04 July 2015

Alma Schindler-Mahler-Gropius-Werfel: what a woman!

Towards the end of the 1960s, all my women friends used to devise a test question  to recognise "the perfect marriage partner", once they left university. Some wanted a man committed to left wing politics; some wanted a partner more concerned with health and fitness; and others wanted a man steeped in literature. My question to any man I met was "who were Alma Schindler's 3 husbands and 1 long term lover?" I would marry the man who answered this question the best :)

Alma Schindler (1879-1964) was born in Vienna to the landscape artist Emil Schind­ler and singer Anna von Bergen in 1879. Emil Schindler was a rabid anti-Semite while Alma herself became a slightly lesser anti-Semite. This was strange, since two of Alma's three husbands were Jews.

After her father's death in 1892, Alma's mother married her late husb­and's former pupil Carl Moll, a co-founder of the Vienna Seces­sion. Moll was one of my favourite Secessionists and a very important connection for young Alma. Alma's lively social life expanded as she met the Vienna Secession artists, including the very attractive Gustav Klimt.

Alma played the piano from childhood and loved composing from 1895 on. She met the composer  Alexander von Zemlinsky in early 1900, began composition lessons with him and cont­inued learning until Dec 1901; then Mahler made her stop composing! Zemlinsky was a great teacher and a great contact for Alma (after all, he taught Arnold Schönberg as well). But perhaps Mahler didn’t like Alma and Zemlinksy being lovers.

In March 1902 Alma married an older Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), director of the Vienna Court Opera. They moved into a home near the Opera House where they had two daught­ers, Maria Anna (b1902) who died in childhood, and Anna (b1904) who survived into old age. With her own career nipped in the bud, Alma became the chief supporter of Gustav's music. At least until she met and became very close with the young architect Walter Gropius. Gropius was my fav­ourite Austrian architect and eventually the director of my favourite art school in all the world, The Bauhaus. Gustav finally realised his wife had composing talent so he helped her prepare her songs for publication in 1910. 

The Alma Mahler-Werfel Diaries from 1898-1902, 
edited by Antony Beaumont, were published in 2000.

The young couple travelled together to New York, where Gustav worked as a conductor. But in 1911 he tragically died, soon after their return to Vienna.

After Mahler's death, in the years before WW1, Alma had a long, passionate affair with young artist Oskar Kokoschka (1886–1980), who painted many works about their shared passion. Although they broke up after a few years, Kokoschka continued an unrequited and hopeless love for Alma and later painted The Bride of the Wind in her honour.

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

With Gropius still in the army, Alma began an affair with Czech poet and writer Franz Werfel (1890–1945) in 1917, an affair that became very public. Within a year, Gropius and Alma agreed to a divorce which became final in 1920. However Alma and Werfel did not marry until 1929.

In 1938, Werfel’s Jewishness became critical. With the Anschluss, Werfel was forced to flee Austria for France; so Alma joined him in a house in Southern France from 1938 until 1940. With the German invasion and occupat­ion of France during WW2, Werfel faced Nazism terrorism close up and needed to immigrate to the USA as quickly as possible. Luckily Varian Fry, organiser of a private Am­erican relief and rescue organisation, was saving intellect­uals and artists from Mars­eilles. Fry arranged for the Werfels to travel by foot across the Pyrenees into Spain, then to Portugal and by ship for New York.

I don't understand why Alma went into exile with her Jewish husband since a] she'd never liked Jews, b] she supported Nazism and c] she actively supported Franco in Spain.

In the USA Werfel had great suc­c­ess with his novel The Song of Bernadette, which was made into a film in 1943. Alas Werfel died in the USA in 1945 but it did not seem to matter to Alma. In 1946 she became a USA citizen and remained a major cultural figure in New York. She died in 1964 in New York and was buried back in Vienna, along­side Gustav Mahler. Scholars carefully read her two books on Mahler, so not only was she a well-connected member of Vienna’s cultural elite, Alma was the main authority on Mahler's life and work. Accurately or not.

The New York Times said that early in life Alma seems to have understood that in the male-dominated atmosphere of Vienna, her role was to be a motivator and stimulant of brilliant men, in bed and out. But I wonder if being a famous socialite and active supporter of Gustav Mahler, Walter Gropius, Oskar Kokoschka, Franz Werfel and others was enough. Surely her own musical talents could have been much better realised.

At least until the time of her engagement to Mahler, Alma had composed her own Lieder and instrumental pieces. Yet only a limited number of her songs were published - in 1910, 1915 and 1924. Three additional songs were discovered in manus­cript form in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, after Alma’s death.

I have not seen the book The Bride of the Wind: the life and times of Alma Mahler-Werfel by Susanne Keegan (published by Viking). But The Times was impressed. “Ms Keegan interweaves Alma's amorous progress through some of the most elevated artistic figures in Europe with a portrayal of Viennese social life at its most culturally refined, when it combined steaminess, stuffiness and artistic aspiration in a uniquely creative cocktail”.


Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Your test quiz was really quite easy for any fan of Tom Lehrer, whose song about Alma contained such mnemonic lyrics as "You should have a statue in bronze, for bagging Gustav and Walter and Franz." I'm sure that you know the song, but if it is new to anyone out there, here is a link for Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hH4J8CIBc7Q

Art Lover said...

Hi Helen

nice to see you at the conference. I knew about Vienna during its Belle Epoque, including the Secessionists. But I thought The First World War ended the city's glory days. Good to read your material.

Hels said...


that was hilarious :).. thank you.

Tom Lehrer seemed to nail in song what people were probably giggling about behind their elegant Viennese hands during WW1. But I think he focused only on her good looks and blatant sexiness, and forgot she was/could have been a creative musical person in her own right. Women's talents were often ignored or ridiculed, it would seem.

Hels said...

Art Lover

you have to love this weather... at home July is normally my least favourite month of the year.

Yes it is inevitable that the war ended the lives of so many talented young men and changed forever the lives of others. Ditto the end of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Yet although we can be fairly confident that Viennese art, music, opera and architecture changed after 1918, Vienna did remain a cultural centre.

Joe said...

What is the connection between Jewish Czech Franz Werfel and the Catholic French story of Bernadette?
Perhaps Werfel wrote it to honour his Catholic wife, Alma.

Hels said...


When the end was near for the Jews in Southern France, Werfel heard that Lourdes was potentially a refuge from the Gestapo, at least temporarily. But the good families of Lourdes who offered a cellar to Jews would themselves be taken away. So it was a very dangerous situation for Jews and rescuers alike.

The rescuers in Lourdes told Werfel the amazing story of Bernadette. Werfel promised that if he and his wife escaped alive, he would honour the brave Lourdes families and publish Bernadette's story in novel form. He did!