma gave birth to their daughter, Alma Manon (1916-35). Manon, or “Mutzi” as she was often called, spent the majority of her infancy with her nurse, Ida Gebauer, with whom she followed her mother between her many houses. Alma owned three homes in Vienna alone, and the family often visited Weimar in Germany, where Gropius founded the first Bauhaus school of art.
In 1918, Alma gave birth to a premature son, Martin Carl Johannes (1918-19). After a few months, rumours reached Gropius that the child did not belong to him. For some time, Alma had conducted an affair with the Austrian novelist Franz Werfel (1890-1945), and Alma eventually admitted that Werfel was the father of her child. Naturally, the relationship between Alma and Gropius broke down, and they agreed to divorce. Sadly, before these divorce proceedings could be set in progress, Alma’s son developed hydrocephalus and died before his first birthday.
To protect Alma’s reputation, Gropius staged a meeting with a prostitute so that he could be caught in the act of infidelity, thus giving Alma the means to file for divorce. He did not do this out of kindness, but in the agreement that he would have custody of their daughter. After the divorce became final in 1920, Gropius took Manon to Dessau, where he married her step-mother, Ise Frank (1897-1983). Alma fought back over this decision and brought her daughter home to Vienna, where she allowed Manon to do as she pleased, including running around naked as much as possible.
After divorcing Gropius, Alma openly lived with Franz Werfel, although she refrained from marrying him until 6th July 1929. During this time, she supported Werfel’s career, helping him become an accomplished novelist, playwright and poet. Alma encouraged her daughter Manon to play the piano like her older daughter Anna, but Manon prefered performance arts over music. Unfortunately, Manon’s soon-to-be stepfather did not think Manon had the talent for acting and discouraged her dreams.
Alma’s early years as Mrs Mahler-Werfel were made difficult by the increasing activity of the Nazi party in Europe. Werfel, who lectured across Germany on the topic of the Armenian Genocide at the hands of the Ottoman government, was branded a propagandist. Nazi members burned many of his books, and he lost his job at the Prussian Academy of Arts. To escape the antagonism, Alma took Manon to Venice for a short holiday in 1934. Little did Alma know, life was about to become much worse.
While in Venice, Manon contracted Polio, which left her paralysed. After returning to Vienna, Manon regained some movement in her limbs but remained severely disabled. Alma tried to boost her 18-year-old daughter’s morale by arranging frequent visitors to the house. She also instigated a romance between Manon and the young autocrat Erich Cyhlar (d.1969), hoping for a future wedding. Despite Werfel’s dissuasion, Manon never let go of her desire to act, so Alma arranged for well-known acting teachers to make house calls. Almost a year after contracting Polio, Manon acted out a private performance for her mother and step-father. Sadly, she passed away a few days later from organ failure on Easter Monday, 22nd April 1935.
Manon’s death greatly affected Alma, who outlived three of her four children. Werfel, who had been like a father to the young woman, dedicated his future novel The Song of Bernadette (1942) to Manon. Anna Mahler sculpted a young woman holding an hourglass to mark Manon’s grave, but Nazi activity prevented it from being installed. The triangular slab that now marks Manon’s resting place was designed by her father, Walter Gropius, and put in place during the 1950s.
Life continued to grow difficult for Werfel, who had Jewish roots, and after the Anschluss in 1938, Alma and Werfel decided to flee Austria. With the assistance of the American journalist Varian Fry (1907-67), they secretly fled to the French Riviera, where they stayed until 1940. Finding themselves in danger again, Fry organised a secret crossing over the Pyrenees on foot, from where they made their way to Spain then Portugal. On 4th October 1940, Alma and Werfel boarded the S.S. Nea Hellas and arrived in New York nine days later.
Alma and Werfel finally settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel found work as a playwright. One of his successful plays, Jacobowsky and the Colonel, later became the 1958 film Me and the Colonel, and his book The Song of Bernadette became a film in 1943. Alma, meanwhile, opened their home to visitors, many of whom were also escaping persecution from the Nazis. Guests included German novelist Thomas Mann (1875-1955), Russian composer Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971), and Austrian film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). As Werfel’s reputation grew, so did their social circle, but before he could publish his final science fiction novel, Star of the Unborn, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack in 1945.
