Alma Maria Mahler-Werfel (née Schindler) (August 31, 1879 – December 11, 1964) was noted in her native Vienna for her beauty and intelligence. She was the wife, successively, of the composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel, and lover to the painter Oskar Kokoschka. She was also a composer.
Βorn in Vienna, Austria, to the prominent landscape painter Emil Jakob Schindler and his wife Anna von Bergen, in 1879, Alma grew up in a privileged environment. After her father’s death (1892), her mother married her late husband’s former pupil Carl Moll, who was a co-founder of the Vienna Secession.
Alma’s lively social interactions in her youth included friendships with the artists of the Secession, among them Gustav Klimt, to whom she gave her first kiss. As a young woman Alma had a series of flirtations, including Klimt, theater director Max Burckhard and composer Alexander von Zemlinsky. On March 9, 1902 she married Gustav Mahler, who was twenty years her senior and the director of the Vienna Court Opera. With him, she had two daughters, Maria Anna (1902–1907), who died of scarlet fever or diphtheria, and Anna (1904–1988) who later became a sculptor. The terms of Alma’s marriage with Mahler were that she would forgo her own interest in composing. Alma embraced her role as a loving wife and supporter of Mahler’s music. However, later in their marriage, after she had experienced a severe depression in the wake of the death of their oldest daughter, Maria, Alma began an affair with the young architect Walter Gropius (later of Bauhaus fame), whom she met during a rest at a spa. During the emotional crisis in their marriage after Mahler’s discovery of the affair, he took a serious interest in Alma’s musical compositions, completely regretting his earlier attitude. Upon his urging, and under his guidance, she prepared five of her songs for publication (they were issued in 1910, by Mahler’s own publisher, Universal Edition). During this time, Mahler had a single consultation with Dr. Sigmund Freud as to the causes for his unsatisfactory relationship with his wife. Following this turbulent period in their marriage, Alma and Gustav Mahler traveled to New York, where Mahler was seasonally engaged as a conductor at that time. While in New York, in February 1911, he fell severely ill as result of an infection related to a heart defect that had been diagnosed several years before; he died in May, shortly after their return to Vienna.
After Mahler’s death, Alma did not immediately resume contact with Gropius. Between 1912 and 1914 she had a tumultuous affair with the artist Oskar Kokoschka, who created many works inspired by his relationship with Alma, including, perhaps most famously, his painting Bride of the Wind. (After Alma’s departure from his life, Oskar Kokoschka notoriously ordered a custom life-size doll resembling her in details. Rumors say that he was seen at a local theater in Vienna holding the doll as his companion.) Kokoschka’s intense possessiveness wore on Alma, and the emotional vicissitudes of the relationship tired them both. With the coming of World War I, Kokoschka enlisted in the military, and Alma subsequently distanced herself from him and resumed contact with Walter Gropius, who was also in the military at that time. Alma and Gropius married in 1915 during one of his military leaves. They had a daughter together, Manon Gropius (1916–1935), who died of polio at the age of 18. (Composer Alban Berg wrote his Violin Concerto in memory of her.) While Gropius’s military duties were still keeping him absent most of the time, Alma met and fell in love with the Prague-born poet and writer Franz Werfel in fall 1917. Alma became pregnant and gave birth to a son, Martin Carl Johannes Gropius (1918-1919). Gropius at first believed that the child was his, but Alma’s ongoing affair with Werfel soon came out into the open. Within a year, Alma and Walter agreed to a divorce. In the meantime, the boy, Martin, who had been born prematurely, had developed hydrocephalus, and died at the age of ten months. Alma’s divorce from Gropius became official in 1920. She and Werfel remained together and lived in partnership from that point on; however, Alma postponed marrying Werfel until 1929.
