Alma & Gustav – The Songs
By modern standards, Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) was not an ideal husband to Alma Schindler (1879-1964): he insisted she stop composing and instead “consider his music as her own;” he asked her to start composing again only once she lost interest in him; and to help her get started, he “recomposed” her songs himself to hasten their publication. There can be few examples from musical history in which a husband has got the integrity of his wife’s creative work quite so wrong.
But Alma Mahler was no victim of her husband – or of anyone else. A talented artist and exceptional beauty in her youth, she was also a self-proclaimed social climber, vocal anti-Semite, and (like her mother) an unapologetic adulterer throughout her adult life.
If Alma felt oppressed by Gustav, she took the fifty years she outlived her first husband to serve up a particularly cold dish of revenge. Even during her marriages to two other men, Alma fabricated Mahler’s records, forged parts of his letters to change his statements, and went so far as to restructure parts of his musical works.
Her manipulations of Gustav Mahler’s musical legacy were so thorough and underhand, and so difficult to trace, that historians even have a name for it. It is known simply as “The Alma Problem.”
The Mahler Project
The Mahler Project explores the songs for voice & piano of these two exceptionally expressive, temperamental musicians. Our course focuses especially on their early songs – intimate pieces, written at the dawn of the modern age, in which Alma and Gustav first set out in sound the themes of love, persuasion, rejection, and power.
Scroll down to read more about the song sets and cycles we will be performing on the Mahler Project. A detailed list of repertoire we are performing the Mahler Project can be found at repertoire and scores.
A Viennese divergence – for voice & piano
Despite – or perhaps because of – the cultural and romantic clash between these two expressive titans, both Alma and Gustav produced a considerable number of exceptionally clever and beautiful songs for voice & piano for us to enjoy. To compare Gustav’s songs for voice and piano to Alma’s own is to walk along parallel paths, each exploring, in its own way, the culmination of latent nineteenth-century musical trends in miniature.
To hear their songs is also to eaves-drop on two highly charged disagreements between two of the most powerful personalities of fin-de-siècle Vienna: the first is between a late-Romantic composer (Gustav) and a nascent Wagnerian (Alma); and the second, between a introvert husband courting musical success within the Viennese institutions, and his self-possessed, sexually and culturally liberated wife.
Gustav Mahler – Songs and Ballads, Volumes 1-3.
Gustav Mahler’s early songs for voice & piano take us on a rich and colourful tour of the musical and cultural landscape of Vienna in the 1880s.
In his the Lieder und Gesänge (Songs and Ballads) which were published in three volumes for voice & piano between 1880 and 1889, we hear the catchy folk melodies of Austro-Hungary telling timeless tales of awkward lovers, brave soldiers, and pompous nightingales.
The sheer beauty of Mahler’s melodic and harmonic vision in these songs make them some of the most charming and life-affirming pieces of the song repertoire.
In ‘Hans and Grete’ (‘Hans und Grethe’ – originally titled ‘Maitanz im Grünen’), from Volume 1, for example, we hear two young lovers poking fun at each other. Are they really as disinterested in one another as they appear? I think not.
Listen to the fantastically evocative tune, reminiscent of a children’s game, that Mahler uses for the gentle argument between the two young people. He later recycled the tune in his Second Symphony (video below, left).
NOTE: You can find translations of the texts on all videos by opening the title toggles below the videos.
Volumes 2 & 3 – The Youth’s Magic Horn
In the song ‘Out! Out!’ (Aus! Aus!) from Volume 2, we hear Mahler’s charming treatment of a folk-song, in this case sourced from a collection of German folk poems and songs known as The Youth’s Magic Horn (Des Knaben Wunderhorn), which was published by Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano between 1805 and 1808.
Mahler wrote his own version of the texts from the Wunderhorn volume, which occupied him throughout the 1880s and 1890s. Listen as Mahler’s song evokes brave young soldiers shouting a hearty farewell in this wonderful rendition of the song by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau and Daniel Barenboim (video, below middle).
In Volume 3, Mahler set five more texts based on The Youth’s Magic Horn, including the fantastically macabre satire, ‘Changing of the Summer Guard‘ (‘Ablösung im Sommer’), the song in which the nightingale celebrates that the cuckoo has finally died and ceased his terrible singing. Was Mahler thinking of the competing singers of the forest or the egos of the Vienna stage when he set this song? We shall never know.
This live performance for French radio by Omo Bello and Clément Mao-Takacs wonderfully captures both the cuckoo’s pathetic musical efforts and the bragging of his replacement, the unapologetic virtuoso and queen of songbirds, the nightingale (video, below right).
Alma Schindler-Mahler – Five Songs
It is thought that Alma Schindler composed her ‘Five Songs’ (Fünf Lieder) between 1900 and 1901, the year before Gustav proposed marriage to the 22-year old, who was 19 years his junior – and already pregnant with their first child – at the time.
