A Valentine's Day tribute to the women (and men) who inspired the great composers.
Alma Mahler (1879–1964)
"Last December 13th, there appeared in the newspapers the juiciest, spiciest, raciest obituary that has ever been my pleasure to read," joked Tom Lehrer in 1965 as an introduction to his satirical song Alma.
Not just the inspiration behind several of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies, Alma Mahler-Werfel (née Schindler) was the ultimate groupie of the twentieth century's European artistic elite, serving as muse to visionary men in many creative fields. When Mahler first met her, she was already a renowned beauty in Viennese intellectual circles, with the painter Klimt wrapped around her little finger and an affair underway with her composition teacher Alexander von Zemlinsky. In 1902 she married Mahler, 20 years her senior, at his behest abandoning her own early efforts as a composer of Lieder.
The Adagietto of Mahler’s Fifth Symphony is dedicated to his young wife in what friends and contemporaries described as a “declaration of love”. The Sixth may be subtitled Tragische but, ironically, his most pessimistic symphony was composed in 1903-4 during a period of relative domestic bliss and features a soaring melody widely known as the “Alma theme”. He also dedicated the Eighth Symphony of a Thousand to his wife.
In 1910, Alma's affair with the architect Walter Gropius wrenched from Mahler some of his most anguished musical outpourings. The manuscript of his Tenth, unfinished, symphony is littered with annotations of broken-hearted utterances: “Why hast Thou forsaken me?”… “To live for you! To die for you!” He was so devastated that he booked a daylong session on Sigmund Freud's couch. The good doctor initially forgot to charge his fee and sent the bill the following year, somewhat tactlessly, to the widowed Alma a few weeks after her husband had died.
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