(1879 - 1964)

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The TLS Thursday 11 November 2004

Mahler and his marriage
Hugh Wood


Letters to his wife

Henry-Louis de La Grange and Guenther Weiss, editors

480pp. | Faber. £25. US: Cornell University Press. $40. 0 801 44340 7 | 0 571 21204 2

The Mahler literature is huge, and many of Mahler’s letters have already appeared in print. But what has come fully to light during the last decade adds greatly to our understanding of Mahler and his marriage. Henry-Louis de La Grange has masterminded this volume; and while we wait eagerly for the appearance in English of the completion of his monumental biography, this contribution allows us not only to fill in some gaps but to gain a vivid and telling portrayal of Mahler’s personality in his voice.

The book is the work of several hands and derives from a number of sources. After Alma Mahler’s death in 1964, her papers, including all Mahler’s letters to her, passed to her daughter, Anna. She in turn sold the letters to Hans Moldenhauer, and his celebrated archive passed them on to the Bavarian State Library. They published a catalogue of their holdings and also held an exhibition of them in 2003. The initial German edition of the present book Gustav Mahler: Letters to his wife came out in 1995, but it did not include consideration of Alma’s early diaries (from January, 1898 to March, 1902). They were published only in 1997. Copies of both the letters and of Alma’s diaries have from the 1960s onwards been collected in de La Grange’s Médiathèque musicale Mahler in Paris.

The third major source is Alma’s writings, published and unpublished. Two books will be familiar to the older generation of Mahler enthusiasts. Gustav Mahler: Memories and letters appeared in Britain in 1946 just after the war; it was translated by Basil Creighton. Of less value was her autobiography (ghosted by E. B. Ashton) of 1958: And the Bridge Is Love. Of its 312 pages, only sixty-six were devoted to her life with Mahler, and they are a sentimentalized précis of the former volume. Finally, there is an absence. This is no Briefwechsel: for half of that is missing. Alma destroyed all her letters to her husband after his death – save one, written before they were married.

Now the trouble starts. Before we can usefully discuss anything in Mahler’s hand, we must consider Alma as witness. For like the fat lady in the Morecambe and Wise Show – who used to elbow Eric and Ernie aside at the end while milking applause – Alma developed very early on an ability to place herself centre-stage in any situation in which she found herself. To achieve this end, reality often had to be adjusted. Memories would be censored, narratives doctored, events and people’s presence in them altered or airbrushed altogether, her own importance in the action always emphasized. Mahler’s letters did not escape correction and heavy editing after his death, sometimes quite meaninglessly. Even Alma’s own diaries, when she came to transcribe them, suffered the same impact of second thoughts. Antony Beaumont sums it up: “A true picture of Alma can emerge only from those documents with which she herself had no chance to tamper”.

So most of the supporting evidence is irremediably tainted and it is difficult to know what can, and what cannot, be believed. It is difficult to gauge what was lost to the world when Alma’s early ambitions as a composer (to which most of the distortions in her personality were due) were stopped in its tracks by marriage. But her two books show she had another, never fully exploited, talent: a flair for writing light romantic fiction. She shows a gift for snappy, journalistic writing: she understood instinctively that any regard for the complexities of truth must give way to the claims of the theatrically effective. She was the high mistress of the ben trovato anecdote and the well-told tale. She succeeded in creating a sort of beguiling fiction which gave a romanticized picture of her marriage and her husband on which a whole generation of music-lovers were brought up. It became the life-work of Henry-Louis de La Grange to scrub away at the novelette until he could present in detail a picture of Gustav Mahler as he really was.

The most exciting story Alma had to tell is that of her meeting and marrying Mahler. What the commentary rightly characterizes as “her desire to create a legend”, which she pursued relentlessly throughout the marriage – and indeed for the rest of her life – actually began here. The opening chapter of Memories and letters begins with her ostentatious reluctance to meet Mahler at the Zuckerhandls’ dinner party. But by the end of the evening she had made her conquest: “I was certainly flattered by the exclusive attention he paid me”. In fact, the diaries reveal that she had encountered the great man several times before, with the mixed-up reactions to him typical of a precocious teenager.

Once he had declared himself, Mahler regarded their marriage as settled. He fell in love with Alma, and was to love her consistently and constantly until his death. Their basic incompatibility and the twenty-year age gap are sometimes cited as examples of a great man’s naivety. They were nothing of the sort. The love letters of December, 1901 – almost daily from Berlin, and from Dresden on December 18 and 19 – show clearly that he was fully aware of this young girl’s personality with all its virtues and defects, and quite prepared to tell her of them before they married. In short, he knew exactly what he was letting himself in for. The cumulative and longest letter of December 19 was one that he found difficult to write, and which he knew would be unacceptable: she must lay on one side her composing ambitions and be first and foremost his wife.

