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 (1902-11), architect Walter Gropius (1915-192?), and writer Franz Werfel (1929-45). 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 Mahler1:
[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
But there were darker shadows in her personal life.
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 two. 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.”
This temptation and seduction came in the person of Oskar Kokoschka. Knowing his reputation as an artist, Alma Mahler was once again the master of the romantic situation:
We got up. Suddenly, tempestuously, he swept me into his arms. To me it was a strange, almost shocking kind of embrace; I did not respond at all. And precisely that seemed to affect him.
He stormed out. In a matter of hours I held the most beautiful love letter and proposal in my hands . . .
I cannot describe my feelings. Was it a spell that he consciously cast over me? I had to see him again . . .
But as talented as Kokoschka was, he was altogether too mercurial and even wild for her own vision of her future:
Oskar Kokoschka had fulfilled my life and destroyed it at the same time. Where had I gone astray? I did not know. What should I have done about all of this man’s “tomorrows,” about all his “maybes,” at a time when I would have liked to be cared for in my great weariness?
Walter Gropius . . . My brief, earnest friendship of Tobelbad had been lost in the gray fog of time; but I had made no mistake about his talent. I sat down and wrote him a letter of congratulations. “I am seldom alone,” I wrote, “too much among people. I long for a will that would wisely guide me away from what I’ve acquired, back to what is inborn. I know I could get there by myself, too, but I would so much like to thank someone for it!”
Gropius soon replied, and they met again. Despite some initial hesitation—after all, she had just been torridly involved with Kokoschka—he soon came around, and in a few months she was married to the man she found “still the perfect Walther von Stolzing, one of the most civilized men I knew, besides being one of the handsomest.”
World War I was on, and Gropius had to go back to military service. The happy couple went to a military supplies store for his riding boots, but the strong smell of the leather “numbed” her senses and she ran outdoors. Once again the future beckoned:
Then it happened that I saw a book peddler’s cart, bought a magazine, and opened it to the poem “Man Aware” by Franz Werfel.
Still, she and Gropius were newlyweds, and now she was pregnant. In 1916, the beloved Manon was born, but Gropius could not forget Kokoschka. For Alma Mahler this jealousy was unforgivable, and she wanted out. Her own comment shows the woman’s determination: “I had wanted to know what it means to have a child from a beautiful, beloved man. I had my wish now. My curiousity was at an end.”
It was Werfel’s turn. She found him to be a “stocky man with sensuous lips and large, beautiful blue eyes under a Goethean forehead.” He responded to her offerings: “My love for his poems made him feel at home instantly.” And he had all the talents, even a respect for (Alma Mahler’s) history:
He was eminently musical. He loved Mahler’s music and said he had wanted to make my acquaintance for that reason. He had a beautiful speaking voice and a fascinating gift of oratory. He was the most extraordinary reciter, lecturer, and storyteller on any subject, light or serious, and the store of charming anecdotes that he remembered or simply made up as he went along seemed inexhaustible. As by magic, his triumphant temperament animated and replenished his words. He never failed to cast a spell over his audience.
Even her duties of widowhood to Mahler seemed to pale under the influence of her liaison with Werfel. Though she worked to have Mahler’s music performed, and though she traveled to the events she and Mahler’s friends made possible, her heart wasn't in it:
The only day I spent by myself in Amsterdam [at a 1910 Mahler Fesrival organized by conductor Willem Mengelberg] was May 18, the anniversary of Mahler’s death. I went to the Rijksmuseum and saw the Rembrandts, the Verrneers, the Ruysdaels. I was glad, for once, to be alone, and yet I would have liked to discuss the pictures with someone. Why was I so alone? Had all of them withdrawn just to be tactful?
I did not miss Mahler, and my attempts to put myself into a mournful mood failed miserably, I have no feeling for dates, so days of remembrance have no reality for me.
I wrote in my diary:
It is only by myself or with Franz Werfel that I feel quite myself. With him, too, all reflections fall away. It was the same with Gustav Mahler; but he has been dead for almost ten years.
