Women In Music – Alma Mahler

February 18, 2018 — 61 Comments

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.

Capture

Boulevard of Poplars near Plankenberg, Emil Jakob Schindler, Leopold Museum, Vienna

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 Mahler

Alma Mahler

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.

61 responses to Women In Music – Alma Mahler

  1. 

    Alma wrote a book about the Mahler years, called The Bridge Is Love. In it, she recounts her memory of Gustav coming to her with those early compositions of hers, that he was ashamed of having made her stop, saying ‘These are really good.”

    • 

      Yes Gustav did champion her work towards the end of his life. Without his support they possibly may never has been published at all. After his death she was still a young woman but when free of the constraints she didn’t return to composing.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  2. 

    I find it sad that Mahler demanded Alma stop composing. I had hoped Mahler would have had a different outlook on life. His life growing up was not rosy but I suppose it was a sign of the times that made men rule and women rulers of the home. I suppose this restriction on her creativity (among other things) lead to their marriage failing. Their marriage was unfortunately marred with sadness. Alma could have taken up composing after Mahler’s death but it looks like she didn’t. Are her 14 songs of note? I’ve not heard them.

    • 

      As you say it was a very different era, Amy Beach also had similar restrictions put on her compositions and wasn’t allowed to play in public but after her husbands death she returned to her music. I have all fourteen of Alma’s songs and I’m exploring her repertoire at the moment.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  3. 

    Fascinating. It is always interesting to know the background stories, and also the additional info from Christine. We wait to hear what you think of the songs.

    • 

      I’ll expand further if I can get permission to put my research on line after the presentation. There’s always two sides to historical recollections and I have to remember to put myself in the time gone by and not measure the problems by modern culture.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

      • 

        Absolutely. That is actually the point of my current writing, to shine a light on how restrictive life was for most women in ways we couldn’t contemplate today.
        For example, in 1890 a man could divorce his wife for adultery but the woman could only do so if she could prove a second fault e.g. desertion, cruelty, etc. Whereas today, with no fault divorce, a couple simply have to demonstrate the relationship has broken down, and they have equal rights to make that claim.
        And, by the way, a woman divorced for adultery in those earlier times almost never got custody of the children because she was considered a bad moral influence.

        After your post I did some more reading on Alma Mahler and it was very revealing. Seems she had a “reason” for marrying Mahler which may have over-ridden any other hesitancy; and also losing her father at her young age may have influenced her regard for the older man. But there was much more to my reading which I am sure you have also come across. All the best with it!

      • 

        Yes having a child shortly after the marriage would surely have changed her priorities if only for a short while, but she was still a young woman when he died and didn’t return to her music prioritising relationships remarrying twice more and I try not to judge. Thanks for the extra information from that era.
        Best wishes
        Charlotte

  4. 

    Very interesting story.

  5. 

    Very interesting, thank you Charlotte … And in fact, I think that if we take the time to do research, we find many more women artists in history than we generally think. It is certain that the media, whatever the times, have left them in the shadows. However, what is even more disturbing is that today, there are very few women who bring them to light ….. Congratulations for this rewarding and necessary study! Wish you the best

  6. 

    Most interesting. What a pity she came of an era where she would not have thought of suggesting to him where he could stick his list of demands, and/or of furnishing one of her own.
    You have put me off Gustav completely — pompous old pest!

    • 

      Don’t be put off. His music is certainly worth listening to. Having read quite a lot about this relationship and others around the same time it’s important that the culture of marriage in that era is considered. Other female composers were discouraged by parents and husbands it wasn’t uncommon. He did see the light and used his name and position to publish her work and without his help, who knows her work may not have seen the light of day.

      It surprised me more that she didn’t compose after his death, she was still a young woman and free to do so had she chosen but she prioritised other relationships over her music, so perhaps there was a confidence issue.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

      • 

        I have listened to a sample and like it. Glad he had a change of heart, even if initiated by that idiot Sigmund.
        I have also refreshed my memory of Mahler’s Fifth, which has many fine moments.