Alma was at that very moment still entangled with the composer Alexander Zemlinsky and busy initiating other trivial flirtations. After the initial shock she went, as they say, into denial: she dealt with this letter by virtually ignoring it. In Memories and letters the twenty pages of December 19 are reduced to a vision of Mahler lying awake in Dresden and worrying, “What if I were too old for her?”.

After the marriage, the letters fall into two main categories. Most of them are the fruit of Mahler’s journeys to fulfil conducting engagements and to supervise first performances all over central Europe. But a sizeable minority were written from Maiernigg (their villa on the Wörthersee) to Alma in Vienna, and a smaller number from Vienna to Alma in Maiernigg. From 1908 onwards, when they had sought and found a house at Toblach in the South Tyrol, most of his letters (apart, of course, from those written while on tour) are from there, and in 1910 mostly to Tobelbad near Graz, where Alma was enjoying a prolonged stay in a sanatorium.

Mahler was a regular correspondent and (especially in the earlier days) there is a clear regret over their separation. He expects Alma to write back frequently (and this sometimes means daily) and as fully as he does, and always complains when she fails to do so. He complains even more bitterly about her impossible handwriting – as Zemlinsky had done before him – with a mixture of amusement and exasperation. (Generations of scholars since have felt the same.) As a matter of course he straightaway writes a postcard from the railway station before leaving – sometimes when he has only just said goodbye to her, or at the beginning of a return journey from cities all over Europe – from Amsterdam to St Petersburg. He always asks after the children and always complains when Alma sends him inadequate news of them.

Once at his destination there is a lively account of rehearsals, of performance, and sometimes of critical reaction. He does not often describe the life of the city he has come to: but a lively picture emerges of the remote Lemberg (Lvov), then very much in the outback of the Habsburg Empire. He also gives a vivid description of Amsterdam, where he stayed with the Mengelbergs. Nine annotated postcards from Zaandam wax lyrical about the place and his visit.
Alma was an intelligent girl and she was well read. Educated people whose mother tongue is German can be expected to respond to a quotation from Goethe’s Faust more easily than native English speakers would with Shakespeare (Mahler quotes Shakespeare too). He expects thrown-off references from Schiller – a poet he could quote at length – to be picked up as well. He has an endearingly wide range of tag-lines from the libretti of a wealth of not always well-known operas, or ones that have since fallen out of the repertory, such as Albert Lortzing’s Zar und Zimmermann. (The translator and editor might note in this context that La Dame Blanche is by Boieldieu, not Auber.)

Other composers are discussed, sometimes sharply. A performance of Tosca heard in Lemberg is made fun of: “I need scarcely add that the score is a masterly sham: nowadays every shoemaker’s apprentice is an orchestrator of genius”. Down at Maiernigg on his own, he decides to go through Brahms’s chamber music: “some of which, I regret to say, is sterile note-spinning”. Later, he criticizes Brahms’s “so-called development sections” and compares Brahms generally unfavourably with Wagner. Strauss’s Salome makes a deep impression, and this starts an (unsuccessful) campaign to stage it at the Hofoper. Some minor Sibelius heard at Helsinki is dismissed (“a standard piece of kitsch spiced with a national sauce”), though when Mahler met Sibelius he found he liked him and could talk to him.

The prevailing tone throughout this correspondence is intimate and jokey, full of puns of the most fiendish ingenuity (which don’t at all go into English) and satirical fantasies (which do). There is an amazing range of dialect expressions, not only Viennese but also north German – from Berlin and Saxony (my favourite expression is “pudel-närrisch”) – and also the thick Bavarian which Richard Strauss and his wife Pauline used (this defies Englishing too).

The letters are rarely philosophical. Most of the time they are domestic – dealing with the local odd-job men at Maiernigg, organizing sandpits for children to play in, giving reassuring advice about snakes, passing on a newspaper article about breast-feeding. At Toblach Mahler worries about the supply of his favourite apples, getting the right sort of butter, “Graham bread” (whatever that was) and dealing with the paraffin stove. It is all so practical and so sympathetic and, as Beaumont says, “astonishingly down to earth”.