I felt I no longer had the right to hold court as “the Widow Mahler.” I was getting tired of it, too.
In addition, I was not always in full accord wirh his music. It frequently seemed alien to me, insufficiendy architectonic and often too long . . .
After such clarity, one might be tempted to ask, what love—for anyone—can there be! By 1927, her quest for candor was turned on her relationship with Werfel. They went to see a bad play, and she wanted to leave.
Werfel had one of his tantrums and publicly insulted me in the street. I ran to a taxi while he spewed billingsgate after me: “Just remember I’m not coming home tonight! I'll fix you!” And so on.
At home I fell on my bed, fully dressed, teeth chartering, and thought, . . and thought . . .
Had I come thus far for this, that a man should treat me like common baggage? Had I surrendered my independence of judgment, my freedom of action? Did I have to stand for ranting and abuse? No—I was filled with tremendous protest against the sudden senselessness of my life, the perversion of my years to a level I had long passed. I was fed up with the slavery called "man". . .
Faced with a life this rich—and the foregoing quotations give only a small picture of more than a half century of cultural glitter and tumultuous emotion—a biographer would be hard put to produce an insignificant book. But Miss Monson has done it. Her work fails, it seems to me, on just about every count. It is not original; it is not complete; and it does not seriously consider the important questions raised by this extraordinary woman's life. In fact, it does not leave the reader with the impression that Alma Mahler meant much of anything at all.
To write a biography, it almost goes without saying, one must have sources.
To write a biography, it almost goes without saying, one must have sources. But Miss Monson doesn’t seem to have many. No one who, as an adult, knew Alma Mahler when she was married to the composer is still alive; and hardly anyone is alive who knew her when she was with Kokoschka and Gropius. Only Anna Mahler could give Miss Monson significant testimony about what must be the most interesting years in her mother's life. The literature about Mahler, Kokoschka, Gropius—there is very little that has been written about Werfel—is perforce about the man and not the woman. What is in her diaries and the letters—there are no surviving letters from Alma Mahler to the men in question—seems to add little to the picture that has already emerged from Alma Mahler’s memoirs.
Here, indeed, is a central problem of the Monson biography. She explicitly discounts the Alma Mahler literary corpus:
Two of the books that appeared under Alma’s name—Mein Leben and And the Bridge is Love—are purportedly autobiographies. There is no doubt that Alma did not write them herself, but there remains the question of how much work she actually did on either, or indeed how interested or aware of them she was in her later years. Her earliest book, Gustav Mahler, is, according to Anna, the best representation of her mother’s attitudes. If one considers, however, that the volume was supposedly compiled at a time when Alma and Franz Werfel were moving into exile, one has to wonder how much Alma had to do with what finally appeared in print.
But whether she thinks more or less highly of Alma Mahler’s various literary productions, Miss Monson manages to tell us next to nothing about their provenance or even about their publishing history.3 At the same time she relies on them heavily for the substance of her narrative. Thus the reader is never told who, if not Alma Mahler, was responsible for the material, or what its errors are. For example, Miss Monson gives no information about the actual authorship of And the Bridge is Love other than that “E. B. Ashton prepared the book for publication in English.” She does not seem to know that “E. B. Ashton” may well be a pseudonym. Of the origin of Mein Leben, the first version of And the Bridge is Love, one only learns that it “came closer to the truth, thanks to the sensitive editing of Willi Haas.” But the reader finds out nothing about what was false in these books, or who was responsible, or what the significance of any falsehoods or inaccuracies might be.
It must be said too that there are some important gaps even in the material that is available. There is no mention, for example, of Anna Mahler’s making the death mask of Schocnberg at the time of his passing in Los Angeles. There is no mention of the fact that the famous double performance at Alma Mahler’s home in 1922 of Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire was conducted first by the composer with the vocal part in German and then by French composer Darius Milhaud with the vocal part in French. Similarly, Miss Monson describes Alma Mahler's opposition to a performance by the BBC Orchestra, in 1961, of the Deryck Cooke reconstruction of Mahler’s Tenth Symphony, but fails to mention that Alma Mahler was soon prevailed upon to reverse herself and allow performances to go on.
