She gives me partridges

Bee Wilson

  • BuyMalevolent Muse: The Life of Alma Mahler by Oliver Hilmes, translated by Donald Arthur
    Northeastern, 360 pp, £29.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 1 55553 789 0

Alma Mahler Werfel celebrated her 70th birthday at home in Beverly Hills on the last day of August 1949. A brass band played as guests chose from a Mitteleuropean selection of drinks: champagne, black coffee or Alma’s favourite, Bénédictine (by the end of her life, she was drinking a bottle a day). In the dining room, an abundant buffet was laid out. Luminaries from the ‘German California’ scene came to pay homage to the widow of the composer Gustav Mahler and the writer Franz Werfel, Walter Gropius’s divorced wife and Oscar Kokoshka’s former lover. Thomas Mann, who was one of the guests, offered ‘cordial felicitations on your special day’.

Some of Mann’s friends were astonished that he could maintain his friendship with Alma when he had been such a prominent opponent of Nazism. After all, she was an unrepentant anti-Semite who spoke openly and often of her preference for Aryans and her disappointment with Jews, even though she had married two of them, Mahler and Werfel. At a social event in California in 1942, when Werfel was still alive, she had been heard remarking that the Nazis had done ‘a great many praiseworthy things’ and that the concentration camps were ‘fabrications put out by the refugees’. She was also a terrible drunk, not to mention an extremely domineering and difficult person. The year before her 70th birthday, she dragged Mann into a row with Arnold Schönberg, whom she had known ever since her youth in Vienna. In Mann’s novel Dr Faustus, Adrian Leverkühn’s music is clearly based on Schönberg’s 12-tone compositions. Alma read the book and immediately told Schönberg she was very upset at the way Mann had appropriated his music. She then rang Mann and told him that Schönberg was angry about the misuse of his ‘intellectual property’ – thanks to Alma, he now was. She went back and forth between the two men, stoking the animus while presenting herself as a mediator. When Mann eventually found out Alma’s true role in the affair, he was furious at her ‘meddling’.

Yet here was Mann, just months later, raising a glass to celebrate her life. During the birthday party, she took Mann to one side and assured him that there was now a ‘total breach’ between her and Schönberg and she was loyal only to him, though in fact she made up with Schönberg a couple of weeks later and accepted a ‘birthday canon’ he had composed in her honour. In a book of birthday tributes – Benjamin Britten, Stravinsky and Mann’s brother Heinrich were also contributors – Mann called himself ‘an admirer, if you will, who found refreshment in every get-together with you’ and spoke of ‘the joyful stimulation that exudes from your personality, a humane nature in female form, a great woman’. In his diary, he was less fulsome but still strikingly positive after dinner parties at Alma’s house. ‘Alma quite amusing and truthful over the discomfort of life,’ he wrote; on another occasion: ‘Cold Duck. Alma amusing.’ Challenged about his failure to break off relations with her, he smiled and said: ‘She gives me partridges to eat, and I like them.’

Alma’s ambitious empire over men extended far beyond those she slept with. She saw it as her mission to draw talented men from many worlds into her orbit and to render them ‘brighter’. She’d grown up in a household, presided over by her father, the artist Emil Schindler, where there were regular gatherings of writers, artists and musicians: evenings of tarot cards, black coffee, dancing and schnapps. At every phase of her life, she tried to re-create the conditions of a lavish Viennese salon, greeting her guests with rich food, Bénédictine and a radiant smile, always up for receiving homage. She fled to America with Werfel in 1941, carrying precious musical scores by Mahler and Bruckner in her hand luggage along with her cash and her jewellery. No sooner had she arrived than she found herself ‘in heaven’, immediately setting up a makeshift salon in her hotel suite, where, as Oliver Hilmes describes, ‘she received political figures, members of the high aristocracy from the toppled Austro-Hungarian Empire, as well as artists like the Russian painter Marc Chagall.’

