Sunday, 9 December 2012

The fascinating Mrs Mahler-Werfel

Manon, Walter and Alma Gropius
in 1918
When I was a student I got to know the songs of Tom Lehrer, and his song Alma (hear him sing it on Tube) was my first introduction to Alma Mahler-Werfel (1879 - 1964)  and the way her love-life intertwined the artistic consciousness of the 20th century, mainly via her choice of husbands and lovers. She was also a composer and, though initially discouraged by Mahler, wrote and published songs. On 18 January 2013 at at St. David's Hall, Cardiff, the Welsh National Opera Orchestra under conductor Lothar Koenigs, are giving a concert which explore's Alma's legacy.

Michelle Breedt will be singing songs by Zemlinsky and Alma Mahler, David Adam's will be playing Berg's Violin Concerto. And the orchestra plays the Adagio from Gustav Mahler's 10th Symphony. And all are linked.


Alma was born Alma Schindler in Austria in 1879. Her father was the landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler; after her father's death her mother married his pupil Carl Moll who co-founded the Vienna Secession.

Alma had composition lessons with Zemlinsky from 1900 until her engagement to Mahler in 1901. She also enjoyed a flirtation with Zemlinsky, as well as with the artist Klimt and with the theatre director Max Burkhardt. During problems with her marriage to Mahler, she began an affair with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius.

After Mahler's death she had an affair with the artist Oscar Kokoschka who produced a number of works inspired by her. During the First World War, she resumed relations with Gropius and married him. Their daughter Manon was born in 1916 and it was for her memory that Berg wrote his violin concerto, after her death from polio in 1935.

Alma's second child with Gropius was in fact almost certainly fathered by the author Franz Werfel, with whom she was having an affair, whilst Gropius's military duties kept him from home.She lived with Werfel from 1917 and they eventually married. Alma published an influential edition of Mahler's letters in 1924, and also an edition of his tenth symphony, having engaged composer Ernst Krenek to make an edition of Mahler's surviving manuscripts.

Werfel was Jewish so during the Anschluss the two had two flee Austria, ending up in France and then finally the USA. Werfel achieved huge popular success with his novel The Song of Bernadette. Alma lived in the USA until her death in 1964, becoming something of a cultural icon and a link with Mahler (who had died over 50 years earlier in 1911).

Apparently influenced by the distinguished conductors who refused to perform the torso of Mahler's 10th Symphony, Alma demanded that she have the right of veto on Deryck Cooke's performing version of the complete symphony, which was first heard in 1960. But on seeing the score of Cooke's version and hearing a recording of it, Alma gave the edition her blessing. After her death, her and Mahler's daughter Anna gave Deryck Cooke access to Mahler's unpublished sketches for the 10th Symphony.

Unfortunately recent scholarship has shown that Alma's personal and published recollections of Mahler are unreliable. She suppressed many of her husband's letters to her, and altered others and destroyed all of her own letter to her husband, and continued to have a selective attitude to the truth in her recollections. Her autobiographical writings also expressed sympathies with Mussolini. Only 14 of her songs survive, the majority written in the period 1901.

But, as can be seen, her personal life seems to thread its way through many significant artists in the early 20th century.

Further information about the concert from the St. David's Hall website.


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