  7. 

    How sad that Mahler could not see Alma as a creative companion (iron sharpens iron), but merely as a sort of support system for his own work. What a waste.

    • 

      She had her first child shortly after the marriage and possibly didn’t push as her priorities changed and I’ve read of other female composers, such as Amy Beach who had the same restrictions, but came back to their music later.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  8. 

    Alma is one of the most fascinating people in a fascinating place and time. In addition to Mahler, she was married to architect Walter Gropius and novelist Franz Werfel, and had affairs with several other of the most creative people of the times, including the painter Oskar Kokoschka. During the war she emigrated first to France, then Spain, and eventually the U.S., where she settled in Los Angeles. She died in New York in 1964, and when I was a music student it was said that she occasionally visited the city where I was studying, although I am not aware that anyone on the music faculty actually knew her. For many photos of Ama, and a very irreverent take on her life, see the video humorist Tom Lehrer’s song “Alma”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zWFEy1lVUMI

    There is much more about her. For example: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B2QUMN2Ep1c

    • 

      Yes it was fascinating, she did rather prioritise relationships over her work so perhaps she wasn’t so bothered by her marriage agreement as current conventions would have you believe, I’ve pointed out above that other female composers facing similar performing or composing restrictions but did return to their work on the death of their partners.

      Thank you for your links. I’ve found the whole project fascinating and read up on 20 female composers I previously hadn’t heard of. So awareness is good and I understand there are changed a foot to bring these women into the national curriculum.

      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  9. 

    Another interesting post Charlotte, well done😘

  10. 

    I’ve read a little about her. A very interesting woman, and as you said, lived a very full life. I didn’t realize that she was also a composer, if only for a brief while.

    • 

      I’ve got pages of notes on her and several other female composers, it’s been a very interesting project to research so much so that I’ve spent a little longer on it than I was planning to.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  11. 

    Dear Charlotte,
    What a beautiful romantic story of Alma and composing, being a pianist myself I would have loved to meet someone as her. Glad in her marriage she was able to satisfy her husband. This is what marriage is all about commitment. I have been counseling a woman on marriage and commitment and this is very important. May the Lord bless you richly keep the great content coming.

  12. 

    I’ve just been reading the autobiography of the composer Ernst Krenek, who has lots of stories (mostly not very positive) about Alma Mahler. For a short time she was his mother-in-law, while he was married to her daughter Anna Mahler.

    • 

      Oh dear a man writing about his ex-mother-in-law is not ideal especially if they didn’t get on. I believe she was a very colourful character I read an archived piece in the Guardian by Sarah Connolly which was very interesting.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  13. 

    Hi Charlotte, I had no idea that Alma Mahla composed, she certainly had a very interesting life, having affairs, and or marrying many of the great characters of western culture. Several of there children died young, one after Mahler published his Kinder doden lieder (which Alma did not want him to publish.) One of her daughter fell in love with Alban Berg, but died before they could wed, and this lead to Bergs violin concerto entitle, to the death of a young maiden. Mahler himself had many a struggle. He was a great admirer and follower of Wagner, but despite the fact that he changed his religion from Jewish to Christian (he was forced to as otherwise he could not get work – he was also one of the greatest conductors of his time) Wagner refused him the right to conduct his operas. He wrote his song cycles and huge symphonies during his summer vacations, otherwise being the major conductor of his time. By the way did I add Cecil Chaminade to my list of female singers and composers..

    • 

      Thank you Charles this is all very interesting, it’s quite sad to hear Wagner took against him, it can’t be good if someone you admire takes against you and you don’t know why.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

      • 

        Wagner, and many other germans and Austrians were heavily anti-semitic, and poor Mahler was forced to change his religion, as was Mendelssohn, for the same reason. Wagner wrote wonderful music, but was horribly anti anything that he decided was not Germanic, including the Jews. He was actually a terrible man.