In the song ‘Alma’ – written soon after her obituaries appeared in December 1964 – Tom Lehrer imagines all modern women being jealous of her ‘for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz’. How did she do it? At first, at least, she had great beauty. As a young woman, Alma Schindler, Emil’s oldest daughter, was said to be ‘the loveliest girl in Vienna’, with lustrous dark hair and a self-confident gaze. She had her first kiss aged 17 with Gustav Klimt, while travelling in Genoa. Klimt found her beautiful but also something more: ‘She has everything a discerning man could possibly ask for from a woman, in ample measure; I believe wherever she goes and casts an eye into the masculine world, she is the sovereign lady, the ruler.’ These sovereign qualities lasted long after her looks had faded. When Elias Canetti met her in 1933, he observed an ‘inebriated individual, who looked much older than she was’, large and overflowing, ‘with a cloying smile and bright, wide-open, glassy eyes’. Yet still she drew men to her, like mosquitoes around a lamp, as she once put it. In 1933, she was juggling her marriage to Werfel and a new love affair with a Catholic priest called Johannes Hollnsteiner: ‘Until now,’ she wrote in her diary, ‘he has never encountered womankind.’ Meanwhile, Werfel remained tied to her, almost against his will. He hated her infidelity and her anti-Semitic outbursts – ‘we’re tearing one another to shreds,’ he lamented in one letter – but somehow always came back for more.

But instead of wondering what it was these men saw in her, we perhaps should ask what she saw in them, or at least what motivated her to behave in the extraordinarily unpleasant ways that she did. Among musicologists, ‘the Alma Problem’ refers to the fact that after Mahler’s death she suppressed many of his letters, in order to present herself in a more positive light, and told false stories about their life together. (‘The silence of the famous dead,’ as Janet Malcolm put it, ‘offers an enormous temptation to the self-promoting living.’) Alma even interfered with Mahler’s compositions, demanding – based on her authority as the widow – that the middle movements of his Sixth Symphony be reordered (‘First scherzo, then andante’, Alma’s telegram to the Dutch conductor Willem Mengelberg in 1919). It was true that Mahler had originally arranged the symphony scherzo-andante, but he then changed his mind, and from the premiere in 1906 onwards always conducted it andante-scherzo. Such was Alma’s force, however, that her version of the structure was accepted by most Mahler conductors for the rest of the 20th century. As the musicologist and Mahler biographer Henry Louis le Grange wrote in liner notes for a 1995 recording of the symphony by Boulez, ‘Why would Alma lie?’ In the past decade or so – influenced by a 2002 paper by Jerry Bruck which took apart the case for Alma’s ordering of the symphony – conductors such as James Conlon have reverted to playing the movements in the same order that Mahler did. It makes a huge difference, Conlon has written, to hear the ‘meditative beauty’ of the andante before the ‘acerbic, ironic’ scherzo.

The assumption of the Lehrer song is that every woman would do what Alma did if they could. But the impression left by Hilmes’s biography, which engrosses in a sickening kind of way, is that Alma’s urge for dominance – sexual and otherwise – was far beyond the norm. In Hilmes’s somewhat crude Freudian reading she was a ‘hysteric’, someone who needed to feel superior to men, because she couldn’t bear the alternative. According to her daughter Anna, she ‘went to bed and sobbed for three days’ after an old postman said something slightly ‘impolite’ to her. ‘That,’ her daughter said, ‘is how much it meant to her.’

Hilmes is the first of Alma’s biographers to treat her anti-Semitism and belief in her own godliness as driving forces in her life, rather than a form of unthinking prejudice. In The Bride of the Wind (1991) – the title is taken from the famous swirling Kokoschka painting of himself in bed with Alma – Susanne Keegan presented Alma’s anti-Semitism as tangential to her personality: a ‘tasteless’ aberration. Keegan noted that she had many Jewish friends and treated Jewish men such as Schönberg and Mahler as ‘honorary Gentiles’, if they were brilliant and creative enough. Hilmes puts a rather different gloss on it. His biography draws on hitherto unused sources from archives in Germany and Austria, as well as the Van Pelt Library at the University of Pennsylvania, where he discovered what he persuasively argues is a copy of Alma’s original, uncensored diaries from July 1902 to February 1944. Alma herself used a heavily censored version of her diaries as the basis for her memoir, And the Bridge Is Love, published in 1958, having warned her ghostwriter that she didn’t want ‘any lawsuits for defamation of character’. Many aspects of her life were skipped over, especially those that would cause her to lose the moral high ground. Her relationship with Gropius – to the chagrin of Gropius himself, who was still alive – was reduced to a spare two pages containing nothing of the long and passionate correspondence they enjoyed while she was still married to Mahler. Nor did she mention the embarrassing occasion when Gropius accidentally addressed one of his adulterous missives about ‘the secrets of our nights of love’ to ‘Mr Gustav Mahler’, prompting a hurt Mahler to ask Alma what was going on.

