Through my research for my ‘Women In Music Module’, I was intrigued to read that the wife of Gustav Mahler, Alma Mahler, had also composed before their marriage. Having recently performed some of Gustav Mahler’s songs I decided to search out her compositions to see if I could add them to my repertoire.
As I read about her life I felt that it would provide an interesting point of contrast for my upcoming presentation on Kaija Saariaho to demonstrate how life’s opportunities have changed for women over the past 100 years.
Alma was born in Vienna August 1879, eldest daughter of a landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler and Hamburg Singer Anna Sofie Bergen. Her early life was influenced by the many artistic people that visited the family home, including Gustav Klimt with whom she is said to have shared her first kiss, she was considered quite a beauty.
Encouraged by her father, Alma showed great promise as a pianist and with the help of her teachers, one of which was the composer Alexander Zemlinsky, she started to create her first compositions.
Through the growing circle of artistic contacts, Alma was introduced to Gustav Mahler who at the time was the Director of the Vienna Court Opera. Shortly after their introduction Gustav Mahler became enamored by Alma and pursued her during a brief period of courtship.
Alma’s life to that point had been very bohemian with the freedom to explore and experiment, however, Gustav Mahler, 19 years her senior, had a very traditional view of marriage and family life and is believed to have written a lengthy letter to Alma detailing his requirements of a wife. One of his key demands was that she stopped composing as he did not want her distracted from her duties which included caring for his needs.
Alma agreed to his demands and married Gustav Mahler in 1902 and her brief experimentation with composition was brought to an end. However, towards the end of his life, Gustav Mahler had an appointment with Sigmund Freud to try to better understand his wife, Freud deduced that Alma had tried to replace the father figure in her life by marrying Gustav Mahler, following her own father’s death when she was just thirteen. Freud encouraged Gustav Mahler to revisit his decision to curb Alma’s artistic outlet through her compositions which led him to have five of her works published.
After the death of Gustav Mahler in 1911 though Alma led a full and interesting life she never returned fully to composing career. Although in 1915 she published a set of four songs and five songs in 1924.
Updated: Alma died in 1964 in New York at the age of 85 the 14 songs, written for voice and piano, that were credited to her from the time before her marriage to Gustav Mahler remained the only pieces of music that she published as most of her earlier compositions were lost in the Second World War.