  14. 

    Wow, I am always amazed as to how creative/gifted women have handled their lives over the years. Thank you for introducing me to Alma.

    • 

      Yes me too Annette, I was fascinated in my studies of female composers to read how families, children were balanced with their work in order to carry on working as often musical careers are not static single location.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  15. 

    Here is a link to a good version of her songs, I think they’re very original, and at the same time similar in feel to her period in time. Alma Mahler Lieder und Gesänge by Catharina Kroeger & Monica Lonerohttps://itunes.apple.com/us/album/alma-mahler-lieder-und-ges%C3%A4nge/1179716086

  16. 

    Very interesting post with beautiful picutre and painting… 🙂

  17. 

    Fascinating Charlotte; though a big fan of Mahler’s music I know very little about him and knew nothing of his wife. One of the thing I love about your blog, apart from following your life in singing, is that I always learn something.

  18. 

    A sad but typical story of the time – still she has made history and you have made her existence known to many of us who who were unaware. Thank you, Charlotte.

  19. 

    I’m amazed how much research you put into your blogs Charlotte..
    Very interesting story.xx

  20. 
    lifeinkarolingston February 19, 2018 at 4:29 pm

    At least good that Gustav at the end of his life do something about Alma’s work. Really interesting!

  21. 

    A very interesting post, Charlotte and I look forward to hearing what you think of Alma’s compositions. Have you seen the 1974 film ‘Mahler’ by Ken Russell? I haven’t watched it for years but I remember it being good (if a little weird at times! 😀 ) especially with all the sumptuous Mahler music used throughout the film.

    • 

      I’ve enjoyed learning two of the songs in the last few weeks, they’ve been a little tricky and it’s a shame she didn’t finish her technical training and develop her considerable skills further. No I haven’t seen the film I must put it on my list of films to watch on long train journeys if I can download it.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  22. 

    What a fascinating post about an intriguing female musical figure!

  23. 

    I think it’s sad that her music never received any recognition. I expect Mahler was no different from most males of that period. And you are so right – we must not judge the past by the cultural standards of today. But whatever you do, I know you will do her compositions justice.

  24. 

    While her Father encouraged her to progress…I’m surprised she allowed someone else to come along and halt this progression. And I don’t understand why her husband would make such a selfish request. Besides, who gives out a list of demands for a person to follow? Honestly. If the person wanting to marry you can’t recognize or impedes your talent, you’re better off being with someone else. 🙁 Ugh!

    • 

      It was a very different era, there are still some communities now where women are expected to be homemakers and put any ideas of career on hold after they get married. I’d also guess for some women it’s nice to not have to work outside the home. I think team working between couples is the way to go.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  25. 

    I sure enjoyed your post. So informative. I love your take on getting married and having a child changed her priorities. I identify with it. My dream of being a writer was put on the back burner once I married and became a father. It is one decision that I never regretted.
    I hope you continue to post on female composers.

    • 

      Thanks Don, good point that marriage is a joint effort to succeed in and make work. I know men that gave up on their careers in the Airforce or to move abroad with a partner.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  26. 

    I didn’t know Alma had composed. I love Mahler’s music, but I was sad when I discovered he was not really a very a very nice guy. You might enjoy this irreverent Tom Lehrer song about Alma:

    • 

      Haha 😀 thanks for sharing this I hadn’t come across it. Alma preferred her relationships over her composition as she didn’t go back to her music after Gustav died, she was obviously a very attractive woman.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

  27. 

    How strange to go to a psychoanalyst to better understand ones wife! Well, good on Sigmund for his advice, then!

    • 
      Charlotte Hoather April 16, 2018 at 5:50 pm

      Yes it was a stroke of luck that I can now enjoy singing the song cycle, otherwise they may have been lost.
      Best wishes
      Charlotte

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