Even when Alma goes off to Tobelbad to be treated for her “nervous condition”, the affectionate tone does not falter. He soon senses that there is something wrong, even before he is faced directly with Alma’s betrayal of him with Gropius. Then follows the agonized sequence of love poems and the visit to Freud at Leyden. The early set of love letters before they were married is now balanced by a fervent series from Munich where he is rehearsing the Eighth Symphony. Meanwhile, Alma has got Walter Gropius in her jaws and they go off for a few days in Paris together: the Alma/Gropius correspondence was to go on up to Mahler’s death.

The last written communication between Alma and Mahler was an exchange of telegrams in the American winter. Alma had been reading (at Mahler’s suggestion) Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov on a train journey and she wired: “Splendid journey with Alyosha”. Mahler, on tour with the New York Philharmonic, wired back: “my journey with almiosha even more splendid wonderful snowy weather today”.


THE TLS n.º 5303   November 19, 2004

Graham bread

Sir, – In his review of Mahler’s letters to his wife (November 12), Hugh Wood was puzzled by Mahler’s reference to “Graham bread”. Sylvester Graham was a nineteenth-century New England vegetarian reformer who promoted bread and crackers made of wholemeal flour. Graham crackers are widely known in the United States. The term “Graham bread” is still in use in Central Europe today: my Czech composer friend Jaroslav Štastný adopted the nom de plume Peter Graham because as a student he largely subsisted on wholemeal bread.

27 Temple Fortune Hill, London NW11.


N Z Z  Online

Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 12. Januar 2005, Ressort Feuilleton

Femme banale

Oliver Hilmes' Biografie über Alma Mahler-Werfel

Paul Jandl

Oliver Hilmes: Witwe im Wahn. Das Leben der Alma Mahler-Werfel. Siedler-Verlag, München 2004. 478 S., Fr. 42.10.

«Monstrum» nannte Theodor W. Adorno die Dame. Eine kleine Intrige, fein von ihrer Hand gesponnen, genügte, um Wassily Kandinsky, Walter Gropius und Arnold Schönberg gegeneinander aufzubringen. Später war es Thomas Mann, der mit dem Erfinder der Zwölftonmusik zerfiel, und wieder hatte die Muse aus Wien ihre Hände im Spiel. Alma Mahler-Werfel war die grosse Bekannte einer Epoche. Befreundet und verfeindet mit vielen, war sie mit den Besten verwandt. Als Tochter des Malers Emil Jakob Schindler heiratete sie Gustav Mahler. Als dieser tot war, wurde sie zur Frau des Bauhaus-Architekten Walter Gropius. Danach war es der Schriftsteller Franz Werfel, der mit ihr das Leben teilte.

Zwei eigene Lebenserzählungen Alma Mahler-Werfels und fünf Biografien gibt es bis anhin. Das Interesse an Alma ist so ungebrochen wie verklärend. Vom Feminismus bis zum Epochenkitsch liessen sich mit ihrem Leben bisher alle möglichen Glaubensrichtungen ausstatten. Umso dankenswerter ist es, dass jetzt eine Biografie erschienen ist, die mit vielen Mythen um Alma Mahler-Werfel gründlich aufräumt. Der deutsche Historiker Oliver Hilmes nimmt sich in seinem Buch der «Witwe im Wahn» mit finalem Schwung an. Und er kann dabei auf die verräterischste aller Quellen zurückgreifen: auf Alma Mahler-Werfels ungebremst authentisches Tagebuch.

Vom frühreifen «schönsten Mädchen Wiens», das für das «wilde Mannsbild» Gustav Klimt schwärmt, wird Alma Schindler zum Schlachtschiff der Erotik. «Mich dürstet nach Vergewaltigung! - Wer immer es sei!», notiert Alma in ihr Tagebuch, das überquillt von pathetischen Inszenierungen. «Auf die Knie vor mir, wenn ich bitten darf!», schallt es in Richtung Walter Gropius. Oliver Hilmes gibt sich in seiner Biografie einige Mühe, die Gemütsverfassung der Wiener Witwe auf den Punkt zu bringen. Hysterie im zeitgenössischen Verständnis sei es wohl, die sich hinter Almas Exaltiertheit verberge. Zwischen Grössenwahn und kleinlicher Eitelkeit wechseln Alma Mahler-Werfels Notate, die erst seit kurzem öffentlich einsehbar sind. Zu grossen Teilen noch unbearbeitet, liegt der Nachlass Almas in Philadelphia. Oliver Hilmes zitiert ausführlich aus den Aufzeichnungen. Seine Biografie lebt vom spannungsvollen Unterschied, der zwischen Selbststilisierung und Realität liegt, doch sie bringt auch eine Fülle neuen Materials, mit dem sich Almas Leben bis in feinste Verästelungen folgen lässt.

An excellent review of this book in the London Review of Books, here