Alma Mahler.: an original but unfulfilled composer?by Ewelina Boczkowska
/ July 1, 2001
the seductive and legendary wife of Gustav Mahler, is currently the centre of
attention thanks to Bruce Berefond’s recent film, Bride of the Wind. The movie
explores two sides of this charismatic woman’s provocative life.: Alma the
inspiring muse, and Alma the composer.
It is perhaps as a composer that Alma should be remembered above all. Brought up in an artistic milieu in fin-de-siècle Vienna, she was devoted to the study of music, but stopped composing as a condition of her marriage to her first husband, Gustav Mahler. In all, only sixteen out of a hundred songs composed in her twenties were published. Their discerning qualities are evidence of her talent.
Focus on the art
The art song (lied) was Alma’s favourite genre. Passionate, extreme, ambiguous, her lieder were a true reflection of her personality. Yet despite her bold ideas she was heavily influenced by Zemlinsky (her teacher) and Wagner. Her compositions are tonal and often filled with obscure modulations and chromatic harmony reminiscent of Schoenberg’s earlier lyrical works. They artfully play with the listener’s expectations and deftly trick the ear. Regardless of her underlying originality, however, she frequently uses common tones and tonal mixture techniques that had already been well established by the earlier Romantics. Each of Alma’s compositions have some singular feature.: “Laue Sommernacht” finishes dangling on a dominant chord, while the middle section of “Ich wandle unter Blumen” presents chords that seem harmonically unrelated. In all cases, the exploration of a specific tonality is subtly aligned with the text.
Alma approached the poems she set to music with marvellous sensitivity and understanding. If she does sporadically “word-paint” in Schubertian terms, her songs nonetheless depict a more general atmosphere or emotion. Love is the perpetual and ever present theme. It appears in all its metamorphoses—sensuous in “Laue Sommernacht,” secret in “Bei dir ist es traut,” infinite in “Lobgesang.” Perhaps she was mourning for something she did not possess and was attempting to fill the void through her music. Alma searched for inspiration mainly in symbolism and the poetry of Falke, Rilke, and Dehmel, among others. Some of her lieder, such as “Ich wandle unter Blumen,” have a declamatory quality that reflects the influence of Wagnerian drama.
A striking characteristic of her style is the economical use of compositional devices. “Bei dir ist es traut,” for instance, is built on the same melodic motif throughout. Also, voice and piano often exchange the same material. As a result, her compositions are short, to the point, almost sketches.
Alma may have been influenced by others, but she managed fairly quickly to define her own style, based on sensitivity and her skilfully innovative harmonics. Her work showed great compositional ability. Mahler eventually recognised its value and took it upon himself to champion its publication. After Mahler’s death however, Alma deliberately chose not to pursue composition, except on a few rare occasions. We will never know what the music scene has lost in consequence.