Saturday, August 31, 2019

The talented Mrs Mahler

Alma Mahler-Werfel, the Austrian musician and wife/lover of several celebrated artistic figures, was born 140 years ago today. She was a significant musician in her own right, but on marrying Gustav Mahler, her talent was suppressed. Marriages to the architect Walter Gropius and the writer Franz Werfel followed, and, after emigrating to the US, she became a culture figure herself in New York. More than 30 years after her death, her diaries - kept as a young woman - were published in English.

Alma was born in Vienna on 31 August 1879 into a privileged and cultured family, her father being a landscape painter. She was tutored at home, and raised as a Roman Catholic. Her father died when she was a young teenager, and thereafter she focused her studies on the piano. She contracted measles which left her with a hearing defective. When her mother married again, to Carl Moll, the painter Gustav Klimt and the composer Alexander Zemlinsky became regular visitors. Zemlinsky, in fact, taught Alma, and became her first lover. In 1902, though, she married Gustav Mahler, then the director of the Royal Opera, and nearly 20 years older. It seems, he showed no interest in her music, and even wished for her to stop composing. They had two daughters, one of whom died young. In the wake of her daughter’s death, Alma became depressed and began an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius.

Shortly thereafter, in 1911, Mahler died. Alma distanced herself from Gropius, but had an affair with the young painter Oskar Kokoschka. Both Gropius and Kokoschka enlisted in the army at the start of the war in 1914, but it was Gropius who Alma married, during one of his military leaves, in mid-1915. They had one daughter who died of polio aged 18. She then began a relationship with the Jewish poet Franz Werfel, and gave birth to another child, who died aged only 18 months. Alma and Gropius divorced, but it was not until 1929 that she married Werfel, taking the name Mahler-Werfel. In the 1930s, the couple fled Germany, first to France, and then to the US, where they lived in Hollywood. After Werfel’s death, Alma moved to New York where she became a cultural figure, and lived until 1964. Further information is available from Wikipedia, the Alma play website, or All Music.

In 1998, extracts from Alma’s diaries were published, covering the years from 1898 until her marriage to Mahler. The original manuscripts consist of 22 exercise books, and are full of her text in diversely coloured inks, pencil and crayon, with ornately written headlines, as well as many black ink line drawings. The extracts were translated into English and edited by Antony Beaumont and Susanne Rode-Breymann for publication in the UK by Faber and Faber as Alma Mahler-Werfel, Diaries 1898-1902. A few extracts can be read online at The New York Times book pages or at Amazon.

27 January 1898
‘This morning: practised. This evening: Dr Pollack and Narziss Prasch. Yesterday I played ‘Die Walküre’ until late at night. I like the first act best, particularly the close, ‘Blühe, Wälsungen Blut’. And the passage where Siegfried draws Sieglinde passionately towards him is wonderful - such fire, genuine erotic ardour. Is there anything to equal it?

My throat is very sore today.

4 February 1898
‘This morning: a wealthy collector by the name of Schreiber. I sat at the piano, shivering. ‘I hope to God he buys something,’ I thought to myself. But no - the silly ass didn’t. He promised to come again. But that was it. If someone doesn’t take the plunge straight away, they’ll think twice before doing so later.’

13 February 1898
‘Spent the morning with the Lichtenheld girls. Mizzi gave me a delightful picture of herself.

This afternoon Gretl Hellmann called and, since today marks the Death of Richard Wagner, I played ‘Tristan’, ‘Walküre’ and ‘Götterdammerung’ to her all afternoon. The latter was supposed to be performed at the Opera but was cancelled due to the indisposition of Winkelmann. They gave ‘Norma’ instead. How mean not to play W. on the anniversary of his death.’

10 March 1898
‘This evening: tarot party with the Zierers, Frau Duschnitz, Spitzer, Lehmann, Hellmer, Epstein & Klimt. After dinner we took black coffee in the studio, danced and sang. Lehmann sang Rubinstein’s duet ‘Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh’ with Mama. Klimt is such a dear man. I’m writing this because they went back to playing cards and roped Klimt in too. At 2:00 the Zierers and Frau Duschnitz went home. Then the fun really began. Mama and Marie Lehmann danced a pas de deux, then we all sang glees and had a whale of a time. After we’d danced our fill, the party ended at 3:30. Mama said: The Zierers are bound to make remarks, because Klimt sat with you (Alma) all evening and spoke to you so much.

But he was delightful, talked about his painting etc., then we talked about ‘Faust’, a work which he loves as much as I do. No, he’s a really delightful fellow. So natural, so modest - a true artist!’

23 March 1898
‘Frau Radnitzky came to give Gretl her lesson. I avoided her, like a dog that’s committed some misdemeanour. She vented her fury on the innocent Gretl. Well, on Saturday I’ll probably hear all about it. I’m looking forward to it already. Mama and I went to Taubenrauch to order our spring oufit - frightfully expensive - 90 fl! Mama said: You know, Alma, I still have 100 fl in a savings account that nobody knows about, I shall use it to foot the bill.

My eyes filled with tears, and I resolved to withdraw the 20 fl in Gretl’s and my post office book and give them to Mama. Gretl agreed.

This evening: Mama was at Dr Herz’s. We went to the Zierers’. Something funny happened: Flora wasn’t quite certain whether we’d be coming, and had invited Amelie Engel. All of a sudden she came along, kicked up a hell of a fuss and said: Do you think I came here to hobnob with the Schindlers?

But she stayed all the same, and we - Lilli, Gretl and I - treated her with utter contempt. Lilli was even rude to her, just for our sake. After dinner I was asked to play. I didn’t. Then Amelie came to me and said: Fräulein, you must have heard what I said. I’m really sorry, you must surely have misunderstood me.

And she made her apologies as prettily as you could imagine - far better than I ever could. So then I played, and so did she. She played waltzes beautifully, and I played quite well for the first time in days.’

The Diary Junction


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