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Alma Schindler Mahler - musical talent, sexual pleasure, Vienna's cultural elite

If I thought there was a lot of sex going on in the late 1960s, those of us interested in turn of the century Vienna had to do some rethinking. Here is my old post republished, now with a greater look at contemporary anti-Semitism.

Alma Schindler (1879-1964) was born in Vienna to famous landscape artist Emil Schind­ler and singer Anna von Bergen. Emil Schindler was known as an anti-Semite while Alma herself became an anti-Semite herself, even after her father died when she was only 12. This was strange, since two of Alma's three husbands were Jews, as were three of her favourite lovers.

After her father's death in 1892, Alma's mother married her late husb­and's former pupil Carl Moll (1861–1945), painter and co-founder of the Vienna Seces­sion. Moll’s Secessionist connections were important for young Alma; her lively social life expanded as she met the other Vienna Secession artists, including the very attractive Gustav Klimt (1862–1918). Klimt adored her but I am not sure her considerable musical talents were being supported by her cultivated colleagues.

Alma played the piano from childhood and loved composing. She met Jewish composer Alexander von Zemlinsky (1871—1942) in 1897, and learned composition with him until 1901. Zemlinsky had been a great teach­er for the very Jewish Arnold Schönberg (1874–1951) and a great contact for Alma. Zemlinsky and Alma fell in love, although Alma teased her lover about his ugly Jewish features. The relationship failed.

Alma and Gustav Mahler, 1902

In 1901 Alma attended Bertha Zucker­kandl’s literary salon, famous in cultured Jewish Vienna, where she began an affair with Austrian Jewish composer Gustav Mahler (1860-1911). Note that Gustav Mahler could only become the director of the prestigious Imperial Vienna State Opera if he converted to Catholicism. So he did.

While still in a relat­ion­ship with Zem­lin­sky, Alma started an aff­air with Mahler, and became engaged. In March 1902 they married and moved into a home near the Opera House where two daught­ers were born. With her own career nipped in the bud, Alma became the chief supporter of Gust­av's music. Probably Mahler had never liked Alma and Zemlinksy being lovers. But it was only when Gustav finally realised his wife had comp­os­ing talent that he helped her prepare her songs for public­ation in 1910. Good grief.

Mahler and Alma trav­elled together to New York, where Gustav work­ed as a conductor. In 1911 he tragically died, soon after their return to Vienna.

In 1910, Alma met and became very close with the young archit­ect Walter Gro­p­ius (1883–1969), my fav­ourite Austrian architect and event­ual­ly director of the world’s best art school, Bauhaus School of Art and Design.

Oskar Kokos­ch­ka, 
The Bride of the Wind, 1913
Kunst­museum Basel 

Oskar Kokos­ch­ka, 
Lovers with Cat, 1917
Kunsthaus Zürich

After Mahler's 1911 death, Alma also had a passionate affair with young Czech Christian artist Oskar Kokos­ch­ka (1886–1980). Alth­ough they later broke up, Kokoschka continued an unrequited love for Alma and paint­ed The Bride of the Wind 1913 and Lovers With Cat 1917 in her honour.

Kokoschka enlisted in the Austrian Army, so Alma resumed contact with Gropius who was a soldier himself. She and Grop­ius married in 1915 and had a child together, Manon Grop­ius, who died tragically at 18. Brilliant composer Alban Berg wrote a violin work in Manon’s honour.

With Gropius still in the army, Alma began a very public affair with Jewish Czech poet and writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) in 1917. Within a year, Gropius and Alma agreed to a divorce which became final in 1920. However Alma and Werfel did not marry until 1929. Gropius, on the other hand, married Ilse Frank in late 1923 and they remained happily together until his death.

In 1938, Werfel’s Jewishness became critical. Soon after the Aust­rian Ansch­luss, Werfel was forced to flee to France; so Alma joined him in Southern France from 1938 until 1940. With the German occup­at­ion of France, Werfel faced Nazism directly and needed to imm­ig­rate to the USA urgently. Luckily Varian Fry, organiser of a priv­ate Am­erican relief and rescue organisation, was saving intellect­uals from Mars­eilles. Fry arranged for the Werfels to walk across the Pyrenees into Spain and Portugal, and by ship to New York.

I do not understand why Alma went into exile with her Jewish husband since a] she had never liked the Jewish community, b] she was not opposed to Nazism and c] she actively supported Franco in Spain. Perhaps love and sex were more powerful than anti-Semitism.

Mahler and Werfel

In the USA Werfel had great suc­c­ess with his novel which was made into a film in 1943. But sadly Werfel died in the USA in 1945. None­­theless Alma soon became a USA citizen and remained a major cultural figure in New York where she wrote her two Mahler biog­raphies. It is interesting that when Alma died in 1964 in New York, she chose to be buried back in Vienna, along­side her first husband Gustav Mahler. She had been a core member of Vienna’s cultural elite AND the main authority on Mahler's life and works.

Early in life Alma und­erstood that in male-dominated cultural Vienna, her role was to be a muse for brilliant men, in bed and out. But I wonder if being a famous socialite and active supporter of Alexander Zemlinsky, Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and others was enough for her. Her own musical talents were never given the same professional support that the men received. Bride of the Wind: life and times of Al­ma Mahler-Werfel was written by Susanne Keegan


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