In 1938, following the Anschluss, Alma and Werfel, who was Jewish, were forced to flee Austria for France; they maintained a household in Sanary-sur-mer, on the French Riviera, from summer 1938 until spring 1940. With the German invasion and occupation of France during World War II, and the deportation of Jews and political adversaries to Nazi concentration camps, Alma and her husband were no longer safe in France and frantically sought to secure their emigration to the United States. In Marseille they were contacted by Varian Fry, an American journalist and emissary of the Emergency Rescue Committee, a private American relief organization that came to the aid of many refugee intellectuals and artists at that time. Fry arranged for Alma and Franz to journey on foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, in order to evade the French border officials, since the acquiring of the necessary exit visas proved impossible. From Spain, Alma and Franz traveled on to Portugal and then boarded a ship for New York City. Eventually they settled in Los Angeles, where Werfel, who had already enjoyed moderate renown in the U.S. as an author, achieved a huge popular success with his novel The Song of Bernadette, which was made into a 1943 film starring Jennifer Jones. Werfel, who had experienced serious heart problems throughout their exile, died of a heart attack in California in 1945. In 1946 Alma became a U.S. citizen. Several years later she moved to New York City, where she remained a major cultural figure until her death, in 1964.
Her much-married state was made sport of in Tom Lehrer‘s song «Alma.» He also commented gleefully on how her newspaper obituary had a lengthy list of her gentleman callers.
In «Mahler» (1974) by director Ken Russell Gustav Mahler while on his last train journey, remembers the important events of his life – his relationship with his wife, the death of his brother and of his young son, his trouble with the muses, and more.
In 1996 Israeli writer Joshua Sobol and Austrian director Paulus Manker created the polydrama Alma. It has been playing in Vienna for six successive seasons, and toured to Venice, Lisbon, Los Angeles, Petronell, Berlin and Semmering — all places where Alma had lived. The scenes of Alma’s life were performed simultaneously on all floors and in all rooms of a special building. The guests were invited to abandon the immobilized position of a spectator in a conventional drama, replace it with the mobile activity of a traveller, and watch a «theatrical journey». They had to choose the events, the path, and the person to follow after each event, thus constructing her or his personal version of the «Polydrama.»
A treatment of Alma’s life is presented in the 2001 Bruce Beresford film Bride of the Wind. Martin Chervin wrote a one-woman play about Alma’s first marriage called Myself, Alma Mahler. In 1998 extracts from her diaries were published, covering the years from 1898 to 1902, up until the point she married Mahler.
Less amusing is the story of her two books on Mahler and their impact on ‘Mahler studies’. As an articulate, well-connected and influential woman who went on to outlive her first husband by more than 50 years, Alma was for decades the principal authority on the mature Mahler’s values, character and day-to-day behaviour, and her various publications quickly became the central source material for Mahler scholars and music-lovers alike. Unfortunately, as scholarship has investigated the picture she sought to paint of Mahler and her relationship with him, her accounts have increasingly been revealed as unreliable, false and misleading. The fact that these deeply flawed accounts have nevertheless had a massive influence — leaving their mark upon several generations of scholars, interpreters and music-lovers — constitutes the «Alma Problem.»
Alma Mahler (then Schindler) played piano from childhood and in her memoirs reports that she first attempted composing at age 9. She studied composition with Josef Labor beginning in 1895. She met Alexander von Zemlinsky in early 1900, began composition lessons with him that fall, and continued as his student until her engagement with Gustav Mahler (December 1901), after which she ceased composing. Up until that time, she had composed/sketched many Lieder, and also worked on instrumental pieces as well as a segment of an opera. She resumed composing sporadically after 1910. Only a total of 17 songs by her survive. Fourteen of her songs were published during her lifetime, in three publications dated 1910, 1915, and 1924; it is unclear whether she continued composing at all after her last publication. Three additional songs by Alma were discovered in manuscript posthumously; two of them were published in the year 2000, and one remains unpublished. Alma Mahler’s personal papers, including music manuscripts, are held at the University of Pennsylvania, and at the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Her music is still performed and recorded today.
Friends and Lovers
Alma Mahler’s voice