Mahler in Columbus: Alma

Gustav and Alma Mahler, circa 1907(Photo: caminomusic.de)
Gustav and Alma Mahler, circa 1907(Photo: caminomusic.de)

The Columbus Symphony performs Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde this Friday and Saturday at the Ohio Theater. Jean-Marie Zeitouni conducts, with Sacha Cooke, mezzo-soprano and Anthony Dean Griffey, tenor.

Composers’ wives are a fascinating bunch.  Cosima Wagner, widow of Richard, was Franz Liszt’s daughter and an iron willed lady. Not one iota of “the Master’s” works could be altered, not one button changed on a costume nor one rest abbreviated from a score.

Cosima died in 1930, almost 50 years after Richard Wagner. With her edits over a long-life Bayreuth had plenty of ratty sets and costumes, and routiniers with few exceptions. Toscanini, Knappertsbuch, and Richard Strauss had to wait until Frau Wagner went off to Valhalla.

Pauline de Ahna, wife of Richard Strauss (1864-1948) is one of my favorite personalities in music. She was a fine singer, but had no use for anyone else on stage with her much less her celebrated husband.

In recitals of his music, Pauline was known to bang on the piano if she felt a postlude going on too long. At a performance of The Pirates of Penzance in London, Pauline looked over the sold out theater and told Richard, “Why cant’ you write something as good!”

Cosima was a control freak and Pauline was a battle-ax. Both women were absolutely adored by their husbands, but by few others.

Alma Schindler was another story. She was called “The Most Beautiful Woman in Vienna.” She came from a family of well to do artists. Her father convened a salon that attracted Wagner,  Strauss (minus wives I’ll bet),  Kokoschka, Klimt, and ‘tout Vienna.’  She shared the anti-Semitism and racism of the period.

At 20-years-old, this gorgeous young woman was making a name for herself as a gifted pianist and composer. She married Mahler, who was 19 years her senior,while he was director of the Vienna Court Opera. This position was akin to musical royalty.

No musician was more famous than Mahler in 1902. Alma was a randy young beauty, and was accustomed to being at the center of an intellectual hot-house.  Herr Mahler decreed there will be only one musician in the family. Alma was to be the wife and mother.

Alma seethed over this.  She had a passionate nature and Mahler was often ill or distracted. She gave him two daughters, the younger died at age five. By this time Alma was in the arms of Walter Gropius, the architect who developed the Bauhaus. Their meeting was not of spirits but a sexual passion. Gropius was hardly the first. Alma had been devoted to Klimt and Zemlinsky before and during her marriage.

Yes, she did what she could for Mahler. Wife and mother, nurse and muse. It seems she felt she got little in return. Being denied a life in the arts, and Alma was quite a talented musician, ate at her through the nine year marriage.

Mahler died at 50-years-ld in 1911. He had left the Vienna Opera, and had conducted two seasons at the New York Philharmonic and the Metropolitan Opera. Americans lionized Mahler as had all of Europe. His mighty symphonies are emotionally autobiographical. To some, they are the splendor of the repertoire. To others, he is undressing in public in his emotionalism.  Alma copied the parts and inspired the erotic theme of the Symphony Number 6.

Das Lied von der Erde (The Song of the Earth) premiered posthumously, with Bruno Walter conducting under Alma’s supervision. Mahler’s 10th Symphony was completed with her permission.

Alma married Gropius, and then the writer Franz Werfel. His novel “The Song of Bernadette” was sold to the movies, making him rich. Alma lit up Hollywood for a few years and died in New York in 1964, 53 years after the husband whose name she always kept.

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