In January 1918, Alma Mahler Gropius saw writer Franz Werfel at a performance of her dead husband’s fourth symphony.
During the concert, Alma and Franz exchanged long, lingering glances.
At intermission, she brought him home, cheating on the man she had cheated on Mahler with.
The affair didn’t end there. As winter melted into spring, Alma realized that she was pregnant. It was yet another upheaval in a year (an era!) full of them, as the Great War wreaked havoc on European life. Alma’s husband, architect Walter Gropius, had been severely wounded in battle and was recuperating in Vienna. (There was even a chance he was the father of the baby; he had returned home on furlough at Christmas.) Her lover Franz Werfel had been conducting a lecture tour in neutral Switzerland, but in March received orders from the War Press Office to return to Vienna. Everything, it seemed, was in flux.
In the summer, Alma left the city and her love interests, decamping to the family’s second home in Breitenstein. (Mahler had chosen the land as the place where he wanted to retire; Alma only built there after he died.) Franz Werfel followed. He and Alma agreed to be discreet.
Other visitors came, too. On July twenty-seventh, Alma entertained a wealthy sugar manufacturer’s wife named Emmy Redlich and her teenage daughter. Alma trotted out her own teenage daughter, Anna, and together Alma and Anna played an arrangement of Mahler’s eighth symphony, commonly known as the Symphony of a Thousand, on a single harmonium. The Eighth ends with the words:
Here the indescribable / Is accomplished / The ever-womanly / Leads us above.
It was a late night, but finally the guests went to sleep and the villa fell quiet. Franz Werfel slipped from his bed and into Alma’s. The sex was violently passionate. “I didn’t go easy on her,” Franz later wrote. They finished, he left, and Alma drifted off to sleep.
The next morning she awoke as if from a dream, her body soaking in a warm, sticky pool. She found herself screaming as she rang for her maid. The rough sex had caused her to hemorrhage.
Franz ran across fields to find a doctor. He found a small-town physician who worked at the local sanitarium. Alma, her body weakened but her will strong as ever, took one look at him and demanded someone better qualified. By this point, Walter Gropius was rushing in from Vienna, a gynecological specialist in tow. Franz and Walter even passed each other at the train station, but Franz managed to slip away unnoticed.
The ongoing European carnage meant a shortage of ambulances, so Alma had to be transported part of the way to Vienna in a hearse. On August first, she arrived at the same hospital Gustav Mahler had died at. This was where the doctors decided they had no choice but to induce labor. That night, in grisly bloody agony, she gave birth to a premature baby boy. Walter Gropius stayed by her side through it all.
Despite all odds, both mother and son survived the night. When Franz learned the fates of his lover and child, he wrote a letter: “You holy mother! You are the most magnificent, the strongest, the most mystical, most goddess-like I have ever encountered in all my life…”
On August 25th, when Alma and Franz were speaking on the telephone, Walter Gropius walked into the room unannounced, and suddenly he understood everything.
One might have expected a scene to ensue, but there was none. The sexual triangle staggered on. Alma knew she didn’t love Gropius anymore, but in October, she slept with him again anyway. He had acted with such dignity and calm after discovering her betrayal that he was difficult to resist. New reservations about Werfel began creeping to the fore, especially after he began involving himself with bloody revolutionary politics. Alma openly acknowledged she had no idea where she or they were going.
During the winter of 1918-1919, her still unnamed son developed a swelling in the brain. Once again, the doctors decided that their only hope was a painful medical procedure. They would attempt to pierce the swelling and drain it. The first try didn’t work. “If only our child would recover, then all will be well,” Alma fretted. Her wish was unrealistic on several levels. Later procedures proved equally painful and ineffective. Her baby was doomed.
In February, Alma resolved to cut herself off from Franz Werfel. “I have no desire ever to see him again,” she declared. (She later married him.) Desperately flailing for answers, she hit upon the explanation that their boy’s illness was caused by the “degenerate” seed of the Jewish Franz Werfel.