Despite its lack of striking new factual material and its lapses, Miss Monson’s book might have made a contribution by providing a detailed analysis of just what made Alma Mahler tick. The first question to be examined—given Alma Mahler’s lifelong sense of herself as a creative figure—is just how talented she was as an artist. But Miss Monson devotes little space to the songs as music. She properly finds them written in a “manner that frequently seems nervous and unsure of itself”; and she finds too that they show a greater affinity to the music of her teacher (and first real love) Zemlinsky than to that of Mahler. But before making this judgment. Miss Monson hedges by describing Mahler’s reaction to his wife’s work:
What Gustav noticed in Alma's songs was a lovely combination of youthful talent and enthusiasm, more promise than achievement.
Surely more should be required from Miss Monson than this. She is unable to tell the reader when the songs were written, remarking only that “four carry dates indicating they were written in the years 1901 and 1911.” Here too she casts doubt on the reliability of her material. She remarks that “There arc no important differences in the styles of those allegedly written before her marriage [to Mahler] and those purported to have come a decade later.” But she never describes the songs individually, and she doesn’t give any of their titles, even in the case of the song sung in 1911 by Metropolitan Opera soprano Frances Alda as Mahler lay mortally ill. Again, Miss Monson fails to give any detailed information on the publishing history of the songs or on their present availability. Her “Select Bibliography” fails to mention that five songs have been reprinted (by Weinberger in London) as recently as 1972. Missing also is any reference to the one substantive discussion of Alma Mahler’s songs in the English language literature, Warren Story Smith's brief article in a 1950 issue of Chord and Discord.
What about Alma Mahler’s songs? There are no extant recordings of them, and the New York Public Library seems unable to locate their printed copies of the five (evidently not the songs printed by Universal in Vienna in 1924 and reprinted in 1972) they do hold. I have been able to inspect copies of four of her songs: Die stille Stadt (to a poem by Dehmel), Laue Sommernacht (to a poem by Falke), Bei dir ist es traut (to a poem by Rilke), and Ich wandle unter Blumen (to a poem by Heine). Overall, their style is not just related to Zemlinsky and through him to Brahms, as Miss Monson suggests. There is in them a feeling of Wagner's Wesendonk Lieder, tied as they are to the chromaticism and hothouse emotionalism of Tristan und Isolde. Die stille Stadt is the best of them, although it is certainly stiff and clumsy. Laue Sommernacht seems too short and thin for the pseudo-complicated and grandiose romantic idiom in which its melodic substance is couched. Bei dir ist traut seems, in its lack of invention, artless. Ich wandle unter Blumen, barely fifteen bars long, manages to be utterly faceless musically even in the presence of Heine’s remarkably suggestive words. There is, I might add, in these songs, very little feeling for a distinctive vocal line; all the action is in the piano part, with the voice merely serving as a kind of wayward obbligato. If these songs are representative of Alma Mahler’s output, the verdict must be that she, like so many others of her time and class, wrote Hausmusik, If her Hausmusik was relatively better than that of others, it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that this was the result less of individual talent than of the brilliance of the musical and wider cultural milieu in which she moved.
To judge from the available literary material, it is clear that most of the time Alma Mahler had grave doubts about the value of her music sub specie aeternitatis. These doubts—despite her hope that things might be otherwise—inevitably shifted the focus of her life to the richly gifted men with whom she made her existence. This being the case, two questions arise: How did she win (and keep) these geniuses, and what was the function she served in their musical and psychological economies? There is much in Alma Mahler's writings and in Miss Monson’s reworking of them that suggest some answers, but all too often Miss Monson's analytic contributions are on a very low level:
A friend who loved her said that every young girl should have the chance to take lessons from Alma in the art of soothing the male ego. She knew how to make friends, lovers, and husbands feel important, as if rhey were the only ones in her life, as if they had forever to court her to prove their commitment and their worth.