In the diaries that Hilmes has uncovered, Alma is far more unguarded in her frequent expressions of anti-Jewish sentiment. She calls Canetti a ‘half-crippled, nihilistic Jew’ and writes warmly of a meeting with Hitler, when, under the influence of a bottle of champagne, she admired his ‘kindly, soft eyes’. As Hilmes sees it, Alma deliberately sought out relationships with talented but ugly Jewish men so that she could lord it over them. She would try to improve them, even sanctify them with her love, and when this failed she would feel contempt for them. When the initial glow of feeling for Werfel wore off, in 1924, she wrote that he ‘has shrunk back down to the short, ugly, fat Jew’ that he was when they first met. Her anti-Semitism was so deep-rooted that it applied even to her own children. She favoured Manon, the ‘Aryan’ child of Gropius, over Anna, the surviving child from her marriage to Mahler. When Manon died, aged 17, she lamented the death of ‘an angel’: Manon was her own ‘posterity in the purist form’. When she told the writer Claire Goll that she had lost her only daughter, Goll responded, ‘But Alma … don’t you have two others as well?’ to which Alma said: ‘Yes, but those two are both half-breeds.’ In her diary, she was more merciless still about Anna, lamenting her misfortune that ‘a 150 per cent Jewess had been born from my womb.’

Many women have aspired to ‘conquer’ men. Some have sought to be muses, under the impression that enabling a man’s creative work is itself a form of genius. It takes a strange personality indeed – something more than Hilmes’s ‘hysteric’ – to see it as her mission to inspire powerful Jewish men to worship her in order that she could then liberate them from their Jewishness. Alma recorded in her diary in 1914 that she ‘quivered with joy’ when a friend of hers, a professor of cultural history, remarked that she had led Mahler away from Judaism. ‘That was what I always felt, but I was even happier when I finally heard the word from someone else! I made him brighter. So my presence in his life was a mission accomplished after all!? That alone I always wanted, all my life! To make people brighter.’

The one person she had never felt the need to make brighter had been her father, whose work – mostly landscapes – was much favoured by members of the Austro-Hungarian imperial family. A photograph of Schindler shows a man in a three-piece suit with breeches, laced boots, a George V beard and a cigar in his hand. From an early age Alma became used to sitting in his studio watching him paint and listening to him sing. Schindler encouraged her to read Goethe – Faust, he told her, was the greatest book ever written – and to play on the pianino he bought for her. ‘My father was profoundly musical!’ she recalled. In 1887, when Alma was eight, the whole family set off on a journey to Dalmatia and Greece because Crown Prince Rudolf, the son of the emperor, had commissioned Schindler to do a number of ink and watercolour paintings of coastal towns. They were to form part of a series entitled ‘The Austro-Hungarian Monarchy in Word and Picture’. The party consisted of Schindler and his wife, Anna, Alma and her younger sister, Gretel, a housemaid, and Schindler’s favourite pupil, Carl Moll, who was also Anna’s lover. Hilmes sees Alma’s relationship with her father as the key to her ‘confusing, contradictory, repulsive characteristics’. His theory is that Schindler was aware that his wife was having an affair with Moll, so clung tightly to his older child, treating her as a kind of ‘spousal substitute’. Everyone in the family, Moll included, referred to Schindler as ‘the master’. After years of relative obscurity, Schindler’s patriotic seaside watercolours won him prizes, fame and money in Austria. Five years later, he died suddenly of appendicitis, leaving 13-year-old Alma bereft. ‘I had been used to doing everything to please him, my entire vanity and quest for honour could only be satisfied with a look from his understanding blue eyes.’

In the aftermath of her father’s death, Alma poured her grief into her own creative work. She took piano lessons and practised for several hours a day, concentrating on Schubert and Schumann, Schindler’s favourite composers. She had been composing music herself from the age of 16. ‘I should like to do a great deed,’ she wrote, ‘like to compose a really great opera, something no woman has ever done before.’ She also fell under the spell of Wagner’s music. During her brief dalliance with Klimt, she recorded in her diary that her mother – and Moll, who was now her stepfather – tried to talk her out of seeing him and once asked her whether she was in love with him, a ‘ludicrous’ idea to Alma. ‘I love someone so ardently, so devotedly as perhaps no human being has ever been loved before – it is Wagner.’ After a performance of Siegfried, she wrote that the libretto was such a ‘brilliant piece of German thinking’, adding that ‘no Jew could ever understand Wagner.’