She finally christened the baby Martin Carl Johannes, and ultimately left him in the hospital to die in the care of professionals. In the spring she left Vienna to visit Walter Gropius in Berlin and Weimar. He had just founded an art school called the Bauhaus, which would have a profound effect on twentieth century design. “I’m deeply attached to Franz,” Alma mused that spring. “We have a frighteningly powerful love for each other, and hate each other with a passion. We torture each other too, and yet we are happy.”
Martin died on May 15. Alma wasn’t present. She never wrote a single word about him after his death; it’s as if he disappeared from the earth and her heart simultaneously. Franz Werfel found out about the death in a letter from a friend. We don’t even know anything about Martin’s burial.
All we know about his brief life is its muddy origins – its bloody start and finish – the sexual violence that triggered his birth – the excruciating physical pain he and his mother endured – the simultaneous joy, sorrow, and anxiety his existence engendered – and the total void of emotion that came after it.
Mahler has never been one of my favorite composers. I’m skeptical of canvases as large as his.
But after I read the horrifying story of Alma’s son, I felt as if a door had cracked opened. Maybe tempestuous Alma, simultaneously so seductive and so repulsive, can help me make sense of this overwrought aural world. When you read the real-life history, suddenly the violent extremes of Mahler’s music stop ringing so false.
In February 2000, Alex Ross wrote in an essay in the London Review of Books: “One starts to wonder: ‘Is there such a thing as too much Mahler?'” As the years go by, and the discs stack up, that question becomes more and more relevant.
And yet despite the music’s ever-increasing omnipotence, a Mahler symphony cycle remains just as massive a gamble as ever: artistically, logistically, financially. The stakes are even higher when the results are being committed to disc…to veritable immortality. A conductor and an orchestra would have to be as egomaniacal as Gustav Mahler himself to think they have anything worthwhile to add to the ever-expanding catalogue.
Sometimes, though, the very best of the egomaniacs are right. Enter the Minnesota Orchestra and music director Osmo Vänskä, and their planned multi-year survey of the Mahler symphonies for the BIS label.
I’d be skeptical of a Mahler cycle with nearly any other orchestra and nearly any other conductor. But for the past fifteen years, Osmo’s Minnesota Orchestra has proven itself in a few key ways. It can say something startlingly new in well-worn repertoire, as evidenced by its beloved Beethoven cycle for BIS. It is smart and adaptable enough to bring to shattering life wildly divergent sound worlds, as demonstrated by its Grammy-winning Sibelius cycle, in which it so effortlessly roamed the gamut of moods from luxuriously romantic to grimly ascetic. It catches detail; it knows how to propel narrative; and it sounds disarmingly beautiful. And it can play like its life depends on making a visceral impact on listeners…maybe because not too long ago, it literally did.
So a new musical journey is beginning in Minneapolis. And that means that as a listener, I will have to come to terms with Mahler. This won’t be easy. I’m repelled by the self-certainty of a man who composes a seventy minute symphony then gleefully writes about it to his wife: “Heavens, what is the public to make of this chaos in which new worlds are forever being engendered, only to crumble into ruin the next moment? What are they to say to this primeval music, this foaming, roaring, raging sea of sound, to these dancing stars, to these breathtaking, iridescent, and flashing breakers?” Despite my skepticism of foaming sounds and flashing breakers (what the f*ck?), I’m choosing to trust that the Minnesotans have something important to say – to scream – about Mahler.
“I’m not a Mahler girl,” I told principal cello Tony Ross before Friday night’s performance of the fifth symphony. “Convert me.”
Principal trumpet Manny Laureano kicked off the cycle with four searing notes, heavy with connotations of Fate, and Turmoil, and Destiny. When the rest of the brass blossomed around him, the effect was apocalyptic. For the first time, I could maybe believe the bombast.
The winds and strings followed soon after: weary, comparatively dilute, elegant and sophisticated. The instruments muttered about. Then, with a quick jab of Osmo’s baton, they suddenly swept from a tragic somber march into high circus-like extravagance.