Unfortunately, much of the evidence suggests that an iron fist lay within her velvet glove, and it was barely concealed. Her hold over her men came as much from her ability to torment them as to please them. Some men—Mahler and Werfel among them—were more susceptible to her manipulations and charms than others.4 The greatest men she knew—Arnold Schocnberg and Thomas Mann—were evidently unsusceptible. It was the men of less strong inner psychological direction who were her meat. Alma Mahler was a beguiling monster, indeed a greater monster for being so beguiling.
Unfortunately, much of the evidence suggests that an iron fist lay within her velvet glove, and it was barely concealed.
Another question little addressed by Miss Monson is Alma Mahler’s role in advancing her late husbands’ posthumous reputations. There are many other widows of musicians, writers, and painters who have made various efforts to keep the flame; it would have been edifying to have had Miss Monson's opinion of just how Alma Mahler stacked up against—to mention only one name—the late Vera Stravinsky. By the time she died in 1964, Mahler was well on the way to his present status as the last universally appreciated twentieth-century composer, but his wife’s efforts on his behalf pale beside the efforts of Mahler’s disciples Willem Mengelberg and Bruno Walter. In the case of Werfel, her widowhood was hardly productive. She seemed quickly to lose interest in his work, devoting her energies to being the Widow Mahler (despite her earlier disinclinations) rather than the Widow Werfel. Werfel, of course, has had few, if any, disciples.
It is plain, I think, that in most ways Alma Mahler cannot seem a very enticing person. She was too ambitious, too self-regarding, and too calculating to appear truly lovable to very many people. And yet she was fascinating, perhaps more for what she lived with and through than for what she was in herself. She (or whoever) wrote a marvelous book of memoirs that remains, despite Miss Monson's attempt at a biography, the standard work on the subject. Alma Mahler tried very hard throughout her life to project an image of herself as Isolde, dying for love and for music. She didn’t quite make it, because life is never quite an adequate copy of great art. And if she didn't get as far as Isolde, she certainly did reach the level of Tosca. This operatic heroine's famous words, "Vissi d’arte, vissi d’amore" (I lived for art, I lived for love), apply well to Alma Mahler. But Isolde, after all, had her Wagner; perhaps Alma Mahler is still waiting for her Puccini.
- lma Mahler, Muse to Genius, by Karen Monson; Houston Mifflin, 348 pages, $18.95. Go back to the text.
- The complex publishing history of all three works is a description in itself of the shifts in twentieth-century musical taste, politics, and social history to which Alma Mahler was a participating witness: Mahler's letters were published in Vienna in 1924 as Briefe 1879-1911. Farrar, Straus and Giroux published the American edition in 1979 under the title Selected Letters of Gustav Mahler, edited by Knud Martner. Mahler's memoirs, Erinnerungen und Briefe, were published in Amsterdam in 1940 and in Vienna in 1946. Viking brought out Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters, an abridged edition, in 1946, as did John Murray publishers in London. Murray published a revised and enlarged edition, with an introduction by Donald Mitchell, in 1968. Viking's second edition, with an additional note by Mitchell, appeared in 1969. In 1973, Murray brought out yet another edition, with new explanatory material by Mitchell and Knud Martner. Alma Mahler's memoirs, Mein Leben, were published in Frankfurt in 1960. Harcourt Brace earlier had brought out an abridged English version in 1958 and called it And the Bridge Is Love. Go back to the text.
- or example, she fails to list any edition of Alma Mahler's Gustav Mahler: Memories and Letters later than the second American edition of 1969, despite the fact that the third English edition, in 1973, contained important added material and commentary. Go back to the text.
- Just how Alma Mahler treated her geniuses may be seen in Gottfried Reinhardt's story (in Genius: A Memoir of Max Reinhardt) of how Franz Werfel managed to finish writing the German version of Jacobowsky and the Colonel in 1943: "Alma . . . ordered Franz to closet himself in a shack on Malibu Beach and forbade him to leave it except with the finished play. In these disagreeable circumstances, he managed the chore in just six weeks." Go back to the text.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 3, on page 64
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