Yet in 1900, aged 2o, she embarked on the first of a string of relationships with Jewish men. Alexander von Zemlinsky was a talented 29-year-old conductor-composer at the Carltheater in Vienna. On first glimpse, Alma saw only a short, ugly man with bulging eyes and an excessively wild style of conducting. But when Zemlinsky became her new composition teacher, and was much stricter than her previous one, she revised her opinion. Zemlinsky, she discovered, was deeply intelligent, and, more surprisingly still, he appreciated Wagner. She yearned for him to fall in love with her, despite the plea of a family friend that she must not ‘defile the good race’. One day, during a lesson, she wrote in her diary that she ‘took his head in my hands and we kissed until my teeth hurt’. She wrote him intimate letters saying that she wanted to bear his children, and confided to her diary that she wanted to be his ‘consecration vessel’, yet she alternated such gestures with attempts to humiliate him for his ‘ugliness’. The pattern was set: worship a man for his abilities, build him up, and when you’re sure he’s hooked, treat him like a worthless creature who needs you to ‘brighten’ him. As Anna Mahler commented much later, her mother ‘had an uncanny knack for enslaving them. And if anyone refused to become a slave, then he was worthless.’

Zemlinsky seems to have got Alma’s number (although his widow later told a researcher that he never got over her). In late May 1901, he wrote to complain that his pride was hurt by the stream of childish insults she hurled at him. He pointed out that there had been ‘many girls’ before Alma who had never said a word to him about his physical defects. ‘My dear, you keep on stressing, as often as you can, how precious little I am and have, how many things make me unsuitable to belong to you … Have you got so much to give, so infinitely much … that everyone else is a beggar by comparison?! Exchanging love for love, that’s all I know.’

Exchanging love for love was not how Alma did things. Her relationship with Zemlinsky was still ongoing when she got to know Mahler. She had first met him while on holiday a couple of years earlier but only properly spoke to him in November 1901 at a Viennese salon run by Bertha and Emil Zuckerkandl, where she was struck by his tremendous nervous energy. She wasn’t completely smitten. Apart from the fact that he was too old for her, and poor (not to mention Jewish), she disliked ‘his smell, his singing, some things about the way he speaks!’ Strikingly, she hated Werfel’s smell when they first met too, something she would taunt him with later. Yet she also told her diary that she loved Mahler ‘with unending emotion’ and had decided to break with Zemlinsky. As for what Mahler thought of Alma, he is supposed to have been impressed by her critical judgment on Josef Bayer’s The Bride of Korea – ‘one of the stupidest ballets ever given’, in Alma’s view – and surprised that someone so pretty should have been ‘rather clever’.

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The feminist defence of Alma is that she was driven to lead the grasping and vicarious existence that she did because Mahler blocked her from leading a creative life of her own. One of the flaws of Hilmes’s biography is that he spends very little time considering her own art. When she met Mahler, she was a promising composer in her own right, who had written a series of lieder using lyrics from Rilke, Heine and Novalis. Her piano accompaniments in these songs have quick, highly textured rhythms and vast, crashing, complex chords, comparable to Brahms’s or Liszt’s. The songlines are not immediately memorable, but deepen on repeated listening, with their melancholy chromatic progressions. The mezzo-soprano Sarah Connolly, who performed some of Alma’s compositions in concert at the Barbican in 2010, talks about her ‘rare gift of melody’ and ‘Brahmsian weight of purpose’. We will never know how great a composer she might have been had she continued to work. On the brink of their engagement, in 1901, Mahler wrote her a famous letter in which he insisted that if she wished to marry him she must give up composing: ‘How do you envision such a marriage between two composers? Have you any idea how ridiculous and ultimately degrading in our own eyes such a peculiar rivalry would become? … you must become the person I need if we are to be happy together, my wife and not my colleague – that is for certain!’