While echoes of her musical influences are clear in the Five Songs (published in 1910), we nevertheless hear Alma’s utter social confidence in finding her own way through the musical legacies of the later nineteenth century. Rather than merely offering an assemblage of the sound worlds of her idol, Richard Wagner (photo, above left), and her teacher, Alexander von Zemlinsky (above right, pictured with his other pupil, Arnold Schoenberg), Alma’s songs are a summation of these, with echoes of Brahms and Gustav Mahler. At the same time, the songs remain very much her own.
Alma’s musical voice calls out to us, on the eve new century, from the formerly illiberal domain of the parlour, strongly intimating the concert music for voice and piano that was to come. While we cannot call the musical language of the Five Songs “modernist,” neither does their sound world look back to the late nineteenth century. What is certain is that it is impossible to ignore the emancipation – some might say, warning – these songs depict, in particular in Alma’s intelligence, her creative power, and her choice of poetic texts. This is a young composer unapologetic about her talents, and her attraction to cultural outliers.
Leonard Berstein kisses Alma Mahler's hand.
The Silent City (Dehmel)
For the first song in the group, ‘The Silent City’ (‘Die stille Stadt’), Alma chose a text from Richard Dehmel, a young writer who, owing to the extraordinary subjects explored in his writing, was tried for blasphemy and obscenity in the 1890s. An enigmatic poem in which a wanderer passes through a silent settlement as night falls, ‘The Silent City’ is a through-composed piece, almost Wagnerian in its textures and unpredictable harmonic movement, which work so well to depict the uncertain progress of the subject of Dehmel’s poem.
Is the child’s voice, heard at the end of the poem, the sound that the wanderer is fleeing, or does Alma’s setting of the child’s voice call the wanderer home? This evocative performance by Konrad Leitner and Hans Zednik (video, below left) leaves the question open.
Note: A link to translations of the German text can be found by toggling open the title bar below the videos.
At Ease with You (Rilke)
For another song, ‘At Ease with You’ (‘Bei dir ist es traut’), Alma sets the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, a young mystic who believed that Christ was not born divine – a shocking assertion. It must have pleased Alma to set this poem to music in strongly Catholic Vienna.
In this song, too, Alma creates a piece the music of which moves forward with the progress of the text. The sudden change of colour and texture take us inside with the lovers, depicting their intimacy, and its contrast to the shapes of the world around them. In their performance of the song (video, below middle), Sarah Connolly and Eugene Asti capture the fluidity of the relationship, as well as the contrast Alma so cleverly realizes between the external and the internal world.
In my Father’s Garden (Hartleben)
Alma’s musical voice opens up in the song ‘In my Father’s Garden’ (‘In meines Vaters Garten’), showing her in sympathy with its controversial poet,Otto Erich Hartleben. Founder of a number of satirical societies, including Karlsbad Idealist’s Club and the Bavarian Bohemian Beer Brotherhood, Hartleben also published the anti-establishment journal Die Jügend (Youth). Famously, he was married to a waitress.
‘In my Father’s Garden’ is a bright song, full of happiness and charm. Three princesses are dozing in the shade of an apple tree, dreaming of soldiers on a lazy afternoon. Half-way between waking and sleeping, one sister feels someone kissing the hem of her skirt. A moment later, another sister thinks she kisses the hem of the soldier’s cloak. What is happening in the shade on this hot afternoon? Angelika Kirchschlager and Helmut Deutsch’s wonderful recording of this delightful song gives us a good idea (video, below right).
Gustav Mahler – Songs of a Wayfarer
Gustav Mahler’s tragic song cycle, Songs of a Wayfarer (Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen), written in 1884-85, depicts a man’s tortuous struggle with his unrequited – even murderous – feelings for his beloved, who is marrying someone else.
The cycle, which is set to four texts written by Mahler (based in part on a Wunderhorn text), begins on the beloved’s wedding day, and ends with a transcendental vision of the blue eyes of the beloved hovering above the rejected lover. In the middle, the young man – like his literary forbears, the hero in Schubert’s monumental song cycles Winter Journey, and The Beautiful Miller Girl – leaves civilization to wander the mountains. There, he fantasizes about plunging a knife into her soft flesh before crossing over into a kind of transformative awakening.
The cycle could have been written for Alma Schindler, who was boastful of her unfaithfulness to Mahler during their marriage, but it was not. Mahler composed it as an outpouring of grief after he fell in love with the soprano, Johanna Richter, who did not return his affection.
Hundreds of recordings exist of this, one of Mahler’s most visionary compositions for voice, which exists in both the original version for voice & piano, and in the more frequently heard version for soloist and orchestra. The cycle is sung by both men and women in both versions.
Listen as the pianists David Lutz, Johannes Marian, and Leonard Bernstein create an even more intimate interior world than could be possible with an orchestra in these wonderful recordings (below) with singers Thomas Hampson and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.