Although a widow twice over, Alma did not shy away from society. Thomas Mann nicknamed her the “Great Widow”, and people easily recognised her from her gigantic hats with ostrich feathers. In 1946, she became a US Citizen and eventually moved to New York, where she befriended composer Leonard Bernstein (1918-90). Bernstein greatly admired the music of Alma’s first husband, and Alma often attended the rehearsals of the New York Philharmonic to watch him conduct. Alma also met the British composer Benjamin Britten (1913-76), who dedicated to her his Nocturne for Tenor and Small Orchestra.
In 1947, Alma briefly returned to Vienna to settle some financial matters. Her mother had passed away in 1938, her sister Grete had died in a mental institution in 1942, and her half-sister Maria, a member of the Nazi Party, committed suicide in 1945. Back in New York, Alma celebrated her 70th birthday and received a birthday book full of greetings from past and present friends and acquaintances. Amongst the signatures were messages from her ex-husband Gropius and former lover Kokoschka, Thomas Mann, Benjamin Britten, and Igor Stravinsky. German composer Arnold Schönberg (1874-1951) composed a birthday song containing the lyrics “Centre of gravitation of your own solar system, orbited by radiant satellites, this is how your life appears to the admirer.”
During the 1950s, Alma worked on her autobiography And the Bridge is Love. She based it on the diaries she kept throughout her life, although employed ghost-writers to help her put them into book format. The first ghost-writer, Austrian writer Paul Frischauer (1898-1977), fell out with Alma over her anti-semitic ideas, which had become ingrained in her character from her parents’ strong opinions. Her second ghost-writer, E. B. Ashton (1909-83), also pointed out the discriminatory terminology and suggested censoring some of her thoughts, especially sections about those people still alive.
Reactions to Alma’s biography were varied. Walter Gropius felt hurt about Alma’s portrayal of their relationship, and others felt awkward about her racist political views. Before the German version entered print, Alma told the editor to “Please remove all traces of the whole Jewish question.” The German biography was published under the title Mein Leben (My Life) but did not garner any praise. Critics called it salacious and egocentric, pointing out that Alma contradicted herself many times. She lost many long-term friends as a result.
Alma Mahler-Werfel passed away on 11th December 1964 at the age of 85. Her funeral took place two days later, but it was not until 8th February 1965 when her body was buried in Grinzing Cemetery, Vienna, in the same grave as her daughter, Manon. Many obituaries appeared in newspapers following her death, although they were based upon her autobiography and focused on her love affairs. Tom Lehrer wrote the song Alma in response to one of the obituaries, singing about Mahler, Gropius, and Werfel “as each in turn came under her spell”.
Austrian writer Friedrich Torberg (1908-79) offered an alternative view in his obituary about the late Alma Mahler-Werfel. He claimed that, although there is no denying she had many lovers, Alma was not the flirtatious, promiscuous woman the world observed. Creative men were attracted to her because she inspired them; she was their muse. She enthused over their work and made personal sacrifices to ensure they achieved their goals. Once her husbands and lovers became successful, Alma no longer felt needed and moved on. Only those who acknowledged Alma’s contribution to their careers retained her friendship, for instance, her third husband, Werfel.
It is difficult to ascertain Alma’s true character because her memoirs are considered an exaggerated truth. For years, Alma’s account of Gustav Mahler was the basis of the composer’s biography but recently discovered letters and documents suggest an alternative history. Was Alma Mahler-Werfel the woman her obituaries claimed or was her outward persona a mask to cover the tragedies she experienced? Alma lost three children, four if you include the miscarriage, she lost her home, she lost two husbands, and she had to flee from danger more than once. Life was certainly not kind to Alma.
A young Alma once aspired to be a composer. She learned to play the piano as a child and began composing in 1888. Up until her marriage to Gustav Mahler in 1902, Alma produced several songs, twenty piano pieces and a scene for an opera. Her husband put an end to her aspirations, and Alma did not compose again until Mahler attempted to save their relationship in 1910. After 1915, Alma stopped composing altogether. The work of her husbands always took precedence, and only seventeen of Alma’s songs survive today. Attempts to reestablish Alma as a composer in her own right have been underway since the early 21st century.
Whatever personal opinions people hold about Alma Mahler, it remains certain that she did not receive the opportunity to realise her talent as a composer and musician. Arguably, the main reason for this is that she was a woman, and by marrying, she gave up her right to have a career. In today’s world, Alma could have had more success than her husbands, but the world will never learn of what she was capable. Some of Alma Mahler’s surviving compositions are available to listen to on Youtube, for instance, Die stille Stadt, Kennst du meine Nächte? and Hymne.
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