Alma Mahler-Werfel - Part 1: 1879 to 1911 Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Alma Mahler-Werfel - Part 1: 1879 to 1911

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Alma Mahler-Werfel
Part 1: 1879 to 1911 | Part 2: from 1911

The daughter of a famous painter, married in turn to a musician, an architect and a writer - all men of world-class reputation - the story of the enigmatic Alma Mahler-Werfel is both a fascination and a frustration. She was a femme fatale, a self-centred egotist, experienced the highs and lows of life in the first half of the 20th Century, was a sex addict, was twice widowed, and was closely acquainted with many of the prominent cultural movers and shakers of her age.

Early Years

Born Alma Maria Schindler on 31 August, 1879, she grew up in the Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Her father, Emil Jakob Schindler, was a renowned landscape painter, while her mother, Anna von Bergen, a singer, came from Hamburg. The Schindler family home, Plankenberg Manor, was a 15th-Century manor house set in three acres of park and woodland; however, despite this apparent affluence, the family's finances were always in a precarious state. Alma's relationship with her father was very close, but that with her mother was cold and distant.

Educated haphazardly at home by a series of tutors, she inherited from her father a talent for and a love of music, and later of literature. During her formative years, she was surrounded by artists, writers, musicians and theatre people, including the painter Gustav Klimt, who in 1897 would found the Vienna Secession art movement, and Max Burckhard, the director of the Burgtheater, the Imperial Court Theatre.

At the age of thirteen, tragedy struck Alma with the sudden death of her father, an event which, as with many if not most teenage girls so affected, was to have a profound effect on the rest of her life. Her mother formed a relationship with the sculptor Carl Moll, another founder member of the Secession Movement, and they married in 1897. Alma never liked her new step-father and at times positively hated him - but then he had taken the place of her beloved father and worse, had been the one to bring her and her sister the news that their father was dead.

She had already begun to compose, but her untutored musical mind was taken in hand when she began to study privately with Alexander von Zemlinsky, through whom she also met Arnold Schönberg. Zemlinsky's opera Es war einmal ('Once upon a Time') had received its première at the Vienna Court Opera in January, 1901, produced and conducted personally by the Opera's director, Gustav Mahler. The work was a great success, receiving a further ten performances before the end of the season. Zemlinsky introduced Alma to a wide range of music, as well as tutoring her in the technical aspects of music, especially composition. As well as musically, Zemlinsky tutored the young Alma sexually: for her part, as she put it, she 'allowed him every intimacy except the ultimate'. Zemlinsky was not, however, Alma's first would-be lover, since before him she had taken the fancy of the painter Gustav Klimt, who had stolen from her a first kiss.

Music and Opera

On 7 November, 1901, Alma was invited to a dinner party, where she met for the first time her future husband, Gustav Mahler. By now, Alma had developed into a stunningly beautiful young woman, and although nineteen years her senior, Mahler instantly fell in love with her. When he heard of her lessons with Zemlinsky, he insisted that she bring some of her compositions to his office at the Opera the next day, which she did. Two weeks later, Alma and her mother attended the Opera in the evening and during the interval met Mahler in the foyer. Alma's mother invited Mahler to call at their new home on Vienna's fashionable Hohe Warte, which he did immediately on his return from Munich, where he was giving the first performance of his Fourth Symphony. Mahler was invited to stay for dinner, and he readily accepted. However, he was also expected at his own home, where he lived with his sister Justine. Since there was no telephone at the Hohe Warte house1, Mahler and Alma walked to the post office at Döbling so that he could phone his sister. He could not remember his own number and had to call his office and get his secretary to relay the message to Justine that he would not be coming home for dinner as usual. On their way back, Mahler came as near to a proposal of marriage to Alma as he ever would: his conversation with her during that walk simply assumed that the decision had been made.

First Marriage

In December, 1901, the engagement nearly floundered. While on a tour to Dresden and Berlin to conduct the Second and Fourth Symphonies respectively, Mahler wrote to Alma frequently, as would be his practice throughout the remainder of his life. In one such letter, Mahler demanded that Alma give up composing and focus her attention on his work. Despite the anguish this caused her - and it would remain a suppressed source of deep hurt throughout her marriage to Mahler - she finally decided to accede to his demand. In January the engagement became public news and the couple were married at 1.30pm on Sunday, 9 March, 1902, only four months after their first meeting2. Alma and Mahler left Vienna for a three week honeymoon in St Petersburg, where Mahler had engagements to conduct three concerts.

By the time of her marriage to Mahler, Alma was already pregnant with their first child, Maria Anna, born on 3 November, 1902, whom her father nicknamed Putzi. A second daughter, Anna Justine, known as Gucki, was born on 15 June, 1904.

Tragedy struck Alma for the second time on 12 July, 1907, when her elder daughter Maria died of scarlet fever and diphtheria at the Mahlers' lakeside villa at Maiernigg. 1907 was a dark year; at the end of the 1906 - 7 season, Mahler was ousted from his position as Director of the Vienna Court Opera, shortly before the death of his child. A few days later, a chance remark by Mahler resulted in his doctor examining him and diagnosing the heart condition that would ultimately prove fatal. Painful memories of Maria meant that neither Gustav nor Alma could ever return to the villa at Maiernigg, and it was sold.

Leaving Vienna, the Mahlers moved to New York, where Gustav was engaged to conduct at the Metropolitan Opera House, returning to Europe each summer to see Alma's family and for Gustav to compose in peace at Toblach in the South Tyrolean Alps.

Infidelity and Architecture

In the summer of 1910, Alma was unwell and spent two months at a sanatorium at the spa town of Tobelbad, in Styria, under a strict diet and fresh-air regime. Here she was introduced by the doctors to a number of people, including a young architect by the name of Walter Gropius who, just as Mahler had before him, fell in love with Alma immediately, and they very soon became lovers. One day a love letter from Gropius to Alma arrived at Toblach addressed to Herr Direktor Mahler3. Mahler naturally opened the letter, learned from it of his wife's infidelity and was utterly devastated. He clung desperately to his young wife, insisting that she must choose between them. Alma remained with her husband and the crisis of their marriage was narrowly bridged. Part of Mahler's way of working through this crisis was to consult the famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud, for which purpose in late August he travelled to Leyden in Holland, where Freud was at that time on holiday. Shortly afterwards he 'rediscovered' Alma's songs and realised, too late, that he had been wrong to forbid her to compose.

Death of Mahler

In October, 1910, the Mahlers returned to New York. Throughout that winter, Mahler suffered persistent sore throats, tonsillitis and fevers. On 21 February, 1911 he collapsed during rehearsals for a Philharmonic Society concert at Carnegie Hall, but insisted on conducting the concert, against the advice of his physician. It was to be the last time he would ever conduct an orchestra. Mahler's health continued to deteriorate. Streptococcal infection of the sac surrounding the heart - pericarditis - was diagnosed (an untreatable condition in the days before penicillin) and in early April it was decided to send him to a leading bacteriologist in Paris, then on 11 May to the Loew Sanatorium in Vienna. Gustav Mahler died at 11.05pm on 18 May, 1911, aged 50 years. Alma was now a widow at 31, having lost her father, a daughter and her husband.

1Private telephones were by no means common at this time. The Vienna Court Opera had one installed at Mahler's apartment to enable him to be in contact with the Opera at any time.2Mahler's sister Justine was married the next day to Arnold Rosé, violinist and leader of the Vienna Court Opera orchestra.3Was this a mistake or was it deliberate? Either answer seems equally unlikely.

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