Throughout the night, the one thing Osmo and his orchestra did best was navigating the turns of mood, volume, and character that could so easily cause whiplash. (Like I said, this orchestra is good with narrative.) The cellos, for instance, ripped into their second movement string crossings with such savagery I feared for bows. Then a few minutes later when they had their big quiet tender solo, you could practically hear hairs standing up on the backs of arms. Everything else after that demonstrated the crazed, wild-eyed wonder of contrast…the violence of veering between deafening screams and whispered caresses.
Another stand-out solo brass moment came toward the beginning of the third movement, as the sheer sonic weight of Michael Gast’s horn shook the foundations of the hall. Most orchestras and maestros seem to approach this movement as a Serious Symphonic Slog (TM), but this version had a bewitching fleet-footedness about it. It’s not that it was taken at a particularly fast tempo – it wasn’t, and there was weight – but that weight swung. Portions of the scherzo even reminded me of Ravel’s La Valse, where a seemingly sweet dance starts flirting with destruction, to terrifying effect. The pizzicato waltz sounded like a ghost dancing, every bony plunk perfectly judged. When the triumphant main fanfare returned, it was as shocking as watching a painter cheerfully whitewashing a bloody crime scene.
Then the spellbinding adagietto movement for strings alone. Legend says it’s Mahler’s love song to Alma, but apparently the only evidence we have of that is testimony from Bruno Walter. (So much we think we know about Mahler is actually second or third hand.) (Thanks in large part to Alma…) So what is this music, besides ethereal? Is it a portrait of sex? Sensuality? Death? (It certainly entered twentieth century musical history as a kind of requiem…) Or is its only purpose to be the most beautiful contrast of the night? I thought of little Martin as I listened. The violas began so quietly, you saw bows moving before you heard sound. But even in the quietest moment, the players never sacrificed their beauty of tone. Friday night’s tempo was, to be blunt, too slow; the adjustment on Saturday was a relief, and lent cohesion to the line.
The fifth movement started like a cat stretching and awakening from a nap. When the drone finally came in to accompany the first big theme, smiles were exchanged across the stage. I know what those smiles mean: a supercharged gallop to the end, executed with special Minnesotan panache. Musical lines crossed each other and surged forth in truly glorious fashion. The adagietto theme transformed itself into giddy swells. At every new climax I felt windblown by the sheer force of sound.
This is some frighteningly unstable shit.
It might be hard to sell the hypersexualized energy of Mahler’s fin de siècle Vienna to Minnesotan audiences. (And to me…) But when the music is played as marvelously as this, it’s very hard not to be seduced. The standing ovation was one of the quickest of the season. Torrents of applause rained down on every player as Osmo singled out each instrument for cheers. Every holler was deserved. The disc should be a good one.
Alma once wrote of a trip she took in 1910:
The only day I spent by myself in Amsterdam was May 18, the anniversary of Mahler’s death. I went to the Rijksmuseum and saw the Rembrandts, the Vermeers, the Ruysdaels. I was glad, for once, to be alone, and yet I would have liked to discuss the pictures with someone. Why was I so alone? Had all of them withdrawn just to be tactful?
I did not miss Mahler, and my attempts to put myself into a mournful mood failed miserably, I have no feeling for dates, so days of remembrance have no reality for me.
I wrote in my diary:
It is only by myself or with Franz Werfel that I feel quite myself. With him, too, all reflections fall away. It was the same with Gustav Mahler; but he has been dead for almost ten years.
I felt I no longer had the right to hold court as “the Widow Mahler.” I was getting tired of it, too.
In addition, I was not always in full accord with his music. It frequently seemed alien to me, insufficiently architectonic and often too long . . .
I was moved by the fact that Alma Mahler (of all people!) found Gustav’s music “alien”: that she “was not always in full accord with” it. Her blunt apathy speaks to me much more clearly than her husband’s babble about flashing breakers.
Seeing the emotions of Gustav’s symphonies through Alma’s eyes has been illuminating. It has bought me more time in this world of contrasts, this heady universe of extremes. And who knows? If the Minnesota Orchestra keeps playing these symphonies this passionately, this dazzlingly, I might ultimately find myself in love.