The other Mahler


Merely to list her legal names is to provide a choice glimpse of Germanic culture during the last century. Alma Maria Schindler Mahler Gropius Werfel was the daughter of Emil Schindler, a highly respected Viennese landscape painter and perhaps the most important Austrian visual artist of the nineteenth century. She was the wife of composer Gustav Mahler (1902-1911), architect Walter Gropius (1915-192?), and writer Franz Werfel (1929-1945). But the story doesn't stop there.
Her three husbands, famous though they were, hardly constitute all her romantic attachments. Before she married Mahler she was involved with painter Gustav Klimt and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, the friend and only teacher of Arnold Schoenberg. During her marriage to Mahler, she underwent what were at least flirtations with composer Hans Pfitzner and pianist Ossip Gabrilowitsch. After Mahler's death, she took up with painter Oskar Kokoschka. In the 1930s, during her marriage to Werfel, she was a constant companion, both public and private, of Father Johannes Hollnsteiner, a priest widely rumored to be Viennas's next cardinal. And after Werfel's death, the press (at least that part of the press represented by Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper) was full of her close relationship—purely Platonic, she told the world—with conductor Bruno Walter.
All this tasty material is summed up in an anecdote from Karen Monson's new biography of the woman who is now simply known as Alma Mahler[1]:
[Playwright Gehart] Hauptmann had also been smitten by Alma, and in the presence of his wife he jovially commented that he would be her lover in their next life. To this, Mrs. Hauptmann answered caustically that, even then, he would have to wait his turn.
It must be added that Alma Mahler had male friends with whom no sexual tie was ever suggested, and they were no less famous than her lovers. They included Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Gustave Charpentier, as well as Thomas Mann, his son Golo, Erich Maria Remarque, and Thorton Wilder.
In the eyes of her many admiring friends, and in her own eyes as well, Alma Mahler was a talented woman. Before she met Mahler—already music director of the Vienna Opera—she was a composition student of Zemlinsky's, and under her tutelage she wrote many songs, of which at least nine survive today in various states of availability. According to Bruno Walter's testimony, she was a sculptor, too, although nothing of her work in the plastic arts seems to have remained. She had literary gifts also. In 1924, she edited a collection of Mahler's letters. In the late 1930s she wrote a book of memoirs of the composer, and in the 1950s she composed her own recollections.[2]
There were, of course, difficulties aplenty in Alma Mahler's encounter with the world of ideologies and nations. She was, after all, driven from her birthplace by Hitler in the 1930s and her final relocation in America from 1940 on was in some doubt for several years. But there were darker shadows in her personal life. She was pregnant a total of six times by four men: three times by Mahler, and once each by Kokoschka, Gropius, and Werfel. Only one conception progressed to adulthood. Her first child by Mahler died at the age of rwo. Her final pregnancy by him resulted in a miscarriage. Kokoschka's child she aborted. Her daughter with Gropius, the beautiful, charming, and talented Manon, died of polio in 1935 at the age of eighteen (Berg dedicated his violin concerto to her). And the child of her last pregnancy, in fact Werfel's although she was married to Gropius at the time, did not survive his first year. She was left with one daughter, Anna, with whom, after some difficulties, she eventually made peace. It was Anna, like her mother a sculptor, who made the death mask of Schoenberg in Los Angeles in 1951—yet another expression of the symbolic character of Alma Mahler's life.
In its other aspects, Alma Mahler's life was scarcely more happy. She was a woman prone to a kind of constant deracinatory self-examination. She was almost obsessively concerned with who she was, what she was doing, and what it all meant. The focus of her concerns was, not surprisingly, her lovers and her own creativity.
She covered all this at great length in her memoirs. Of her doubts regarding Mahler, even before their marriage, she wrote:
. . . we had our first major conflict. I once wrote more briefly than usual, explaining that I still had to work on a composition, and Mahler was outraged. Nothing in the world was to mean more to me than writing to him; he considered the marriage [on more or less equal terms] of Robert and Clara Schumann "ridiculous," for instance. He sent me a long letter with the demand that I instantly give up my music and live for his alone . . .
I cried all night . . . [but he then] moderated his demands. In the afternoon he came himself, happy, confident, and so sweet that for the moment our skies were cloudless.
They did not stay cloudless. I buried my dream, and perhaps it was better so; I have been privileged to see the realization of my creative talent, what there was of it, in greater brains than mine. And yet, somewhere in me a wound kept smarting . . .
She had a certain pitiless knowledge about what she was after in her relations with men. Thus, just after Anna was bom, she told Mahler that what she "really loved in a man was his achievement":
"The greater the achievement, the more I must love him."
"Sounds dangerous," said Mahler. "What if one should come along who tops me?"
"I'd have to love him," I said.
He smiled. "Well, so far I'm not worrying. I don't know of anyone who tops me . . ."
But then, just a few lines below in her memoirs, the old wound aches again. Quoting from her diaries, she writes:
I told Gustav how hurt I am by his utter disinterest in what goes on inside me. My knowledge of music, for instance, suits him only as long as I use it for him. He answered: "Is it my fault that your budding dreams have not come true? . . . Oh, to be so pitilessly stripped of everything! He lives his own life—and I must live it, too! I can't occupy myself exclusively with my children . . .
Even while Mahler was alive, Alma was making preparations for a new life. After a trip to Paris in 1910, during which her already sickly husband conducted a performance of his Second Symphony (in the second movement of which the French composers Debussy, Dukas, and Pierné walked out), she went to a sanitarium to "do something for myself." She was characteristically frank about what that something amounted to:
In the sanitarium I lived completely withdrawn, as always when I was alone somewhere . . . The German doctor in charge of the place prescribed dancing! Well, it made more sense than the boiling baths. Feeling responsibility for me and worried about my despondency and loneliness, he introduced young men to me; one was an extraordinarily handsome German who would have been well cast as Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. We danced. Gliding slowly around the room with the youth, I heard chat he was an architect and had studied with one of my father's well-known friends. We stopped dancing and talked, talked all the rest of the night, until the sun shone through the window . . .
Soon, there remained no doubt that young Walter Gropius was in love with me and expected me to love him in return . . .
After Mahler's death, she quickly received and rejected a marriage offer from a famous physician who had been a friend both to her and to her husband at the end. She writes a farewell to him with her usual directness:
When it comes to living you're a miserable failure. At best, men like you are put between book covers, closed, pressed, and devoured in unrecognizable form by future generations. But such men never live.
Today I know the eternal source of all strength. It is in nature, in the earth, in people who don't hesitate to cast away their existence for the sake of an idea. They are the ones who can love.
I go on living with my face lifted high, with my feet on the ground—where they belong.
And she goes on immediately to describe her situation: "I had moved on by then, for roaming in souls had now become my delight. Unwittingly, while looking for greatness in men, I was facing life—tempting, seductive life."
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