To Alma’s defenders, she was a victim of Mahler’s chauvinism. In 1993, in a review of a previous biography, Julia Moore argued that the many men she was associated with ‘sought to validate their own claims to genius by association with Alma’ and by ‘the need to suppress her genius’. Certainly, Mahler’s letter set out deeply unfair terms of marriage, ones that he would eventually repent of after Alma started cheating on him with Gropius in 1910. That year, Mahler revised his earlier insistence that the two of them could never be colleagues. He arranged for five of Alma’s songs to be published and staged premieres for them in New York and Vienna. He not only dedicated his own Eighth Symphony to his wife, but also suggested that they work together on rewriting some of her own compositions. But it was too late for him to win back Alma’s heart. She had already found another man she wished to make great, writing to Gropius that he must work hard and push his career forwards ‘because the more you accomplish, the more you will be mine!’

It can’t have been easy for Alma to give up composing – the thing, as she wrote in her diary, that she had ‘lived for’. On the day that Mahler’s Second Symphony was performed to great adulation at a festival in Basel, she wrote: ‘I love MY art.’ After they married, Mahler expected her to open the door for him in silence when he arrived home for lunch, and to remain silent throughout the meal, so that his artistic thoughts would be undisturbed. But we can only treat her as a helpless victim of Mahler’s selfishness if we ignore her own ferocious tenacity and drive. She didn’t have to give up composing: she could have married Zemlinsky, who respected her endeavours, but she chose Mahler, whose worldly status could propel her further. When it came to opera, she was always on the side of Wagner – whose heroes and heroines attempt to master their fate – and against Verdi, whose characters are helplessly buffeted by Destiny. She behaved with the conviction – calcified by alcohol, a habit she deemed Aryan, often berating the Jews around her for not drinking enough – that she was performing God’s will.

This played out most blatantly in her relationship with Werfel. Alma’s dislike of his Jewishness was a source of tension from the outset. There were happy moments, when she sat at the piano playing Bach for him – she refused to play for anyone but her husband. But then there were the other times, when she shouted at him for being a ‘weakling’ – for taking the side of the Spanish democratic government against Franco, for example – or yelled at him in front of dinner guests: ‘Don’t forget, I’m not a Jew! I’m not a Jew!’ So far as she was concerned, the lack of sensitivity was all on Werfel’s side, as he failed to understand the sacrifices she had made for him in leaving her Christian life in Vienna behind. One year, Alma and Werfel spent the Christmas holidays with their friend Paul von Zsolnay on the Italian Riviera. Christmas Eve, she told her diary, was happy for the two Jews but ‘very sad’ for her because ‘nobody took any notice of the thirsting Christian woman yearning to bring back her childhood.’

In August 1945, Werfel suffered a fatal heart attack, aged 54. Alma did not attend the funeral – ‘I never go to those things,’ she said – but she is known to have helped Georg Moenius, the Catholic priest who performed the ceremony, to write the funeral address. In it, Moenius rather curiously spoke of the different kinds of baptism that were possible: baptism by water, baptism by emergency and finally ‘baptism by desire’, when in the last moments before death someone can become a Christian ‘by the mere force of this desire’ without any explicit rites. The suggestion – never absolutely confirmed – is that Alma finally forced on the ailing Werfel (who had so often affirmed his Jewish faith) a baptism by desire, a desire that was actually all hers. If she willed something enough, it must be so. If a symphony should have been arranged differently, if a man should have held different beliefs, if any artist needed brightening, it was Alma’s Christian calling to intervene.

In her eighties, Alma, now living in Manhattan, was in very poor health. She had a weak heart and after several mild strokes seemed confused. On one occasion she asked Anna, with whom she was now on better terms, who had won the Second World War. She was more or less deaf, and if anyone visited her small apartment she was inclined to give long, disjointed monologues to cover up the fact that she couldn’t hear anything. She was insomniac, and her devoted housekeeper Ida – whom she treated as a serf, Anna said – was subjected to night-time reminiscences about the golden days of childhood in Vienna and especially about Alma’s beloved father. The old lady’s New York doctors diagnosed diabetes and urged her to cut down on the drink, but she rejected both the diagnosis and the advice. Since diabetes, in Alma’s view, was a Jewish disease, she couldn’t possibly have it. She continued unabashed with her daily bottle of Bénédictine. If she ever paused to look at the label before sloshing the next measure of bittersweet red alcohol into her glass, she would have seen the initials ‘D.O.M.’ on the label: Deo Optimo Maximo, ‘To God, most good, most great’.